HUNTINGTON — Last season, Florida Atlantic made its way back to the top of the Conference USA ladder, earning a resounding 49-6 win over UAB in the Conference USA Championship.
That game, however, ended the Lane Kiffin era as he headed back to the SEC. And despite a 52-28 win in the Boca Raton Bowl to end the year, there is one resonating question that sticks in Boca: Can Willie Taggart provide the same magic as Kiffin for FAU?
Taggart is well-versed in Conference USA following his time at Western Kentucky and brings back one of C-USA’s top players in quarterback Chris Robison. Robison will be the stabilizing factor for an offense that lost a lot of productivity in its receiving corps with Mackey Award winner Harrison Bryant gone at tight end, as well as talented receiver Deangelo Antoine and Tavaris Harrison.
As has been the case in recent years, the Owls are using the transfer portal to bolster that receiving corps with Duke grad transfer Aaron Young (63 catches, 849 yards, 7 TDs) and Clemson grad transfer T.J. Chase (25 receptions, 206 yards, 3 TDs), along with Cincinnati transfer Yanez Rogers and Florida State transfer D’Marcus Adams.
Those names join a pair of veteran receivers in John Mitchell (38 catches, 488 yards, 5 TDs) and Willie Wright (20 catches, 186 yards, 2 TDs). However, the biggest return may be sixth-year tight end John Raine, who steps into Bryant’s bigger role after a year in which he caught 38 passes for 343 yards and six touchdowns. Ryan Cameron is another tight end to watch for.
As the receivers get settled in with Robison, the FAU offense does return its entire backfield, led by junior Malcolm Davidson, who had 711 yards and nine touchdowns last season. B.J. Emmons has potential to provide a bigger boost while James Charles and Larry McCammon each provide solid complements to the rushing attack.
Up front, the Owls have several experienced players back, most notable guards Nick Weber and Desmond Noel. Tackle Marquice Robinson also returns, but the group lost a pair of first-team all-conference selections in center Junior Diaz and guard Brandon Walton. Especially replacing Diaz will be crucial for the offensive line’s cohesion and the offense’s success.
Defensively, there are more questions than on the offensive side, which means that FAU may have quite a few high-scoring affairs on its hands in 2020. The defensive line lost almost everyone with any meaningful experience up front, meaning a complete rebuild is in the works for the unit in its first year under Taggart. The lone returnee is a good one, however, in defensive end Leighton McCarthy, who had 30 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks (2nd on team) last season.
One transfer that could provide instant interior help is Florida State transfer Malcolm Lamar. JUCO transfer Alvin Dempsey is expected to produce and all eyes are on Warren Sapp, Jr., son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp.
With inexperience up front, the linebacker corps is expected to step up its production and there are some pieces there to do so. Akileis Leroy was a 100-tackle performer last season and led the team in tackles for loss (15.5) and sacks (7.5). He also had three interceptions on the year.
Hosea Barnwell is expected to join the starting mix after performing well in the bowl win over SMU and others such as Caliph Brice, Eddie Williams and Jonathan Francois will compete for starting spots.
Much like the defensive front, the secondary is sparse in returning experience — especially at cornerback where James Pierre, Chris Cooley and Meiko Dotson are all gone. Safety Zyon Gilbert is the best returnee on the back end after posting 48 tackles and two interceptions, and he is joined by Ahman Ross as experienced guys on the last line of defense. The cornerback position will be one that needs to be figured out for success within the pass-happy Conference USA slate.
Special teams could be a strength of the team with kicker Vladmir Rivas returning, but Rivas’ accuracy from distance has to improve (2-8 from 40-plus). Punter Matthew Hayball averaged 43.5 yards per punt last season and could be a key in flipping field position and taking pressure of the inexperienced defense.
From a schedule standpoint, Taggart’s first venture in Boca is not easy with several tricky trips to navigate. All six of the Owls’ road games are difficult with non-conference contests at Minnesota and Georgia Southern. The conference slate doesn’t do any favors on the road, either, with contests at Southern Miss, Marshall, FIU and Middle Tennessee.
While Robison could again be in the MVP mix within the league, the defense has to grow up quickly for Taggart to lead them back to a Conference USA title game appearance.