As the Nebraska football team moves closer towards the start of summer conditioning, Huskeronline.com will begin our day-by-day look at each one of the Huskers opponents coming out of their respective spring practices.
Today we start our breakdowns with Florida Atlantic, who finished the 2008 season 6-1 down the stretch, capped off by a victory over Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl in Detroit. The Owls return several key players off last year's 7-6 squad, but all the storylines will obviously center around their legendary head coach Howard Schnellenberger.
Most Husker fans remember Schnellenberger from his day at Miami when he led the Hurricanes to the 1983 National Championship after beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Now Schnellenberger finds himself at another up and coming South Beach program.
Huskeronline.com caught up with South Florida Sun-Sentinel FAU beat writer Ted Hutton to get his thoughts and perspectives on the Owls heading out of spring practice.
What was the mindset of the team this spring after the strong finish they had in 2008?
"Last year was a weird year, because the started out real horrible at 1-5, but finished 5-1 and got the bowl bid only because Howard Schnellenberger was the coach basically. They won the game and they were playing really well at the end of the season.
"They learned that they don't play well and they didn't do enough in the off-season. They were kind of pretty complacent coming off a Sun Belt title and trip to the New Orleans Bowl in 2007, so they just kind of thought because they had everybody back, it was going to be much easier than it was, and it didn't prove to be that way. They came in pretty determined that they were going to have a pretty good spring, and they did. They had a whole a different attitude and a pretty solid spring."
What is it like working around Schnellenberger? Is he still kind of a local legend from his days back at Miami?
"People don't forget what he did at Miami, which was basically put that program on the map by winning a national title. Miami has been real good ever since then, so people know him around here and he obviously knows a lot about football. He's an old school guy. Practices are open, he doesn't shut anything down and he gives injury reports and stuff like that that most coaches shy away from now a days. He runs an old pro style offense and he refuses to go to a spread."
Where do they do most of their recruiting? I assume they don't have to leave South Florida at all.
"They don't have a recruiting budget to leave South Florida and (Schnellenberger) was the guy that invented the state of Miami. He did the math and Florida in general has about 300 kids sign Division I scholarships each year. As he says, even after Florida and Florida State and Miami pick the cream of the crop, there's still plenty kids around for the rest of the schools in the state. The only time they'll travel for a kid is a quarterback. The only kids that come from out of state are kids that have a connection with one of the coaches, because they don't really recruit anywhere outside of Florida. They stick mostly to Orlando and South Florida. They don't recruit junior college players at all."
They return quite a bit on offense, including their quarterback and top receivers. How good could this offense potentially be?
"This could be their best year ever. (Quarterback) Rusty Smithreally had a pretty rough start last year. In the first series against Texas they were driving down and it was like first and goal and they snapped it over his head and he separated his non throwing shoulder, but he was never the same for quite a while, then he started putting together numbers. He had a lot more interceptions than he had before and he just was not himself. He's back to normal now.
"They have a couple of really good receivers. They are three deep at receiver too, it's just not Cortez Gent and Chris Bonner. They have a tight end named Jason Harmon who wasn't even there last year, who was a pretty phenomenal player too.
"They found a new running back who I think is going to be better than Charles Pierre. Alfred Morris was a fullback and in the first spring scrimmage they were down to their fourth running back, so they just threw this guy in there and he had a stunning, stunning spring and he's going to be something."
They have four starters coming back on defense, how far away are they right now?
"The whole key right now is on defense, because they could be awful, they could be ok or they could be surprisingly good. They lost all three linebackers, three defensive linemen and both safeties. The guys coming in have talent, because what he's been able to do each year is bring in better athletes, because the recruiting has gotten better, but these guys are all young. It's going to be interesting."
How undersized are they on defense?
"We found that when they go against a team like Nebraska, they are always going to be undersized on the lines, after that, it kind of evens out. Their biggest problem the last couple of years is they haven't had a pass rush, but it looks like they have a couple of guys now that could make a difference. They've built a little better depth on the defensive line."
What are the realistic win-loss expectations for this team coming out of the spring?
"They are going to score points, they will score points. With the defense, it's just so hard to say. There is no way they are going to beat Nebraska or South Carolina to start the year. They're going to be better as the season goes on. I think the defense is going to improve every game. I think realistically 8-4 wouldn't be out of the question.
"Outside of Nebraska and South Carolina, their non conference schedule is pretty easy. They have Wyoming and UAB and the Sun Belt, so all of their other games are winnable. I see them losing a game or two in the conference, but they have a legitimate chance for the Sun Belt title with a great shot to go to a bowl game."
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