USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
South Florida-raised Charlie Partridge returns to his old stomping grounds with a reputation as a dogged and tireless recruiter of the region's fertile base, thanks to his turns reeling some of the area's best away from home while a Bret Bielema assistant at Wisconsin and Arkansas.
It's a new job, a new role and a new mindset: Rather than entice South Florida's top prospects – those without offers from Miami, Florida, Florida State and a few others, at least – to move north, Partridge must convince the area's best to stay home, enlisting with a Florida Atlantic program starving for a foothold in this talent-rich state.
SPRING FOOTBALL: Conference USA
It won't be easy. There's the idea that FAU remains an afterthought in South Florida, left picking the carcasses left behind after the state's powers – and many out-of-state powers – have their fill; there's also the fact that Partridge's predecessor, Carl Pelini, failed to create the inroads and relationships needed to cement pipelines into the Owls' new on-campus stadium and facilities.
So as he learns new tricks – how to run a program, how to develop a roster and how to stand at the forefront, not in the background – it's Partridge's greatest strength as an assistant that doubles as his leading asset as FAU's newest coach. Identify, recruit, develop, repeat.
He's off to a good start. Though February's class lacked panache, blame both the shortened time span following Partridge's arrival and the kerfuffle over Pelini's dramatic, controversial exit. In the class of 2015, on the other hand, you're beginning to see the program's new approach: All five of the program's verbal commitments come within 25 miles of campus, while one, a four-star running back from Fort Lauderdale, ranks among the 15 best at his position in the country.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
The likely scenario: FAU is better in its second season under Pelini, but the Owls struggle to make much noise in Conference USA and top out at the four-win mark. This wouldn't definitively mark a lack of progress on Pelini's part; instead, FAU's progress will be seen more in roster and personnel development rather than in the win column.
In a nutshell: It was dramatic, at least. On the field, FAU stormed to bowl eligibility with an undefeated November, securing six or more wins for the first time since 2008. This four-game winning streak began with Tulane, an eventual bowl participant, and ended with Florida International, the latter snapping a two-game losing stretch to the Owls' local rival. The driving force behind bowl eligibility was this defense, which held three of FAU's final four opponents to less than 200 yards of total offense and finished the year inside the top 30 nationally in yards and points allowed per game. Oh, and then there's the off-field drama: Pelini resigned in late October, rescinded his resignation on Nov. 7 and continues to rail against what he believes to be unfair treatment at the hands of athletic director Pat Chun – and the whole thing is pretty ugly, to be honest.
COUNTDOWN: Complete list (so far)
High point: Four wins in a row in November.
Low point: The affair with Pelini, to be honest. On the field, the Owls' low point came in a series of close losses to Conference USA rivals Middle Tennessee State, Rice and Marshall.
Tidbit: FAU's roster is dominated by Florida prospects, as you might expect. FAU's 111-player roster includes 13 prospects from outside the Sunshine State. Among those states represented: Arizona (twice), Georgia (twice), Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina (twice), Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.
Tidbit (winning streak edition): The Owls' four-game winning streak tied for the program's longest – with the 2008 team – since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2005. During this nine-year span, FAU has had nine multiple-game winning streaks; four lasted more than two games. The longest winning streak in program history was a 10-game undefeated stretch in 2003, when FAU was a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.
Tidbit (coaching edition): The most important member of Partridge's debut staff is the one holdover: Brian Wright, last year's interim coach in November, returns as offensive coordinator with the added title of assistant head coach – a key returnee on the sidelines, given the way FAU jelled during the season's final month. Among the eight new hires, what's noteworthy is that only one, offensive line coach Bart Miller, comes from a full-time position on the FBS level; the rest are either from the FCS, FBS graduate-assistant positions or the local high school ranks. Among the latter, Partridge hired Roger Harriott to coach the running backs and Corey Bell the secondary. Recruiting will benefit as a result.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The biggest positive for FAU's offense isn't the number of returning starters – six altogether – but the continuity granted by Partridge's decision to retain Brian Wright, the interim coach following Pelini's dismissal, as the Owls' offensive coordinator. Wright's return is of particular benefit to FAU's quarterback, Jacquez Johnson (2,633 yards of total offense), who is best fit in a system that makes use of his dual-threat abilities. He's the starter, even if it's yet official: Johnson may have only slightly outplayed sophomore Greg Hankerson, last year's backup, but the first-team offense as a whole moved more efficiently with the former JUCO transfer under center. Put simply, it's his job to lose – though Hankerson seems to have made a case for sporadic playing time in certain packages during the regular season.
Let's see if Partridge and Wright will continue to put Johnson into situations that best utilize his legs; that aspect of the offense went largely missing during the spring, though you can see why both coaches might have wanted Johnson to develop a more balanced approach during team scrimmages. In a perfect world, Johnson would double his attributes as a runner with more consistency in the passing game; he began to develop a more well-rounded skill set down the stretch as a first-year starter, but there's clear work to be done before Wright can feel comfortable in Johnson's abilities to flourish in his system.
Yeah, Johnson still needs to make a final push during fall camp to secure the starting job under center, but it's safe to say he's the odds-on favorite to land the nod ahead of Hankerson for the opener. At running back, on the other hand, FAU could toss aside a prototypical depth chart – one lead back, another pair fitting certain roles – in favor of a true by-committee approach. For two backs in particular, the coaching change has paid immediate dividends: Tony Moore and Martese Jackson went from little-used a season ago to two cogs in the Owls' three-headed attack. Moore and Jackson join sophomore Jay Warren (340 yards), last year's primary backup, while freshmen Greg Howell and Trevaughn Rodriguez join the mix in August. Let's also remember that Johnson will add his share of yardage from quarterback.
The receiver corps isn't overly impressive, though adding sophomore D.J. Juste into the mix – he played all over in 2013 – does give the group a splash of big-play potential. It's an experienced unit: FAU's rotation heading into the summer includes seniors William Dukes (35 receptions for 553 yards), Lucky Whitehead and Marcus Cunningham and juniors Jenson Stoshak (23 for 293) and Derek Mois, making Juste the only sophomore listed on the current two-deep. Add in senior tight Alex Deleon and you have steadiness and reliability, at least, even if none of the Owls' options demand more than cursory attention from opposing defensive backs. You can still see some potential should the running game find some success between the tackles.
Defense: Bellantoni has repeatedly stressed how his defense is not noticeably different than last year's version, which makes sense: FAU ended last season ranked 11th nationally in yards allowed per game and 26th in scoring, totals that ranked first and third, respectively, in Conference USA. Scheme matters; so does personnel. Perhaps the Owls' biggest issue – mirroring a concern on offense – is depth and production up front, where Bellantoni and this staff feel a slight sense of security along the interior but seem to be grasping at straws on the edges. As is to be expected: FAU must replace two starters and a top reserve at end.
For now, the interior is an adequate building block for the front seven as a whole. By fall camp, the Owls hope to have a healthy Brandin Bryant (51 tackles, 9.5 for loss), a junior with the burst to disrupt plays in the backfield – something FAU's defense desperately needs up front. When Bryant does return, FAU can shift sophomore Shalom Ogbonda into a role behind starter Trevon Coley (37 tackles), giving the 225-pound Coley a bigger reserve in certain situations. The top four inside: Bryant, Coley, Ogbonda and senior Joe Henry. At end, however, FAU has struggled finding two starters, let alone a solid two-deep. One likely starter is Trey Hendrickson, a lanky sophomore coming off a strong spring. On the other side, the Owls could use either redshirt freshman Haiden Nagel, a former walk-on, or junior Robinson Eugene. None bring any production of note to the table. Another issue: FAU's biggest lineman among the pre-fall rotation 267-pound backup end Jeremy Faulk.
FAU's linebacker corps rebuilds around senior Andrae Kirk (84 tackles), the lone returning starter on the second level, while the staff hopes for rapid improvement from a unit otherwise comprised from unknown ex-reserves. Two recent backups, junior Freedom Whitfield and senior David Lozandier, will battle for the starting job left vacant by Randell Johnson; at the other open spot, FAU could turn to either sophomore Robert Relf, Kirk's backup a year ago, or redshirt freshman Griffin Goins, a former walk-on. While Relf and Whitfield head into the summer with slim leads, FAU did give Goins and Lozandier time with the first-time defense during the spring.
And so we get to the secondary, a group that in talent, production and experience rivals any on the non-major level. Two seniors lead the way: D'Joun Smith (29 tackles, 7 interceptions), a ball-hawking cornerback, and Damian Parms (78 tackles, 5.5 for loss), an aggressive, plug-lanes safety with the ability to run in space and the toughness to lend support inside the box. In an effort to get Parms closer to the action, Bellantoni shifted the senior to strong safety; he'll end up being a jack-of-all-trades weapon for this secondary, giving the new defensive coordinator the option of transitioning into a secondary-heavy look hinging on circumstances. Elsewhere, FAU will team Smith with junior Cre'von LeBlanc, last year's nickel back; with match Parms with senior free safety Christian Milstead; and will try to make ends meet at nickel back with some combination of junior Sharrod Neasman, sophomores Reggie Brown and Anthony Hamilton and redshirt freshmen Ronnie Scott and Marcus Clark. With the second tier brimming with freshmen and sophomores, the secondary is in very good hands.
Special teams: Freshman Landon Scheer, a scholarship recruit, will replace Mitch Anderson at kicker. It's unclear whether FAU will also use Scheer as the kickoff specialist; another option would be junior punter Sean Kelly, who had a solid 2013 season. In total, the Owls' special teams could take a step forward and still rank in the middle of the pack both in Conference USA and nationally. The key will be tying up the loose ends in coverage while landing improved production from LeBlanc and Reggie Brown on kickoff returns.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: Depth remains an issue up front, but the play of two freshmen gave FAU reason for optimism coming out of spring drills. The first, redshirt freshman Jakobi Smith, is tied with sophomore Isaac Edwards for the top spot at left guard entering summer conditioning. The second, true freshman Reggie Bain, enrolled early and impressed enough at left tackle to challenge sophomore Dillan DeBoer for the starting job – which is great, though starting a rookie on the blind side is always cause for concern. At the end of the spring, FAU had teamed these greenhorns with a trio of seniors: Braden Lyons at center, Karl James at right guard and Eric Minemyer at right tackle. The plan by August is to augment this group – as well as another potential contributor, freshman guard Antonyo Woods – with juniors Mike Marasaille and Vinny Davino, two more experienced hands with the potential to unseat two springtime starters and move back into the lineup. The good news? All of a sudden, you're beginning to see the potential for immediate depth – whether or not Marasaille and Davino move into starting roles.
But there's still much to be decided before FAU opens against Nebraska in late August. For one, Marasaille and Davino could grab hold of the strong side, pushing Minemyer, James and junior Derek Butcher into reserve roles. This might be good: FAU really can't afford to start a 250-pound Minemyer – his listed weight, at least – at right tackle. Meanwhile, Bain and Smith must make the most of the summer to come back stronger, more disciplined and more technically sound by the start of fall camp. If not, it's easy to imagine both spending 2014 on the second tier; for Bain, it might be more useful to wear a redshirt than backup DeBoer on the blind side. As is, the only lineman poised for a surefire starting job is Lyons, who can be the anchor this line needs from the middle.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Western Kentucky: The Owls' bowl hopes will come down to how this team fares on the road, particularly after the schedule turns to Conference USA play. Topping the Hilltoppers at home is still a must: FAU is already looking at three or four losses right off the bat – Nebraska, Alabama and Marshall, for starters – and cannot afford to drop any toss-up games in the race for six wins. Believe it or not, the trip to Nebraska might be even more interesting without the Pelini brothers making awkward eye contact from across the sidelines.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: It will be interesting to see if Florida Atlantic can carry last year's torrid finish – that undefeated November, ending the year with six wins – into 2014 despite the new coaching staff, with Wright the lone holdover. If Partridge and his crew can bottle that stretch, the Owls could weather what should be an ugly start to storm into the thick of the Conference USA East Division race. It's possible; it's also hard to see, given that the coaching change is accompanied by several personnel changes of note – with depth and experience issues dotting the two-deep on the offensive line, at running back, along the defensive line and on the second level.
If we give Wright and Johnson the benefit of the doubt at quarterback – something I'm willing to do, but only halfheartedly – the Owls' biggest concern is line play. On offense, this run-centered system could sputter if the front doesn't jell in August; that's very much up in the air, thanks to springtime injuries and the overall youth seen at left tackle and right guard. Defensively, it'd be a shame if FAU's light, thin and altogether unproductive line can't help Bellantoni take advantage of a superb secondary. To play to its strength along the back end, FAU needs stout play on the interior of the front seven, containment on the edges and an aggressive pass rush. For now, the Owls have none of those things.
Last year ended with a bang, but the coaching change and various personnel concerns leave the Owls fluttering on the outside of Conference USA's top half. What's missing? Line play on both sides, as noted. Johnson needs to develop a more well-rounded game, balancing out this ground attack with some pass-game production. The receiver corps needs a player like Juste to provide explosiveness in space. Special teams must take a significant step forward. Hiring Partridge assures that FAU's talent level will quickly increase; you're seeing this with the current class, for example. It'll pay to be patient as he blends his holdovers with those newcomers and implements his style on both sides of the ball.
Dream season: Florida Atlantic rides another sterling defensive performance to an 8-4 regular season.
Nightmare season: The Owls struggle in the transition to a new staff and fall to 2-10.
Who's No. 96? This program's highest single-game point total of the last eight years came on the same day the program clinched its most recent winning season.