New FAU coach Willie Taggart inherits a program that's won two out of the last three Conference USA titles. The Owls won the 2019 C-USA championship on the strength of an offense led by quarterback Chris Robison and a deep stable of running backs. Robison was expected to lead an offense with a revamped line and receiving corps, but he was removed from the roster in the fall. Robison's departure adds to a long list of preseason question marks, especially with FAU breaking in seven new starters on defense. Taggart's team hosts WKU and Charlotte in key conference games and won't have to play UAB or Louisiana Tech in crossover play with the West Division.
Previewing FAU's Offense for 2020
The Lane Kiffin era came to an abrupt end in December when the Lane Train departed Florida Atlantic for Ole Miss minutes after the Owls claimed their second Conference USA title during his three seasons.
FAU hired another offensive-minded coach, Willie Taggart, to keep momentum rolling. Taggart inked former Texas passing coordinator Drew Mehringer and promoted tight ends coach Clint Trickett to be co-offensive coordinators.
Tight end Harrison Bryant, FAU’s first All-American, graduated, and All-C-USA quarterback Chris Robison is no longer on the team. With Robison off the roster, Nick Tronti is expected to take over under center.
Taggart bolstered a depleted receiving unit with a crop of transfers. Graduate transfer Aaron Young (Duke) is eligible immediately, and undergrad transfers Yanez Rogers (Cincinnati), D’Marcus Adams (FSU), and T.J. Chase (Clemson) are all expected to be eligible this season. Wideout John Mitchell and reserve slot receiver Willie Wright, a 2017 C-USA All-Freshman selection, both finished 2019 strong.
FAU returns its top four running backs, led by speedster Malcolm Davidson. BJ Emmons returned from a broken ankle suffered in the 2019 season opener to score six touchdowns over the final four games.
Up front, junior college signees Sebastien Dolcine and Eli Fields fortify the tackle spots, but replacing two-year starting center Junior Diaz is problematic.
Tight end Louis Dorsey, a 2017 Big Ten All-Freshman selection at Illinois, announced he would resurface at FAU.
Previewing FAU's Defense for 2020
Former USF head coach Jim Leavitt, FAU’s fifth defensive coordinator in as many years, brings his hybrid 3-4, replacing Glenn Spencer’s hybrid 4-3. FAU led the nation in turnover margin last season, but considering the talent lost from that team, the timing of the switch might work well.
All four defensive tackles from FAU’s two-deep and three of four starters along the defensive line are gone. Senior Leighton McCarthy, the lone returning starter, excelled in the hybrid DE/LB role last season.
The Owls’ strength at linebacker hinges on the return of Keke Leroy. FAU suspended the second-team All-Conference USA performer from the Boca Raton Bowl for academic reasons and left him off its spring roster. His return is critical for a unit that lacked depth even in a three-man base. Taggart has added some help at linebacker through the transfer portal this offseason, but Hosea Barnwell - a projected starter - opted to depart this summer.
FAU is without its two starting corners. Reserve corner Meiko Dotson entered the transfer portal after tying for the national lead with nine interceptions and ended up at Florida State.
Previewing FAU's Specialists for 2020
FAU joined the Aussie trend last season by adding freshman punter Matt Hayball, significantly improving that unit. Kicker Vladimir Rivas rebounded from a shaky-at-best 2018 to start strong in 2019. He didn’t finish well, though, missing five field-goal attempts over FAU’s final four games.
To keep FAU’s offense rolling, Taggart needs to integrate some highly regarded transfers into a talented roster and identify a passable center. The lack of spring practices is certainly a setback for a team installing a completely new defense and trying to replace pieces along both lines. A slow start seemed likely even before the spring shutdown, but there is certainly enough talent for this team to challenge for a C-USA title again.
National Ranking: 78
(Top photo courtesy of JC Ridley/Owlpix.com)