BOCA RATON, Fla. - Seven years ago a young man walked onto campus that changed the way NFL scouts viewed Florida Atlantic, specifically the defensive backs. In 2009, Keith Reaser signed his National Letter of Intent. In 2014, despite a knee injury, the Miami, Fla. native signed with the San Francisco 49ers as a fifth round pick.
The torch was passed to D’Joun Smith who signed his NLI in 2011 and was a member of the first freshmen class to play in FAU Stadium. Smith took that torch and became one of the best defensive backs in program history holding a No. 2 national rank in passes defended as a junior. Following his senior year, he served as a captain and was named the defensive MVP, Smith was selected in the third round by the Indianapolis Colts as the 65th pick overall.
Cre’von Leblanc, who signed his NLI in 2012 and saw his first collegiate action in back-to-back games versus Georgia and Alabama, the defending National Champions, then took the baton. His performance was praised many times over the next four seasons. Following his senior year, a year he served as a captain and was named defensive MVP, LeBlanc was selected by the New England Patriots to join the squad as a free agent. LeBlanc and fellow DB Sharrod Neasman, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons, became the ninth and tenth FAU defensive backs to extend their football careers professionally in the program’s first 15 seasons.
The question now - who will grab the torch?
It is a unit 20 strong, but they are dominated by youth. The defensive back corps includes just seven upper classmen. But just one has been an FAU defensive back each of the last four years and has not been held out due to an injury or who has transferred to the Owls. In the case of FAU’s 13 underclassmen, youth is not a term used to soft sell inexperience. This group is 13 strong with significant collegiate playing experience and that includes Jalen Young and Ocie Rose, who both earned spots on the 2015 C-USA All-Freshman team as well as the league’s overall honorable mention squad.
“Ocie had a nice spring, working to improve his consistency as a nickel and will compete with [DJ] Juste and others this fall,” said Partridge. “He needs to have a great summer and keep working up towards his potential.” Right now, Ocie (Rose) is the guy [at nickel],” said Charlie Partridge. “He is extremely talented and is someone we have to keep challenged. If he is bored, he will drive you crazy because he will leave his assignment, but he is so blessed that he will make a play where you are going NOOOOO – YEAH. He has to grow into always focused, always disciplined and to know your plays will come.”
Joining Rose at the nickel is senior DJ Juste, who came to FAU as a quarterback, moved to wide receiver, saw time as a returner and has worked into a play maker for the defensive backs. The senior saw action in 10 games, recorded 11 tackles, including a tackle for a loss of nine yards, and saw action on both defense and special teams.
Rose and Juste were pushed in the spring by transfer Alfred Ansley who joined the Owls in the fall and worked at both safety and nickel while completing his NCAA year of residence requirement. Anthony Hamilton, a redshirt senior returning from a knee injury, is another that may move between safety and nickel.
“Juste is someone you can trust,” said Partridge. “He is going to do what you want him to do. We moved Alfred to nickel late in the spring to help push both those guys [Rose and Juste] and he did that. You felt his presence. He is physical and he has got some nice movement tools. He will add competition and then Anthony Hamilton is someone we will try at both nickel and safety. He hasn’t played football in a while so it will be fun to get him back in the mix.”
While most of the discussion centers around the younger players, Raekwon Williams will return for his junior season and has the experience of playing behind both D’Joun Smith and Cre’von Leblanc. Williams has played in every games since donning an FAU uniform in 2014. He has recorded 35 tackles, one for a loss of three and has six passes defended but is looking for his first collegiate interception. His career high of eight tackles came in the 2014 Alabama contest.
Raekwon has become, without a doubt, the alpha,” said Partridge. He is the one in the whole DB group, along with Hamilton, even though he was injured, who is trying to teach the young guys – all of them will watch film – those two [Williams and Hamilton] are trying to teach them how to watch film. What to look for. How to organize the cut ups. How to make it more productive. Raekwon is always coaching the young guys.”
Two that find themselves learning from Williams are Herb Miller and Shelton Lewis. The duo were heavily involved in the 2015 defense with Miller drawing starts as a true freshman. Miller tallied 29 tackles while Lewis added five and both will once again factor into 2016 both defensively and on special teams.
“We have good competition between Miller and Lewis coming out of their freshman year, both played in the fall,” said Partridge. “Shelton has a ton of playing experience and Herb has starting experience. Both have gone through Saturday battles. Shelton came into the spring with a mission. He is extremely talented, maybe one of the most talented on the corner depth chart. He is fighting for a starting job right now. Herb is continuing to mature. He turned 18 partway through the season…Herb has all the tools and is an awesome kid. He just needs to keep growing up.”
The Owls also will see youth and the future take over the safeties. Young will make the move from free safety to strong safety where he made a lot of plays in the spring. Young, who tallied 69 tackles, two for a loss, forced a fumble and tallied three interceptions, improved with every 2015 game as he got used to the tempo and continued that improvement in the spring. Projected to fill Young’s vacated role at free safety is redshirt sophomore Andrew Soroh, who saw action in 10 games and recorded seven tackles, one for a loss of three yards.
“Jalen is so competitive and so demanding on himself and so much more consistent now,” added Partridge. “There were times in the fall that he would make a great play, then he would give up a play. He is much, much more consistent, but the big story of that room is Andrew Soroh. Andrew has done a 180 in his play, his approach off the field, watching film, and his focus on a very specific thing each day. He made a decision [prior to spring] and he did it.”
This is a collective group that has the potential to build upon a foundation laid by former players. It is a group that despite their educational classification, has the maturity, experience and competitiveness to build a strong defense. While much of the 2015 defensive accolades was shined upon setting the program’s all-time single-season sack record, it is important to remember why quarterbacks needed more time – the defensive backs had the receivers covered. It is important to remember that the defensive backs tied for the third most interceptions by defensive backs in the program’s history and then there were the returns, which resulted in a historic three scores. After just one season, Ocie Rose is third all-time in interception return yards and he has the longest INT return in program history, a 95-yarder versus Marshall. Jalen Young is ninth all-time in interception return yards with three years to play.
The torch is ready to be passed – who will carry it forward?
Da'Von Brown, DB, 6-0, 185, Belle Glade, Fla (Royal Palm Beach
Korel Smith, CB, 5-10, 175, Miramar, Fla. (Miramar)
Chris Tooley, CB, 5-11, 178, Orlando, Fla. (Oak Ridge)