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A closer look at Florida Atlantic, which hosts USF on Saturday

The Owls lost several stars, and their coaching staff, from last season’s 11-win team.
Florida Atlantic quarterback Nick Tronti carries the ball in a 28-13 victory over Middle Tennessee last October.
Florida Atlantic quarterback Nick Tronti carries the ball in a 28-13 victory over Middle Tennessee last October. [ THE PALM BEACH POST | ]
Published Sep. 22, 2020

A look at Florida Atlantic, which hosts USF on Saturday in Boca Raton:

Nickame: Owls

2020 record: 0-0

2019 record: 11-3 (7-1 in Conference USA; defeated SMU, 52-28 in Boca Raton Bowl)

Coach: Willie Taggart (first season at FAU; 11th season overall, 56-62)

The offensive breakdown: In the COVID-19 era, we must preface such breakdowns with a reminder that we don’t know who will be available for FAU on Saturday. The Owls had to call off last week’s season opener against Georgia Southern because roughly 25 players either tested positive or had to quarantine after contact tracing. If the Owls are able to play, they still won’t bear a significant resemblance to last season’s team. Only four starters return from that 11-win club, and first-team all-conference quarterback Chris Robison isn’t one of them. When asked if Robison’s late-summer departure was a dismissal or player’s choice, Taggart said, “It wasn’t FAU football, I’ll put it that way.” Six-foot-2 Indiana transfer Nick Tronti likely replaces Robison, but Taggart’s older son Will — a 6-1, 170-pound freshman — is a backup. Look for the Owls to try and establish junior tailback Malcolm Davidson, a 700-yard rusher last season, behind a fairly seasoned offensive front. Seniors John Mitchell and Willie Wright, who combined for 58 catches last season, are the most experienced receivers, and Taggart replenished the position by liberally tapping into the transfer portal. Among the newcomers are Plant City High alumnus TJ Chase, who played for Bulls coach Jeff Scott at Clemson. While we’re expecting a variation of the Gulf Coast offense, we can’t be sure; Taggart’s two co-coordinators include former FSU and West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett.

Related: If USF’s game at Florida Atlantic transpires, so could history

The defensive breakdown: Former Owls coordinator Glenn Spencer, who will be on USF’s sideline, left a thin cupboard for Jim Leavitt, the Owls' fourth coordinator in as many seasons. Only three players return from the starting unit that essentially stonewalled SMU in the Boca Raton Bowl. Look for Leavitt to employ a 3-4 base look and perhaps start a pair of true freshmen up front including 355-pound nose guard Evan Anderson. Senior Caliph Brice has the potential to create disruption at the pass-rushing “jack” linebacker spot after flourishing in his final six games of 2019 (21 tackles, interception, QB hurry).

Odds & ends: A handful of Owls staffers also served with Taggart at USF, the two most prominent being outside linebackers coach Raymond Woodie and director of player personnel David Kelly. ... Willie and Will Taggart are among five current Division I-A father-son combinations at the same school. ... The FAU roster features 11 players from the four-county Tampa Bay area.

Audible: “From the outside looking in you say, ‘Oh man, you’re loaded,’ but there’s a lot of production gone from last year, especially on defense. And then when you lose your quarterback that was very talented, we all understand and know what it’s like for you to lose someone at that position. ... But I think overall as a program, it’s in a good place. You’ve just got to continue to recruit and do well, but it’s not the team we had last year.” — Taggart