After a month of waiting and wondering due to COVID-19-related delays, FAU is set to finally kick off the Willie Taggart era.
Taggart will coach his first game with the Owls on Saturday in the team’s home and season opener versus Charlotte (0-1) in a matchup that will start FAU’s defense of its first Conference USA title.
“This game means a lot,” Taggart said. I want to see what kind of team we have. That isn’t something we’ve been able to necessarily see on the football field yet. Being able to get out and watch our guys play under the lights and see where are, it’s going to be big for us."
The Owls' first four games of the season were postponed or canceled due to reasons related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
They entered the season with their original season opener at Minnesota scheduled for Sept. 3 and original home opener versus Stony Brook on Sept. 12 already canceled by COVID-19 schedule changes at the other schools.
FAU’s Sept. 19 matchup against Georgia Southern was postponed and rescheduled for Dec. 5 after the team had a COVID-19 outbreak. The Owls' game versus USF on Sept. 26 was postponed after it was announced the Bulls' previous opponent, Notre Dame, had seven players test positive for the novel coronavirus.
Charlotte has had its own struggles with playing games this season, with the 49ers having their Sept. 19 game versus North Carolina canceled and their Sept. 26 game against Georgia State postponed after opening the season with a Sept. 12 loss to Appalachian State.
Drew Mehringer, FAU’s offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, said the continuous delays have helped put things in perspective for Owls.
“As much as it hurts us, [the players] are also looking for leadership and direction in those moments where they’re seemingly directionless," Mehringer said. "Football can be taken away from you. You have to provide perspective for those kids. When you think about in terms of ‘they’re more important than you,' your job still has meaning every day. It’s not just drawing up pass and run plays. It’s getting those kids in the direction so they have future, too.”
But for the first time in nearly 10 months, FAU will play a football game against another team. And the Owls are expected to have their hands full with a Charlotte offense led by quarterback Chris Reynolds and running back Tre Harbison.
Harbison recorded 2,432 rushing yards on 508 carries (4.8 yards per attempt) and 16 touchdowns on the ground across three seasons with Northern Illinois before joining the 49ers as a graduate transfer. He had 87 rushing yards on 17 attempts and a touchdown in Charlotte’s first game.
While he struggled against Appalachian State, Reynolds has FAU’s attention after setting a school record with 22 passing touchdowns and recording the second-most passing yards in school history with 2,564. He also rushed for 791 yards on 153 attempts (5.2 yards per attempt) with six touchdowns in 2019.
“[Chris] has broken a lot of records at Charlotte,” linebacker/safety Ahman Ross said. “He’s a smart guy [and] not your typical ‘sit-back’ quarterback. He’s going to make plays if he needs to. Understanding how he is and knowing that he’s just not one-dimensional will help us."
FAU will have to deal with a defense that Mehringer described as “disciplined”. Charlotte no longer Alex Highsmith leading its defense after the Pittsburgh Steelers selected the former 49ers linebacker in the NFL draft.
“When I was watching Alex Highsmith, that guy was unbelievable — I’m glad he’s not back,” Mehringer said. "Any time you play a disciplined team, you have to play a disciplined and physical football game on your side of the ball.
Saturday will give FAU the opportunity to see what kind of team it has under Taggart after all of the offseason changes.
The Owls have new lead coordinators on both sides of the ball, in addition to several new assistant coaches.
They’ll start a new quarterback in redshirt junior Nick Tronti after all-conference recipient Chris Robinson’s departure from the program.
There are several new wide receivers who transferred from Power Five schools — including D’Marcus Adams (Florida State), BJ Alexander (Kentucky), TJ Chase (Clemson) and Aaron Young (Duke).
The defense lost several key contributors from all over the field and won’t have nine of its top-11 tacklers from last season and the Owls enter the year trying to become the first team to win back-to-back C-USA titles since Western Kentucky (2015 and 2016).
“This isn’t last year’s team," Taggart said. "This is a totally different football team and a team none of us really know what it’s going to be. I’m ready to see what our guys show us what they’re capable of.”
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