- Jake Elman Special to The Post
After Lane Kiffin reached heavily into the junior college ranks for his first signing class at Florida Atlantic, some joked the Owls should take a hint from the Netflix miniseries and call themselves “Last Chance U.”
With the program adding several Division I players who had either fallen out of favor or been dismissed from their programs, such as ex-Pittsburgh Panthers defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni, a new name was born: Second Chance U.
“I see a lot of guys that needed a little opportunity to see them all on the same team,” said Taleni, who was dismissed from Pittsburgh earlier this year for disciplinary reasons. “It’s not just any players - it’s talented players. For Lane Kiffin to offer a second opportunity to the guys that have a chance of playing in the NFL, it’s huge.”
For those who joke about the influx of products from East Mississippi Community College - the team featured in “Last Chance U” - Kiffin has drawn criticism in recent months for giving second chances to players who had brushes with the law and black marks at their previous schools.
The first player to sign under Kiffin was ex-Seminole quarterback De’Andre Johnson, who had previously been recruited by ex-FAU coach Charlie Partridge. After Johnson was seen in a video punching a woman in a Tallahassee nightclub in June 2015, he was dismissed from the FSU football team about two weeks later and faced a misdemeanor battery charge. In December 2015, Johnson signed a plea deal right before the case was to go to trial. He was ordered on probation for six months and served 10 days on a sheriff’s work crew.
Though Kiffin has stressed that not every second-chance player did something wrong at their first school - “a kid may decide to go to a junior college on his own,” Kiffin said - it’s hard to ignore those players essentially were forced into playing at the JUCO level.
Nonetheless, Kiffin added another troubled player looking for a second chance to the roster Saturday, with former West Virginia receiver Jovon Durante announcing on Twitter he was transferring to FAU. Durante, a former four-star recruit from Miramar, battled academic and disciplinary issues while at WVU. In two seasons, he caught 60 passes for 726 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Another receiver, four-star recruit DeAndre McNeal, dominated at Fullerton State (Calif.) after then-Texas Longhorns coach Charlie Strong dismissed him for breaking team rules. Defensive end Tim Bonner - a teammate of Johnson’s at East Mississippi last year - found himself leaving the University of Louisville for allegedly having a gun in his dorm.
Nearly two years later, Bonner doesn’t know which was worse: being accused of a crime when he wasn’t on campus - the then-freshman had returned home to Alabama - or a dean calling him a “threat to society.”
“There was an incident - I wasn’t even up there that weekend - and (a woman) said they saw me with a gun,” Bonner said. “The Dean said I gotta go, so I went home. It was right before we played Florida State, like October 17, 2015.”
Bonner quickly became a fan favorite at EMCC and on “Last Chance U” for his personality, fast way of speaking and getting to the quarterback six times last year.
Through his first month at FAU, Bonner mainly has played on the second and third units, although he has worked with the first team as a pass-rushing specialist.
For McNeal, his trip from a historic program to a JUCO school and then back to Division I was humbling.
“At the JUCO level, it’s basically YOYO - you’re on your own,” McNeal said. “You gotta do a lot of stuff on your own, especially out there in California; there’s no scholarships, no dorm rooms, so you gotta do a lot on your campus.”
McNeal has made several highlight plays through camp and figures to be atop the team’s wide receiver depth chart come the Sept. 1 season opener against Navy. With the quarterback battle still ongoing, McNeal has emerged a dangerous option in the passing game.
The adjustment back to Division I, as has been seen with several players from “Last Chance U,” isn’t easy even for those who master the playbook.
“I had to get adjusted to the system,” Bonner said. “It’s still football, but at a different level. Here, you’re on TV playing against big-time schools. JUCO, you’re playing against one school in one state; if you make it to national, you make it to state.”
Brittany Wagner, East Mississippi’s former academic advisor, paid former students Johnson and Bonner a visit earlier this month. Landing at FAU to play under Kiffin, Wagner said, was a “perfect match.”
“I knew Tim needed to go to a very specific program with a specific type of coach and I think that coach Kiffin is that guy for Tim especially,” Wagner said. “For De’Andre to be here with him and then (tight ends coach Clint Trickett and defensive graduate assistant C.J. Johnson), it’s kind of like an East Mississippi thing here and I think that’s good for all of them.”
FAU added another EMCC alum, quarterback-turned-receiver John Franklin III, on Aug. 15. This will be Franklin’s fourth stop as he also started his collegiate career at FSU before moving on to EMCC and Auburn.
Wagner said she had concerns regarding Bonner’s return to Division I, though she said those are “always in the back of your mind.”
“Of course I was worried about him,” Wagner said. “There’s great people here that I can tell he’s in good hands.”
As a reminder of his journey, Bonner has pinned his tweet from the day he left Louisville on his Twitter profile: “Things happen for a reason but I’ma still hold my head high outchea.”
“I got it pinned on my profile so when I make it to the league, I just look back on it like I came a long way,” Bonner said.