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TGS 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...FLORIDA ATLANTIC OWLS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Since Florida Atlantic hasn’t done a lot of winning the past few years, we’re not sure the 2011 campaign is going to be a victory lap for veteran HC Howard Schnellenberger, who recently announced his retirement effective at the end of the season. More like a farewell tour, we suppose, for the never-dull mentor, who has been kicking around the gridiron world in a variety of fascinating roles for the past half-century. For his last hurrah, Schnellenberger will get to coach his final season in a new stadium at FAU that was his dream in 1998 when first hired to start the fledgling program at the Boca Raton school, which wouldn’t be playing its first game until 2001. And the Owls have come a long way since their first-ever contest, a 40-7 loss to Slippery Rock. FAU had advanced as far as the I-AA semifinals by 2003 and beat its first major foe in 2004, topping Hawaii in that year’s opener by a 35-28 count, the first Owls game in which a pointspread was ever posted. In typical Schnellenberger fashion, FAU won that one despite being a 21 ½-point underdog.

We suspect the college game will be a little less colorful in future years without Schnellenberger, who long ago broke the mold of assembly-line coaches who seem to talk and act and, often, coach alike. So, we'll enjoy him while we still can. That no one to our knowledge has ever been labeled “another Howard Schnellenberger” attests to his uniqueness. From the deep baritone voice, to the alligator-skin cowboy boots, to the smoking pipes stuffed with Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco (a habit Schnellenberger finally quit a few years ago), Schnellenberger always marched to his own drummer. Along the way he helped change the course of the game, mostly with his swashbuckling Miami Hurricane teams that proved how speed could kill. “He took wide receivers and made linebackers out of them,” said Texas Tech HC Tommy Tuberville, a Canes d.c. in the post-Schnellenberger years. “His whole philosophy was to put players on the field who could run.” It was Schnellenberger who also first authored a national power shift to the Sunshine State, as his unforgettable 1983 Miami team that scored the memorable 31-30 Orange Bowl upset over Nebraska signaled a new era in which the Canes, Florida State, and Florida would win nine national titles between them over the next 25 years. Schnellenberger is also one of the last-active links to a long-ago golden era, including stints as offensive coordinator for Bear Bryant’s Alabama teams featuring Joe Namath between 1961-65, WR coach for George Allen’s L.A. Rams between 1966-69, and a pair of tenures as Don Shula’s offensive coordinator with the Miami Dolphins (including the “perfect” 17-0 season of 1972).

For all of Howard’s career peaks, he experienced several valleys as well. His stint working for Bob Irsay as HC of the Baltimore Colts lasted just one full season (1973) and three games of the following year. Schenellenberger jumped for the money, or so he thought, after his ‘83 title with the Hurricanes, an ill-fated move to the USFL that eventual would not materialize (“A horses--t career decision,” Howard would later admit). Indeed, any retrospect on Schnellenberger’s career is filled with “what ifs” regarding his premature departure from Miami just as the program had reached powerhouse status. After doing another admirable resurrection job at Louisville between 1985-94, his one year at Oklahoma was an unmitigated disaster in 1995, prompting a forced resignation after one disappointing 5-5-1 season and various controversies. Yet even those low points of Schnellenberger’s career proved influential, as in the cases of Miami and Oklahoma his departures were the first dominoes to fall in what would eventually bring Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson to Miami to win more national titles, and Bob Stoops to do the same at Oklahoma (although the Sooners had to endure three seasons of John Blake before Stoops arrived). Since the OU misadventure, Schnellenberger has flown well under the national radar at FAU, although the final chapter of his career has been a mostly-satisfying one, building the Owl program in his image from scratch, with the new stadium the frosting on the cake.

Granted, Schnelleberger has authored some fairy-tale finishes in his career, but it would be perhaps his neatest trick of all to resurrect the Owls this season. FAU has regressed since its last bowl campaign in 2008, slipping to 5-7 and 4-8 the past two seasons, and fortunate not to lose even more a year ago when three of the wins were registered by exactly one point. And the fact of the matter is that Schnellenberger would likely have retired, or been pushed out the door, if the new stadium weren’t opening this season. The thought among most Sun Belt observers is that AD Craig Angelos felt obligated to at least give program-architect Schnellenberger one season of coaching in the new facility. Howard’s contract was also never extended beyond 2011, and Schnellenberger's voluntary retirement spared Angelos being the bad guy and the Owl program the awkwardness of a potential repeat of situations with Bobby Bowden at Florida State and Joe Paterno at Penn State.

Some farewell tour, however; FAU, which has scheduled its share of body-bag games over the years, opens with five straight road trips to begin 2011, including stops at Florida, Michigan State, and Auburn out of the chute. Schnellenberger won’t even get to coach his first game in the new stadium until after the NHL season begins, when Western Kentucky visits on October 15. Just in case, however, that delayed home opening should remove any possibility that Schnellenberger could miss the christening due to hip replacement surgery shortly after the August announcement of his pending retirement. For the moment, defensive coordinator Kurt VanValkenburgh is assuming head coaching duties in Schnellenberger’s absence during preseason camp, although the old coach is expected to be on the sidelines for the opener at Gainesville on September 3.

FAU’s immediate problem is locating some “O” after last year’s strike force ran out of ammunition, ranking in triple digits in most-meaningful stat categories after placing 15th nationally in total offense the year before. Paramount among Schnellenberger and o.c Darryl Jackson’s challenges is finding a new QB after the Owls received more than serviceable work in recent years from Rusty Smith and Jeff Van Camp. A couple of little-used juniors who look more like candidates for Mike Jarvis’ FAU basketball team, 6'7 David Kooi and 6'6 Graham Wilbert, battled on even terms in the spring and entered fall camp in a virtual dead-heat for the starting job, although some Sun Belt sources suspect the stronger-armed Wilbert might rate a slight edge. Redshirt frosh Stephen Curtis is the X-factor in the mix thanks to his enhanced mobility. Further complicating matters for the aerial game is a completely rebuilt receiving corps that lost TE Rob Housler, a 3rd-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals who caught a TD pass in his first preseason game, and long-striding wideout Lester Jean, who caught a team-best 64 passes last year. A couple of touted, rangy recruits, 6'4 William Dukes and 6'2 Hakeeme Ishmar, will likely get their chances sooner rather than later. It is also hoped that soph “Z” receiver Marcus Cunningham, whose 12 catches from 2010 make him the Owls’ leading returning receiver, might flourish now that he is out of the shadow of the graduated Jean.

All five starters return along an OL that was mostly ineffective in rebuild mode last year, neither run (FAU 115th in rushing) nor pass (36 sacks allowed) blocking very effectively. With a year of added experience, results should improve, especially if sr. LT Sam McRoy emerges as an honors candidate, as some suspect. For the moment, the “O” likely focuses upon punishing 5'11, 222-lb. RB Alfred Morris, a north-south slammer who despite the OL woes nearly cracked the 1000-yard barrier again LY (928 YR) after gaining over 1300 yards on the ground in 2009. An unlikely weapon for the offense is P Mickey Groody, who booted a Ray Guy-like 45.8 yards per punt last year to rank fifth nationally.

Similar to the offense, seven starters also return for a “D” that has plenty of room to improve from last year as well, especially vs. the rush where it ranked a poor 105th (204 ypg) in 2010. Aside from tending to duties overseeing the entire operation in Schnellenberger’s temporary absence, d.c. VanValkenburgh is also switching the stop unit to 3-4 looks in hopes of getting more quicks on the field. Most of the big defensive plays last season originated from the LB corps, so why not add an extra one on the field? There will be a bit more pressure on the remaining three linemen to hold their own and clog the run lanes, something they didn’t do particularly well last season; it’s about time for 290-lb. jr. NT Jimmy Jean to show his stuff. An all-name team first-stringer, jr. MLB Yourhighness Morgan, patrols the interior for a robust LB quartet that nonetheless must replace top 2010 tacklers Michael Lockley and Malik Eugene. Cory Henry, a 6'3, 238-lb. soph, was one of those talents responsible for the switch to the 3-4, as he figures to have more freedom to disrupt from the edge in a LB role than as a DE last season. The secondary returns three starters and is full of quickness, but is on the smallish side with no starter tipping the scales above 195 pounds. Terrier-like FS Marcus Bartels, all 5'9 and 170 lbs. of him, has racked up 216 tackles the past two years.

Spread-wise, FAU has offered little value the past two non-bowl years, dropping 17 of 24 against the number. Note also that Schnellenberger’s Owls have mostly been cannon-fodder vs. intersectonal foes, dropping 19 of their last 23 regular-season spread decisions vs. non-Belt opposition.

Summary...A Disney movie might have Schnellenberger forging a dramatic FAU turnaround in his final season on the sidelines, yet in real life we doubt Howard would even be in the saddle were it not for the new stadium (of which he was the driving force in its construction) and the school doing the honorable thing and allowing him to coach one season in the sparkling facility. If Schnellenberger has any magic left in his bag of tricks, one of the new QBs and the restructured “D” in the new 3-4 will emerge by the time Sun Belt play rolls around, and perhaps the Owls can squeeze into a minor bowl. But the fact is that FAU has slipped alarmingly the past couple of years and a bounce-back appears unlikely. The 2011 Owl season will mostly allow us to reflect on the Schnellenberger career and his fingerprints on the college game that figure to last for generations; on top of his coaching successes, modern facilities at Louisville and FAU will last as monuments to ‘ol walrus voice for years to come. Regrettably, we look more forward to the new stadium and any inevitable Schnellenberger testimonials and recollections than we do the Owls’ on-field product this fall.


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