FAU preview: Owls still in program-building mode

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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Sept. 19, 2012

 

With due deference to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, there isn’t much in common between Alabama football and Florida Atlantic football. At least not for now.

 

The Owls are coming off a 1-11 season in 2011. Head coach Howard Schnellenberger called it quits over the offseason, replaced by Carl Pelini. So far in 2012, the Owls have struggled to a 7-3 win over Wagner – which went on to lose games to Georgetown (yes, Georgetown has a football team) and Monmouth – then lost to MTSU (which was coming off an opening loss to Division-IAA McNeese State), and finally got blown to bits by Georgia in Week 3. Times are tough in Boca Raton, at least from a football perspective.

 

As such, Alabama could start its second, perhaps even its third team and win this game. While such a statement certainly would have Saban doing his best Mt. St. Helens impression, it is no less the truth. The Owls aren’t good on either side of the ball, especially on offense, and between a head coach learning on the job, a roster bereft of game-changing talent and playing a week after taking a beating from another SEC program, Alabama’s biggest concern here is not to repeat its Western Kentucky experience and lose a starter for the year to injury.

 

OFFENSE

 

Florida Atlantic has moved from a two-back, West Coast-influenced offense to a three-wide, one back pro spread attack. Unfortunately, the move hasn’t produced positive results. The Owls have struggled both on the ground (87th nationally) and through the air (97th), total offense numbers (103rd) are poor and the Owls don’t score (116th). Alabama counters with its multiple pro-style attack that has yet to really struggle on the season. Alabama doesn’t put up flashy passing numbers (82nd nationally), but the Crimson Tide is third in passing efficiency and basically throws when it wants to. Both teams strive for balance, but only Alabama has it.

 

QUARTERBACKS

Florida Atlantic’s Graham Wilbert certainly passes the eye test. He’s 6’6” and 225 pounds, and is a fifth-year senior. He’s completed 53 of 78 passes (67.9%) for 569 yards, 4 touchdowns and just 1 interception through three games. He also has good athleticism, averaging almost 3 yards per carry with sack yardage figured in the numbers. There is experience behind him in the form of sophomore Stephen Curtis, who was in competition for the starting job right up to the opening gun on the season. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who has similar numbers to Wilbert but who has yet to throw a pick on the year. McCarron has made the job of playing quarterback look easy so far, being equally lethal on short, intermediate and long routes. The Crimson Tide is developing good depth behind him, as both Phillip Ely and Blake Sims have played while battling for the backup job. All three players will probably see time in this game. Wilbert is improving and Curtis is more experienced than Alabama’s backups, but there’s a talent gap from McCarron down to Wilbert. Advantage: Alabama

 

RUNNING BACKS

Converted fullback Xavier Stinson was supposed to be the Owls’ featured back, but he left the team prior to the start of the season. Juniors Damian Fortner and Martese Jackson now split carries. Fortner is about the size of Alabama backup quarterback Blake Sims, while Jackson is reminiscent of Brandon Brooks or Trindon Holliday – tiny. Fortner has the team’s lone rushing touchdown and has carried 27 times for 123 yards (4.6) avg., but Jackson is under the 4.0-yard-per-carry mark. Jonathan Wallace and Travis Jones add depth. Alabama counters with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon splitting carries, while Dee Hart and Kenyan Drake provide depth off the bench. Walk-on Ben Howell played a good bit against Arkansas and might make it into this game, as well. Lacy’s numbers mirror Fortner’s almost exactly, except for the touchdown count. But Yeldon has as many yards as the rest of the Owl running back corps combined. On a pure talent basis, the two teams aren’t remotely comparable. Neither team uses a true fullback. Advantage: Alabama

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

Both teams like to use their running backs as frequent receivers. For the Owls, Damian Fortner and Travis Jones are the busiest targets out of the backfield. Among the receivers, sophomore William Dukes leads both teams with 12 catches for 162 yards (13.5 avg.), but hasn’t caught a touchdown yet and might not play at all thanks to a knee injury suffered against Georgia. Senior Byron Hankerson came out of nowhere to claim a starting job in the fall, and has caught 9 passes for 148 yards (16.4 avg.) and 2 touchdowns. Junior Daniel McKinney (9 catches, 97 yards, 10.8 avg.) will start alongside Hankerson if Dukes can’t go. Marcus Cunningham and Paul Moore add depth, but Moore hasn’t caught a pass yet and Cunningham has just 2 grabs for 7 yards (3.5 avg.). Tight ends Nexon Dorvilus and Alex Deleon have combined for 7 catches and a touchdown, but aren’t considered threats. Alabama counters with Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood as its A-group, with Marvin Shinn, Kenny Bell and Amari Cooper providing depth. Cyrus Jones played for the first time against Arkansas and figures to get more work here, along with Danny Woodson Jr. Walk-ons Nathan McAlister and Nick Williams have also gotten into games in 2012 and are in line for action against FAU. Tight end Michael Williams is a destroyer in the running game, and has proven to be a capable receiving option as well. Brian Vogler will back him up, while Kelly Johnson starts at H-back ahead of Harrison Jones. Malcolm Faciane adds depth. If Dukes plays, his 6’4” frame could make for a matchup problem against some of Alabama’s defensive backs, but overall, Alabama is much deeper and has more quality among its group as a whole. Advantage: Alabama

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

If you want to know the source of FAU’s offensive struggles, look here. Injuries and poor performance have been crippling to the Owls, and the exact makeup of the line won’t be known until kickoff. The two known quantities are right tackle Joe Bailey and left guard Andy Czuprynski. DeAndre Williams will likely start at right guard. JUCO transfer Mustafa Johnson and former JUCO signee, senior Ricaldo Henry, are in line for left tackle and center. Jimmy Colley will play center if he’s physically able, while senior Jordan Sessa is around in case Colley can’t. Four members of the two-deep coming out of spring are either unavailable or no longer on the team, so depth is up to players like freshman Mike Marsaille and Stern Vile, a player from the Netherlands who didn’t have football as a sport at his high school. Alabama counters with what might be the best offensive line in the country, with center Barrett Jones flanked by guards Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen and tackles Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker. The second-team line of tackles Kellen Williams and Austin Shepherd, guards Arie Kouandjio and Chad Lindsey and center Ryan Kelly figure to be in line to play a bunch in this game, too. No comparison between these two units at all. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSE

 

Florida Atlantic coaches were worried this unit would be substandard heading into 2012. Then the Owls kicked off the season, and suspicions were confirmed. The Owls run a 4-3 set, but are doing so with talent recruited to run a three-man front. The Owls are 115th in rushing defense, 114th in pass efficiency defense, 102nd in total defense and 60th in raw pass defense. They don’t sack the quarterback (114th overall) and don’t create turnovers. Alabama counters with its 3-4 over/under scheme that has pitched two consecutive shutouts and is full of future NFL stars.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

Trying to guess who will start week to week at defensive line is so random that putting names on lottery balls and drawing them from a bucket would be as good a method as any. There are two certainties – Trevon Coley will start at defensive end, and Corey Henry will start somewhere, probably the other end slot. After that, all bets are off. Jimmy Jean started at tackle for two weeks, then didn’t play at all against Georgia. Ditto Andrew Styffler. David Baptiste and Karl James are candidates at tackle, along with JUCO transfers Brandin Bryant and Kayvon Sherrill. Robinson Eugene adds depth at both tackle and end.The heaviest player out of this group is Jean at 290 pounds, and the next-heaviest player is in the high 260s. Alabama counters with Jesse Williams in the middle flanked by Damion Square and some combination of Ed Stinson and Quentin Dial at the end slots. Jeoffrey Pagan and D.J. Pettway provide depth outside along with LaMichael Fanning, while Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake will play inside. To say these two teams are worlds apart is an insult to the concept of astronomy. Advantage: Alabama

 

LINEBACKERS

The shuffling of players continues at linebacker, where David Hinds is a stalwart in the middle, but the two outside positions for Florida Atlantic are in flux. Andrae Kirk and Randell Johnson are the most likely starters, and Kirk seems to have a nose for the ball. Martin Wright is also in the mix to start. There is virtually no depth, as Michael Copeland, who was to be an important part of the rotation, hasn’t played in 2012. JUCO transfer Adarius Glanton is also in the starting mix thanks to picking up the defense more and more each week. This group isn’t in completely dire straits like the defensive line group is, but the players are still tiny compared to the behemoths Alabama will field. The Crimson Tide will start Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest inside, with C.J. Mosley playing enough to essentially be a starter himself. Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard will start outside. Expect to see plenty of the backups, including Denzel Devall and Jonathan Atchison outside, and Dillon Lee, Tana Patrick and Tyler Hayes inside. This might also be the game where third-teamers like Anthony Orr and Chris Bonds get on the field. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

If there’s a strength – IF – of the Florida Atlantic defense, here it is. Cornerbacks Keith Reaser and D’Joun Smith are OK, while safeties Brently Harstad and Jeremy McKnight are fairly solid. Damian Parms has good size off the bench at safety, while Crevon LeBlanc is a decent third corner. Alabama will start Dee Milliner and Deion Belue at corner and Robert Lester at safety. The other starting safety will be either Nick Perry or Vinnie Sunseri, while Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix will play early at safety as well. Alabama is still trying to develop depth at corner, where John Fulton has the most experience. Expect to see lots of Bradley Sylve and Geno Smith at corner, along with perhaps Jabriel Washington. Landon Collins provides depth at safety. Florida Atlantic won’t field the worst defensive backfield Alabama sees in 2012, but the Owls aren’t better than Alabama. Advantage: Alabama

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Placekicker Vinny Zaccario hit his only field goal, but has missed a PAT this year, never a good sign. Punter Sean Kelly is barely average, kicking for just a 37.8-yard average. The Owls are terrible in net punting and punt coverage (103rd nationally) and have done nothing in either the punt return game (114th) or kickoff returns (58th). Alabama counters with Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster splitting kicking duties and Cody Mandell handling punts. Shelley and Foster are proving to be accurate short and long kickers, respectively, while Mandell has become one of the SEC’s best punters. Alabama hasn’t done much on returns (56th nationally on punts, 51st on kickoffs), but they haven’t needed to. Kick coverage has been superb. Advantage: Alabama

 

OVERALL

 

Rare is it that a team is near or at the bottom of so many statistical categories at once, the way Florida Atlantic is. Of the 17 primary statistics the NCAA tracks and ranks, the best rating in any category for Florida Atlantic is 52nd in sacks allowed.

 

Alabama leads in all eight categories, both OL/DL matchups and it’s not close. For Alabama to lose this game, the Crimson Tide would have to forget when kickoff time was and show up two hours late.

 

That’s not the say the Owls couldn’t make a game of it. Division-IAA schools and bad Division-IA schools – the latter of which, Florida Atlantic definitely is – have pulled upsets and near-upsets on an annual basis since the game began. The common denominator in nearly all of those upsets was a lack of focus by the favored team.

 

Therein lies Alabama’s greatest challenge: maintaining focus. The biggest reason Jalston Fowler is no longer available to play for Alabama is the Crimson Tide lost focus against Western Kentucky and the starters were in the game too long. Fowler was hurt late in the game. It is paramount that Alabama build a large lead quickly so that a similar scenario doesn’t occur here.

 

Carl Pelini’s staff is trying desperately to find a winning combination from a roster possessing few playmakers. He may eventually find one, but he won’t find one this week.

 

Alabama 52

Florida Atlantic 0

 

 

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