Image Credit: FAU Athletics
As the second day of the 2020 NFL Draft closed, the hope for the Florida Atlantic Owls and their NFL Draft prospects seemed to begin to wane.
Tight end Harrison Bryant, the team’s headline draft prospect, began to fall. As five tight ends went off the board in the first three rounds, Bryant had stayed on the board through the night. With the teams in need of a tight end beginning to dwindle, Bryant seemed like he could potentially continue to fall.
A potential fall, however, would not happen. With the 115th overall pick in the fourth round, the Cleveland Browns selected Bryant.
Bryant is the program’s most decorated player. Along with winning the John Mackey Award in 2019, making him the first non-Power 5 tight end to do so, Bryant was the program’s first Unanimous All-American. Bryant finished his FAU career with 2,137 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. In 2019, Bryant led all Division I tight ends with 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns on 64 receptions.
The selection of Bryant was just the beginning for the Owls. Although the Owls failed to have another player drafted, four Owls were signed as undrafted free agents.
Following the draft, the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers signed linebacker Rashad Smith and safety James Pierre respectively. A few hours later, offensive lineman Brandon Walton secured a contract with the Buffalo Bills.
More UDFA signings owe sources:— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) April 25, 2020
Florida Atlantic LB Rashad Smith to the Bears
Florida Atlantic CB James Pierre to the Steelers
The combination of Bryant’s draft selection and the undrafted free agent signings are a positive sign for FAU, who are continuing to turn into a top Group of 5 program.
Want more Owls content?
Content and discussion like this takes place every day on our college football forum. The best part – it’s free! Sign up today!
As a Group of 5 university, developing players is often harder than a Power 5 program. Along with the lesser facilities, the interest around the program is often less than that of their counterparts in higher divisions.
FAU has seen both parts first hand. Not only has it struggled with attendance and retaining fan interest, but it has never had a player drafted in the second round. Their highest draft pick is D’Joun Smith. He was selected with the 65th overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft.
However, the Owls have continued to develop talent. In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Owls had two running backs selected, with Devin Singletary going first to the Buffalo Bills with the 74th overall pick. The Chicago Bears later selected Kerrith Whyte with the 222nd pick.
As a program like FAU continues to get guys to the draft and the league, its recruiting continues to improve. High school recruits crave for a potential to go to the league, which FAU has begun to do more consistently.
10 years ago, FAU’s recruiting class ranked 103rd nationally by 247Sports. The highest-ranked recruit was a 2-star recruit in Colton Keene.
In 2016, the FAU recruiting class ranked 89th nationally. The class included eight 3-star prospects, including the aforementioned Singletary, Walton, and Smith.
In 2020, after two conference championships in three seasons, the FAU recruiting class ranked 66th nationally and first in Conference USA. The recruiting class included 18 recruits ranked as a 3-star.
Although the play on the field and the hiring of Lane Kiffin has helped the development, the ability to develop NFL talent has certainly made an impact. Not only has it put the program on the map but it has granted the Owls with a critical bargaining chip over their opponents. That includes in-state rivals like UCF, who have continued to produce results on the football field, and FIU.
Although Willie Taggart is now at the wheel for FAU, the future is bright for the Owls and the NFL.
Last season, 14 FAU alumni finished the NFL season on a roster. The list included consistent contributors like Singletary, placekicker Greg Joseph (Tennessee Titans), defensive end Trey Hendrickson (New Orleans Saints), and Buddy Howell (Houston Texans), who made most of his impact on special teams. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair also saw some playing time last season after Kwon Alexander went down with an injury. Al-Shaair was an undrafted free agent in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Next season’s active roster may hold some more draft picks. Linebacker Akileis Leroy holds the key, after earning first-team All-Conference USA honors by Phil Steele. Coming into his senior season, Leroy will likely take control as the leader of the defense and may secure a spot in the Reese’s Senior Bowl like Bryant.
Safety Zyon Gilbert will likely also garner some NFL Draft consideration. Gilbert is poised to slot in as one of the team’s starting safeties and provide the Owls with a critical piece to a secondary that is looking for options at cornerback after losing three players during the off-season.
On offense, running back BJ Emmons could move up draft boards with a strong season. After battling injuries last season, Emmons finished the season off strong and will look to continue the strong conclusion into a bright 2020 season as a part of the Owls’ backfield.