by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Following is the second of our two-part Miami-area Sun Belt preview, featuring the Florida Atlantic Owls...

Under normal circumstances, Howard Schnellenberger probably wouldn’t have been coaching the FAU Owls last season. Heck, under normal circumstances, Schnellenberger himself probably wouldn’t have even wanted to coach in 2011. At 77 years old, and off of summer hip replacement surgery, who in their right mind would want to dive right back into full-time work duties?

But 2011 was always going to be the season that time stopped in Boca Raton, for that was the year the long-awaited campus stadium, Schnellenberger’s dream, was to finally open. And as the program’s founder and architect, it only seemed right that ’ol Howard get a chance to coach in his dream-come-true facility.

Unfortunately, the Owls program was effectively held hostage by Schnellenberger the past couple of seasons, and 2011 began to take on the characteristics of a testimonial. Then-AD Craig Angelos was a reluctant passenger, although Schnellenberger at least spared FAU an uncomfortable Bobby Bowden/Joe Paterno-type exit when acknowledging that he would be stepping down after 2011. Angelos never had to extend the contract any further, but at the same time watched the program backslide noticeably...and was almost powerless to do anything about it.

Indeed, under any scenario other than the new stadium opening last season, Schnellenberger would probably have been gone after the previous 4-8 campaign of 2010, which was a few points away from 1-11 (the Owls won three games by a single point). The program’s descent, which included another losing season previously in 2009, was steep after Schnellenberger’s last hurrah in 2008, when FAU barely squeezed into bowl eligibility and upset favored Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl.

The Owls eventually paid a heavy price for granting Schnellenberger that extra campaign, collapsing to 1-11 last fall in the swansong for ‘ol walrus voice. The christening of the new facility had to wait until midseason, when FAU had already lost its first five games...all on the road. Although a near-capacity crowd of 29,103 attended the stadium opener vs. Western Kentucky, it was the same old Owls team on the short end of a 20-0 scoreline. By the season’s home finale vs. UL-Monroe, listed attendance was only 12,044; it was estimated that fewer than 5000 were in the stands. Nearby Sun Belt rival FIU, which didn’t have a new stadium, averaged higher home attendance.

FAU football not only paid the price for the collapse, but so did AD Angelos, fired from his post in March.

Angelos (left) might not have seen the ax coming, but in retrospect, Sun Belt sources were not surprised. Although no one was outwardly condemning Angelos for allowing Schnellenberger to dictate the terms of his departure, no provisions were ever made for an on-staff successor who could have smoothed the transition phase, either. A new school president, Mary Jane Saunders, was also hired in 2010, a development in itself creating a scenario ripe for change.

Angelos was also getting blame for the athletic department’s poor marketing and fundraising numbers, although in Angelos’ defense, much of the capital from the latter was spent in making the new home stadium come true. For the former, however, the accusations unfortunately stick. Naming rights to the new stadium were never sold, potentially costing the school millions of dollars. Moreover, Angelos’ relationships with his coaches were, if not strained, hardly cordial, either. Schnellenberger never went out of his way to praise Angelos. Hoops coach Mike Jarvis didn’t either, famously saying, “I guarantee you that Duke spends more on food than we do for the recruiting budget for the whole year.” In fact, it was probably stalled contract negotiations with Jarvis (who eventually re-upped) that proved the last straw for Angelos’ tenure.

Others cite a lack of foresight regarding conference realignment, though in this area perhaps Schnellenberger deserves equal blame. While neighboring FIU was always interested in hooking up with Conference USA, a realistic step up the college sports food chain, Angelos and FAU were always aiming bigger (or so they thought), concentrating instead on the Big East, when CUSA was, and should have been, a more-realistic target...as it was for FIU, which moves away from the Belt effective next season.

Even in its own scramble mode, the Big East is unlikely to come knocking at the Owls’ door anytime soon. Although the new football stadium in Boca Raton is nice, it is no better than most Big East venues, and the rest of FAU’s athletic facilities are second-rate. FAU’s athletic department revenues of $18 million are also several times smaller than those of most Big East schools; consider that recently-added UCF, whose revenues are $38 million (more than twice that of the Owls), still ranks near the bottom revenue-producers of all Big East entries. FAU’s location in the Miami area could be a plus, but as has been illustrated above, who in the region cares much about the Owls, who haven’t been able to give away seats to their games?

The NHL Florida Panthers, in nearby Davie, get a lot more attention than FAU. When a hockey team gets more attention than your football team in the Miami area, you know there’s a problem.

Besides, the Big East’s future as a football league is hardly secure, given that most of the big name schools have already bailed out on the league, and the remaining heavyweights (Louisville, UConn, and Rutgers) are reportedly looking for escape routes out of the conference.

Nobody, apparently, has told Schnellenberger, or perhaps former AD Angelos, either, that the Big East itself could be in trouble. ‘Ol Howard still sees the Big East, and not CUSA, as the salvation for the FAU program.

“We can’t continue where we are,” Schnellenberger said to the Sun-Sentinel. “You can’t win the national championship from the Sun Belt. We can’t maximize the potential of our stadium playing Sun Belt teams. We have to be in the Big East, not Conference USA. That’s a dead conference. Florida International made the worst mistake they could make volunteering to go to Conference USA.

“FIU made a bad mistake, they can’t win the national championship from there. Why would you go to a conference you can’t win a national championship from? That was my goal coming in here was to win the national championship in my lifetime from a startup program, and that’s still do-able if we get out of this conference and into the Big East conference.”

No wonder FAU finds itself in such a pickle! The inane chatter about national championships is only so much typical Schnellenberger bluster, but for the school to actually act upon such fantasies defies explanation.

Before Angelos left, he was in charge of the search committee to name Schnellenberger’s replacement. Several bigger-name coaches, including past Miami Hurricane mentors Butch Davis and Randy Shannon, had thrown their hats into the ring for the job, but when the dust settled, the Owls had instead settled upon Carl Pelini (right), older brother of Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, under whom Carl worked as the defensive coordinator for the past four years. Carl’s only head coaching experience has been in the high school ranks in the late ‘90s at Winnetonka (MO) HS, which recorded an 18-32 mark in five years, then on to three years Austintown-Fitch HC in Austintown, OH. Hardly a c.v. like Schnellenberger’s, which included a national title at Miami, and apprenticeships under Bear Bryant, George Allen, and Don Shula, where Howard was the offensive coordinator for the “perfect” 1972 Dolphins.

Pelini also didn’t cost FAU as much as Davis or Shannon or some of the other candidates for the job, an important consideration. Now Pelini gets the pleasure of working for an AD who didn’t hire him, recently-named Patrick Chun (an asst. AD at Ohio State prior to the FAU assignment), before he even coaches his first game.

Sorry, but this hardly appears to be an ideal situation in Boca Raton. So, show us what you’ve got, Carl.

We can’t say that Pelini isn’t at least trying to change the recipe, especially on attack. There was no other alternative, really, after the Owls finished dead last nationally a year ago in total offense (248.8 ypg) and above only moribund New Mexico in scoring at 12.9 ppg.

Pelini’s response has been to junk Schnellenberger’s sluggish pro-set with a no-huddle spread. Now, can the Owls do something with their new strike force instead of just supplying the normal buzz words (pace, tempo, etc.) typically associated with the spread?

Pelini and new o.c. Brian Wright first have to decide upon a QB among four options who were battling for the first-string role in spring. Returning starter Graham Wilbert (left), a 6'6 senior, who could do no better than 7 TDP and 15 picks and a 50% completion mark (not much by today’s standards) despite taking the majority of snaps a year ago, is the default favorite at the moment, although Pelini won’t announce his starter until camp reconvenes in August. (Indeed, Pelini didn’t name any first-stringers after spring, eschewing all two deeps until fall camp.)

Wilbert is also no Michael Vick in the pocket, and too often resembled a dead duck a year ago when the Owls allowed a whopping 34 sacks, ranking a poor 104th. If Pelini wants a bit more mobility from his offensive pilot, he might opt for soph Stephen Curtis or juco Melvin German (Pearl River CC in Mississippi), the latter not due to report until fall practice. Both Curtis and German have wheels and also the advantage of having run the spread before; Wilbert has neither. Last year’s backup David Kooi, like Wilbert more resembling one of aforementioned Mike Jarvis’ hoopsters (Kooi is 6'7,) is another alternative, but the holdover pro-style QBs hardly seem the best fit for the quick-hitting spread that Pelini envisions.

Eventually, most Belt sources believe juco transfer German will be taking snaps sometime this fall.

Like the QBs, the receivers are going to have to be more productive than they were a year ago when the aerial game was anemic. The early plan is for the Pelini version of the spread to employ three wideouts and a TE, not quite as high-flying in design as the Texas Tech version, but snappier than the 2011 FAU jalopy. Still, jr. DeAndre Richardson (right) was a symbol of the 2011 dysfuntion; rangy and with a long stride, this potential homerun threat caught only 32 passes and gained a mere 8.4 yards per catch a year ago, with no TDs. As the likely go-to receiving target, he’ll have to goose his production quite a bit. A potential sleeper could be 6'3 RS frosh Jerrard Hunter, originally a West Virginia recruit but oozing with deep-ball potential. He just needs someone to get him the ball.

Another pass catcher to watch could be 6'4 jr. TE Nexon Dorvilus, who caught 20 passes a year ago in the horse-and-buggy 2011 offense but could emerge as the top underneath threat in the new Pelini spread.

What constituted the ground game a year ago, slamming north-south sr. RB Alfred Morris (who gained 1026 of the Owls’ 1238 rushing yards in 2011), has graduated, with former juco Jonathan Wallace likely to get the majority of carries in the spread, which, theoretically, should open more lanes than were provided for Morris. Wallace, who starred in the spring game, is viewed by Pelini as similar to Rex Burkhead, the best back for the Cornhusker team Pelini left behind in Lincoln. What the staff doesn’t know about Wallace is if he is durable enough to handle the workload as did the graduated Morris.

Nor do they know if the offensive line, a terribly underachieving group that returned all of its starters a year ago, is going to be up to flourishing in the new system. Three starters are back and plenty of extra experience returns, but 2011 was a mess. No position is safe, even for center Jimmie Colley, considered the Owls’ best lineman a year ago but outplayed in spring by jr. Jordan Sessa.

The “D” (ranking a not-too-terrible 69th in total defense a year ago, yet 103rd in scoring at 34.7 ppg) was not quite as bad as the “O” a year ago, but the stop unit was still in need of its own overhaul. And Pelini, a defensive coach, wasted no time changing the formula in spring, junking Schnellenberger’s 3-4 and opting to go primarily with a four-man front and a five-man secondary. Eight starters return and will try to fit into the fresh alignments as best they can.

Again, the typical buzzwords are flying from Boca Raton regarding the new defense; aggressive, attack-minded, pressure, bring the house, get into the backfield, etc. We’re to the point we might start listening to some of this familiar overhype when the coordinators (and their sports information offices) stop peddling the same jargon.

For what it’s worth, FAU is rather undersized up front (only 290-lb. Sr. DT Jimmy Jean tips the scales at over 250), so the “attack” mindset might prove a necessity.

One of the reasons Pelini and new d.c. Pete Rekstis went to the four-man fronts was because they though last year’s 3-4 stretched the thin LB corps a bit too much. For that reason, the 4-2-5 might prove a better fit for two of the top playmakers from last year’s defense, LBs David Hinds (No. 11 at left, vs. WKU last October), and Randell Johnson, who were 1-2 in FAU tackles (with 102 and 90, respectively). Johnson, a former safety, has exceptional closing ability and range. Pelini is also considering using 250-lb. jr. Martin Wright as a hybrid DE/LB weapon, and will be looking for ways to get him on the field in the fall.

Pelini, however, needed some of his bigger linebackers to move to DE spots, as did jr. Cory Henry, and perhaps Wright. The LB corps remains shallow and could turn into a major headache if either Hinds or Johnson go down.

The secondary also wasn’t too bad a year ago; the Owls ranked 59th in pass defense and return three starting DBs, including a pair of good-sized corners in 6'2 sr. Keith Reaser (right, vs. Florida last September) and jr. Treon Howard. Senior Demetrius Williamson has been moved from the strong safety to free safety, with juco Jeremy McKnight moving in immediately at Williamson’s old spot.

Belt sources report that several other JC additions (DT Brandin Bryant, LB Adarius Glanton, and CB Tony Grimes) could also make contributions for the “D” this fall.

Pelini ought to be able to match Schnellenberger’s 2012 win total right out of the chute when FAU welcomes the lower-division Wagner Seahawks from Staten Island in the opener, but things could get real ugly before September is complete with back-to-back road trips to Georgia and Alabama in the queue. Aside from all of the other troubles the past two seasons, Schnellenberger’s final pair of Owl teams were awful against the spread, each 3-9 against the number. Since the 2009 season, FAU’s overall spread mark of 10-26 is one of the nation’s worst.

Summary...It would be hard for Carl Pelini’s first FAU team to be worse than Howard Schnellenberger’s final one in 2011, the latter perhaps the nation’s most impotent squad last fall. Still, we’re a bit skeptical if the revamping of the offensive and defensive platoons by Pelini is going to result in much, if any, upgrade; such strategic changes are customary after things go as pear-shaped as they did for the Owls last fall. We still don’t know if Pelini has a proper QB to run his new-look spread, and if the offense continues to sputter, meaningful upgrades from a year ago will prove elusive. We’re not expecting much in Boca Raton...but at least FAU now plays in a nice, shiny new stadium!


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