BOCA RATON, Fla. - Everyone remembers their “Sweet 16” and that confident walk from the DMV to the car knowing you can drive without mom or dad in the car. For FAU football, it is the knowledge that the program, in its 16th season, can continue its tradition of dominant linebackers.
In the first 15 seasons four linebackers garnered team MVP honors, second only to quarterbacks. The tradition of outstanding linebacker play is expected to continue in 2016 with the unit’s leadership coming from junior middle linebacker Nate Ozdemir and sophomore outside linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair.
“There are two alphas in the linebacker meeting room – Nate (Ozdemir) and Azeez (Al-Shaair),” said Charlie Partridge, FAU’s head football coach. “Nate is what we had hoped he would be as a leader and Azeez is way ahead of his years.”
Ozdemir joined the Owls in 2013 after spending the summer after his senior year at the Naval Academy, where he participated in summer drills and preseason camp. That fall, Ozdemir transferred to FAU where he earned Scout Team MVP honors in part because of his work ethic and ability to learn the opposing team’s schemes. That ability served him well in 2014 with the new coaching staff and especially absorbing the teachings of the squad’s new defensive coordinator. Not only did Ozdemir have the opportunity to learn from his position coach, but he also was mentored by senior Andre Kirk, who was known for being a student of the game and an avid film watcher. Ozdemir, a Winter Garden native, assumed the starting middle linebacker spot in 2015 and used his ability to read and react to guide the young defense. The starting opportunity was a chance for him to showcase his skills, where he recorded 61 tackles on the year and a career high eight tackles in three different games. Off the field, he continued to work in the classroom towards a business degree as well as stay on track towards his Marine Corps officer goals by using his free time to obtain his private pilot’s license.
“Nate has always worked to be a leader and that hasn’t changed,” said Partridge, shortly after spring ball was completed. “I won’t even say that it [leadership] has risen. There has always been that high bar. What has blown us away is how well he is moving. Part of it is his knowledge of the defense. He knows what all of them are doing. If he sees something he goes. He is running away from blocks and is running guys down. He is doing things athletically that none of us could have anticipated.”
Another talent hard to anticipate was the play of Azeez Al-Shaair. The staff knew the linebacker two-deep would be thin in 2015 and began building their scheme around the knowledge that several true freshmen would need to play. Educational opportunities as well as the way preseason camp would be managed took all of this into account. But, the development of Al-Shaair as well as several other freshman is truly what galvanized the program and set the future’s course. By season’s end, Al-Shaair had played in each of the team’s 12 games and drew 11 starts. The Tampa, Fla native led the team with 94 tackles, including seven for a loss of 29 yards and was garnered Freshman All-American honors by USA Today.
“The thing I love about Azeez is that he doesn’t care what year you are or how much you have played. Whether he has screwed up the play before or not, which is a hard thing to get over, he can learn from that, put it away and still demand from those around him,” said Partridge. “He is so demanding of all those around him – all the time. He is on a mission. He has the unique mindset. He feels the clock. He knows this is his second year and he has three left. He takes coaching. He is a kid who has had so much success, you are really coaching fine points, footwork and he wants it. He gets upset if he doesn’t get it, which is great.”
With the duo of Ozdemir and Al-Shaair in place, the linebacker corps return depth that they have not been afforded since 2013, a year that two of the starting three joined the NFL and the third followed a year late with a CFL contract.
With the starting Mike (middle linebacker) position set, there is good competition for the No. 2 spot and that may not be determined until late in preseason camp. Jake Stewart and Jacob Douglas are the two vying for the spot. Both also play a tremendous role on special teams. Stewart, from Miami, Fla., saw action in 10 games a year ago and recorded two tackles, a solo and a tackle assist against UTEP and ODU, respectively. Douglas, from Jacksonville, Fla., played in four games and tallied 16 tackles (7-9), including a season high seven at ODU.
While the use of a nickel package is used more and more, the defense has to prepare for 90+ plays which requires depth. FAU will look to Jerrad Ward, a junior from Jupiter, who has moved exclusively to outside backer where he is expected to see a lot of playing time and is expected to help the team.
Along with Ward’s help on the outside, expect to see sophomore Khantrell Burden at the Sam and Kris Harris at Will (weakside linebacker). Burden saw action a year ago in nine games and recorded five tackles, primarily on special teams. The Miramar, Fla. native used his athletic ability to gain playing time right away and will look to hone in on his linebacker position in 2016. Harris, like most of the linebackers, played a big role on special teams in 2015. After continued growth and a strong spring, the Tallahassee, Fla. product is on pace to vie for time at the Will.
“There is really a competition between Jake Stewart and Jacob Douglas,” said Partridge. Both of them really, really pushed each other. That is fun to see and if [Robert] Relf comes out of injury, we will see where he is at. He was playing well for us before and I hope he can come back.”
The leadership of the linebacker corps will be key but, all indications are that the front seven will be a formidable group. It is a group that set the program’s single-season sack record in 2015 and who was ranked No. 13 nationally at season’s end in both team sacks and red zone defense. The Owls will return seven every game starters to the lineup in 2016 along with a youth movement that now has the game experience and depth to uphold a young program’s tradition.
Chandler Ferguson, 5-11, 225 Boynton Beach, Fla. (Atlantic)
Bradley Clement, 5-11, 225, North Lauderdale, Fla. (American Heritage-Plantation)
Rashad Smith, 6-2, 195, Florida City, Fla (Homestead)