After managing just eight wins the previous three years combined, Florida Atlantic finished in a rush and reached bowl eligibility with a 6-6 record last fall.
Though the Panthers were not picked for the postseason, breaking even for the year still marked a major accomplishment, especially for a program that lost its coach, Carl Pelini, at midseason.
The major impetus for the four-game winning streak that ended the season was the defense. The Owls held their final four opponents -- Tulane, Southern Mississippi, New Mexico State, and FIU -- to a total of just 41 points after giving up 45 to Auburn before the streak started.
With six starters and stars like linebacker Andrae Kirk (the leading tackler) defensive backs D'Joun Smith (seven interceptions) and Damian Parms (second on the team in tackles), and tackles Brandin Bryant (six sacks) and Trevon Coley (24 starts in two years) returning, the defense again may hold the key to success.
"I feel like we've got a really good group of starters that are continuing to get better each day," first-year coach Charlie Partridge told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "We're still working our way into game shape.
"But they came in in good cardiovascular shape, but game shape is different.
"Plus we have guys that have put on significant weight. Brandin Bryant came in weighing 292 pounds. Trey Coley was 305."
The offense, which produced a respectable 365 yards a game overall with 185 coming on the ground, has some weapons as well.
Senior Jaquez Johnson, who rushed for 772 yards and threw for 1,876, is being pushed by sophomore Greg Hankerson (one start) at quarterback.
The issue on offense looks to be up front, where the Owls must replace three starters. Solve that and the Owls should live up to preseason prognostications as a mid-East Division team in C-USA.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Talk about a tough start. FAU opens the season on Aug. 30 at Nebraska. That is followed the next week with a trip to Alabama. The first of two home games for the month (the Owls have only five games at home all year) comes up Sept. 13 when Tulsa visits, but the Owls are back on the road again the next week at Wyoming. Finally, the Owls finish the month at home against Texas-El Paso.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Surviving the first couple of games will be a primary goal. The Owls can't afford to lose any of their key performers. The offense has some receivers capable of big plays, and a defense that was largely responsible for last season's late surge returns six starters, including DT Brandin Bryant, LB Andrae Kirk, CB D'Joun Smith, and SS Damian Parms.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Owls lose three starters in the offensive line, and one of the two returnees, Braden Lyons, is moving from tackle to center. Similarly, there are issues up front on defense with four of the front seven new starters.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need to focus on ourselves so when we're in those venues, we don't have FAU beat FAU." -- Coach Charlie Partridge, in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, referring to the back-to-back games at Nebraska and Alabama to start the season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Charlie Partridge, first year at FAU, first year as head coach.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (Includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com rating as applicable):
--CB D'Joun Smith (No. 6 cornerback, 102nd overall) -- Smith (5-11, 190) is an excellent cover guy who was credited with 20 passes defended (seven intercepted) in 2013. He also is a dependable tackler with 25 of his 35 stops solo efforts last year.
--LB Andrae Kirk -- Kirk (6-2, 225) is a durable defender who led the Owls in tackles with 84 stops. He had three games in double digits in tackles, including the loss to SEC champion Auburn.
--C Braden Lyons -- Lyons (6-5, 295) started every game at right tackle last year in his first season for the Owls after transferring from City College of San Francisco. He has been moved to center for this year and is on the "watch list" for the Rimington Award.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jaquin Johnson -- As a junior in his first year after transferring from East Mississippi Community College, Johnson gave life to the offense last fall. He rushed for a team-best 772 yards and threw for 1,876 yards on his way to being named C-USA Newcomer of the Year. He was responsible for 22 of FAU's 41 touchdowns, rushing for 10 and throwing 12 touchdown passes.
BREAKOUT STAR: CB D'Joun Smith -- Smith got his junior year started off right with seven tackles and a pass-breakup in FAU's opener at Miami, but his biggest game came at Tulane when he intercepted three passes to help ignite the Owls' four-game winning streak. Named the team's MVP, he looks to contend for Defensive Player of the Year honors in C-USA.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: LT Reggie Bain -- The true freshman took part in spring practice and looks to have nailed down a starting position going into the season. Bain (6-4, 286) is out of Miami Central High.
--Sophomore OG Ike Edwards and senior DE Joe Henry will miss the start of the season after being suspended for undisclosed "violation of team rules," according to a website report (www.fauowlaccess.com). Edwards will be out at least three games, Henry four.
--Junior LS Joe Fisher, junior DB Sharrod Neasman, senior DB Grant Helm, and junior TE Michael Harrop all have been put on scholarship after walking on.
--Freshman QB Jason Driskel, who took part in spring drills as an early enrollee, is the brother of Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel.
--Junior P Sean Kelly left the team in the offseason. He averaged nearly 43 yards an attempt last year.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Charlie Partridge