Many college coaches like to talk about how their program is one-of-a-kind.
But not many programs can compare to Howard Schnellenberger’s tasks. You see, the Florida Atlantic coach and director of football operations basically created the Owls from scratch.
To be sure, Schnellenberger had faced challenges before. When he started as coach at Miami in the seventies, the school was inches away from nixing the program and tossing it into the Florida Everglades. When he left five years later, the Hurricanes were national champions and on their way to a streak of dominance through the 1980s. But then, he was just rescuing a program, not starting a new one.
Schnellenberger signed on in May of 1998 with one task -- creating a football team that could compete, eventually, at the Division IA level. By January 1999, the Board of Regents approved the football program, and FAU took the field for the first time in Division 1AA on Sept. 21, 2001. The Owls finished that first season 4-6, with an upset over the number 22 team in the nation a few games in. The next year, the team struggled, finishing 2-9.
But the third year, everything came around. The Owls roared to an 11-3 record, which included a trip to the NCAA Division 1AA playoffs. Last year, the team jumped halfway up to Division 1A, playing six games against the top tier. But the Owls looked far from out of place, delivering Hawaii its only home loss of the year and defeating North Texas on their way to a sparkling 9-3 season, where the team went 3-3 against Division 1A teams.
All of which brings up this year, the program’s fifth, it’s first full Division 1A season complete with a tougher schedule that includes Kansas and Oklahoma State, and a conference affiliation with the Sun Belt. The team was devastated by graduation, especially on offense, losing the starting quarterback, a running back that accounted for close half of the team’s carries and every wide receiver with a career catch but one.
Most teams would be thinking rebuilding. Schnellenberger said he’s thinking conference championship.
The offense will succeed or fail with the play of quarterback Danny Embrick. The 6-foot-1 West Virginia transfer has seen playing time as a backup the past two years and provides a mobile option behind center. He has an accurate arm and uses his athleticism to make plays outside of the pocket. Waiting in the wings is the probable quarterback of the future, McKinson Souverain, a raw redshirt freshman who may be the fastest player on the team.
The running backs are undersized, but show breakaway speed. B.J. Manley is the most experienced returner while Charles Pierre has shown potential, and is deceptively strong for his size (5-9 205). He lettered in weightlifting in high school. Dominick Walker, Dilvory Edgecomb and true freshman Terence Hall may also see some time. The only certain part about the running backs is the fullback, where Aaron Sanchez, a versatile player who is the team’s leading returning rusher and receiver holds down the fort.
Embrick’s targets will be fast, but inexperienced. Thomas Parker is the only returning player to catch a pass. Redshirt freshman Frantz Simeon is small, but explosive -- out of his 30 catches as a high school senior, 10 went for touchdowns. The tight ends are typically bigger wide receivers who see the ball a lot, and Dantson Dareus and Darrien Porter-Isom, who has been the team’s best receiver in scrimmages, are no different.
The offensive line is small and mobile, with all but one of the projected starters weighing under 285 pounds. The depth is also thin, and there is little size outside of the starters.
The defense returns three key players from last year’s squad that would have rated 16th nationally in scoring defense. The leader will be senior linebacker Shomari Earls, who used his size (6-4 250) and speed to rack up 81 tackles and four sacks last year. He’ll be joined by safety-type athletes with limited experience at the outside linebacker spots.
The defensive line also returns just one starter from the unit in defensive end Josh Pinnick. The line features small, fast defensive ends and quick defensive tackles. Jason Flemming, a 292-pound sophomore defensive tackle, may be the best of the bunch.
The defense’s best unit is the secondary, where the Owls return two starters at cornerback in Willie Hughley, who had six interceptions, and physical tackler Lawrence Gordon, who finished with 63 tackles last year. Both safeties have experience as well, but injuries have kept playing time to a minimum.
Kicker Daniel Kenard has a big leg but must work on his consistency, while punter Mike Brown could be among the nation’s better punters by year’s end.
For his fifth season, Schnellenberger has an undersized team built for speed, and heavy on the local players. Out of his last recruiting class, every player came from Florida, and the team has only four non-Floridians on roster.
With early games at Kansas and Oklahoma State at home before traveling to Minnesota, it could be difficult for a team low on experience. But if the talent falls through, Schnellenberger has nobody to blame but himself. After all, he created the team, didn’t he?