Florida Atlantic Preview

Florida Atlantic's uber-accurate QB Rusty Smith represents a legitimate gauge for measuring how far Texas' pass defense has come during coordinator Will Muschamp's brief tenure. But there is a more compelling question to be answered during Saturday's home-opener.

Will the Longhorns pick up where they left off when the season ended against Arizona State, or will they open like they did against Arkansas State?

Texas, of course, delivered an early knockout blow against the PAC-10 co-champs in a spirited Holiday Bowl win last December. Against the other ASU, however, Texas staved off the second-biggest upset of the day (Appalachian State had shocked Michigan a few hours earlier) when its 'good hands' people recovered a late onside kick.

It can be argued that Texas' lackluster 2007 home-opener set the tone for its entire season. At the very least, it was a harbinger of things to come. The Horns had to rally from behind in eight regular season games last year, and failed to score a first-quarter touchdown in six of them. Then there is the facet of the game that cannot be quantified: passion, effort, chemistry, hustle, desire.

"We learned last year that we can't take any game easy," said senior RG Cedric Dockery. "Coach (Mack) Brown tries to tell us that every team comes to play Texas. You never can take a lazy step."

There was still some fire in Brown's belly when he, earlier this week, recalled last year's erratic Longhorn team that waited...and waited...and waited to flip the proverbial switch before playing with any semblance of intensity and enthusiasm.

"I just could not understand," Brown said, "how a team could prepare all year for just 12 Saturdays and then look like it wasn't excited to play."

Enter one Will Muschamp, the personification of excitement, intensity and enthusiasm. He possesses a keen mind for breaking down offenses and has shown a proclivity for making adjustments on the fly. He's also instilled some healthy fear to his troops (DT Roy Miller concedes that players are more concerned about disappointing Muschamp than they are about anything else). In other words, Muschamp has already brought much-needed 'Boom!' to the Texas defense, so much so that FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger needn't have lit a fuse with the bulletin-board material he provided earlier this month.

Texas isn't "tough", Schnellenberger said. The Horns were "talented" and "polished", but not "physical". Schnellenberger all but claimed that Texas wears silk panties and squats to pee. Now, he insists he was merely stating what his out-manned defense had to do to even have a chance against a team the caliber of Texas'. Publicly, Texas players have said they were either unaware of Schnellenberger's comments or that they paid no heed it. Privately, some have said that, oh yes!, the message was received loud and clear.

More than that, QB Colt McCoy recalls the message Brown delivered this week as 2008 home opener approaches: "You may only get one time to show what you're made of."

This Saturday, Texas will get a chance to put last season's ups-and-downs behind it in front of the largest crowd to see a college football game this side of Columbus, Ohio. More than 98,000 are expected at the renovated Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium as Brown begins his second decade in Austin.

"Now it's a matter of who's going to play when there's 100,000 people in the bleachers," McCoy said. "Now it's a matter of who's going to step up and make plays. Those questions will all be asked Saturday."

And, ideally, answered.

FLORIDA ATLANTIC OFFENSE

Will Muschamp says the numbers speak for themselves: a Sun Belt Conference record 3,688 passing yards, a school-record 32 touchdowns against just nine INTs. Any mention of Florida Atlantic begins with QB Rusty Smith, the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year and the odds-on favorite for the same award in 2008.

"He knows our offense inside and out," Schnellenberger said of Smith this week. "He's a great field general. He gets us into the right plays almost all the time. He doesn't have to look to the sideline to get a hint from the coordinators."

A pro-style pocket passer, Smith was sacked just 14 times (NCAA No. 13) last season. The 6-5 junior also completed 58.7 percent of passes in 2007.

"They do a great job of pinpointing his throws where he can make them," Muschamp said. "They do a good job of moving him in the pocket and they do a great job of protection. They do a lot of slide protections with seven- and eight-man protections. They do a lot of sliding and gapping everything back, so it's a hard team to pressure. From that standpoint, they use a lot of just two- and three-man routes."

Smith's go-to guy is SE Cortez Grant (6-2, 170) who accounted for 64 receptions totaling 1,082 yards last season. He was also good for nine TDs and averaged 16.9 yards-per-catch.

"Those two will be like the quarterbacks and receivers we'll face in our league," Brown said. "They've got our attention."

Senior TB Charles Pierre led his team with 782 yards last season, averaging 4.6 ypc. He is expected to split carries with co-starter Dilvory Edgecomb. FB Willie Rose has good hands and looks to collect a handful of tosses out of the backfield. But these Owls prefer to take to the air, averaging a pedestrian 126 rushing ypg (NCAA No. 98) last season. It's a two-back formation that, so far, has bucked the trend toward the spread.

"They will break the formation," Muschamp noted. "They'll give you some four-wides and they'll give you some empties. They're very multiple, but they do it out of one personnel group."

The injury bug has recently hit the Owls' offensive line, probably sidelining a couple of starters Saturday. Fifth-year C Nick Paris was on crutches this week (ankle) while RG Kevin Miller is listed as 'doubtful'.

FLORIDA ATLANTIC DEFENSE

Schnellenberger hinted at his defensive game plan for Texas a few weeks ago. That's when he likened his defense, bolstered by 11 seniors in the two-deep chart, to a bunch of "ornery bastards" intent on putting "three hats" simultaneously on Texas receivers.

"Coach Schnellenberger has talked about them being aggressive," Brown understated. "Well, seniors are going to be aggressive."

Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis labeled FAU's defense as a "bend-don't-break" unit that blitzes approximately one-quarter of the time.

"Eighty percent of their blitzes are single-dog blitzes where they add a fifth rusher if they're in four down (linemen) or a fourth rusher if they're in three down," Davis noted.

ILB Frantz Joseph is the vocal leader of the defense and is league's choice as Preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Frantz tallied a conference-best 131 tackles in 2007, including 12.5 sacks.

The defensive front was decimated by injuries last season, and that trend has continued. LDE Robert St. Clair had knee surgery last Friday; senior Michael Hancock has been penciled in to replace the three-year starter.

LDT Jervonti Jackson is a big'n at 6-5, 300 pounds. The senior is a 36 game veteran as is CB Corey Small (considered an NFL prospect). Like Texas, the Owls are replacing both safeties this season.

Kick-off at DKR is set for 6 p.m.


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