BOCA RATON, Fla. - The Owls entered the 2015 preseason camp with nothing but questions. They were thin in number. They were young in experience. How did they answer those questions?
They improved their number with freshmen who often, didn’t play like freshmen – see: USA Today Freshman All-American Azeez Al-Shaair. They gained valuable experience throughout the season and often throughout the game. The Owls’ defense improved their national rank in total defense by 40 spots. FAU’s red zone defense was ranked No. 13 nationally at season’s end. Owl defenders tallied 26 points in 2015 and were ranked No. 8 nationally in defensive TDs and No. 13 in sacks. Individually, four Owls were ranked among the nation’s leaders in interceptions which factored into the defensive line setting the program’s single-season sack record and junior Trey Hendrickson to finish the season No. 2 nationally in both sacks and forced fumbles.
Entering 2016, the abundance of questions have been answered. And, there is no question that like last year, it will begin with the defensive line.
It starts with Trey (Hendrickson),” said Charlie Partridge, FAU’s head football coach. “To his credit, he is bigger now (270). But, he is moving every bit as fast, if not faster. He holds himself to a high standard. If his technique is off, even if he dominated the play, he is upset about it and he is aware of it which is great. He still has growth. That is the fun thing, he is not at his ceiling - yet.”
While Hendrickson (Apopka, Fla.) hasn’t hit his individual ceiling, he has set the FAU single-season mark of 13.5 sacks, which ranked No. 2 nationally. He shattered FAU’s all-time career sack mark of 16 by four (20) and will add to his record in 2016. Hendrickson, who was recently named to the Bednarik Pre-Season Watch List, has his home as the right defensive end; however, he also worked the opposite side during the spring which will give the Owls a different look. To the naked eye, the right and left side are the same. Hunter Snyder, expected to start on the left, is a 6-foot-7 inch redshirt sophomore who was an Owl starter by seasons end a year ago and only improved through the off-season and spring. Snyder (Palm Harbor, Fla.) saw action in every 2015 game and accumulated 32 tackles, six for a loss, including 4.5 sacks. The duo will be supported by Haiden Nagel (Tampa, Fla.), an extremely intelligent player who can provide help on both sides. Nick Internicola (Pembroke Pines, Fla.), who missed the spring, is expected to round out the experienced unit.
The tackles are a group that is experienced and ready to take over for Trevon Coley and Brandin Bryant, both FAU graduates and members of NFL rosters. Expect to see Ray Ellis (Egg Harbor Township, N.J.), a 6-foot-1-inch, 285 pound junior, Shalom Ogbonda (Sugar Land, Texas), a 6-foot-4 inch, 290 pound redshirt senior, Steven Leggett (Belle Glade, Fla.), a 6-foot-1-inch, 290 pound sophomore and Denzel Whitfield (Monticello, Fla.), a 6-foot-5-inch 280 pound senior, to receive the bulk of the snaps. The quartet has been a part of a steady rotation the last two seasons which allowed the Owls to keep fresh legs in the game at all times. And, that system paid off with constant pressure from linemen who tallied 31.5 of the team’s single-season record-setting sack record of 35, an accomplishment that can be met and surpassed should they continue their expected development.
“Ray (Ellis) made a huge jump this spring,” said Partridge. He has a chance, if he can stay where he was at the end of the spring, to be as disruptive as those two guys last fall. Steven (Leggett) will push both Ray and Shalom (Ogbonda). He has quick twitch and a ton of talent. Steven wants to be good and he is gifted.”
The Owls return seven players who saw action on the record breaking line a year ago, five of whom recorded a sack. So, as the Owls’ defense heads into 2016 the only questions are can they top their improvement and their records.
David Blevin II, 6-34, 260, Palmetto, Fla. (Palmetto)
William Davis, 6-0, 265, Fort Pierce, Fla. (Fort Pierce Central)
Damian Horton, 6-4, 250, Miami, Fla. (Miami Kilian)
Leighton McCarthy, 6-3, 205, Apopka, Fla. (Wekiva)
Kevin McCrary, 6-2,265, Daytona Beach, Fla. (Mainland)