Florida Atlantic defensive lineman Haiden Nagel is part of an endangered species.
With the departure of starting linebacker Nate Ozdemir as he pursues a career in the armed forces, rising redshirt senior Nagel is now one of six Owls who were around during the Carl Pelini era. Following last year’s graduation of 15 seniors, including C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Trey Hendrickson, Nagel is the only defensive player from the 2013 season left on the active roster.
Now on the eve of his senior season, the former walk-on is feeling older than almost any 23-year-old college student should.
“There’s not that many left,” Nagel mused earlier this month. “The numbers have gone down throughout the years and it’s crazy to think about. I was just thinking about it the other day that with Pelini, I’m a walk-on and then last year, I got put on scholarship, so time flies when you’re having fun.”
In addition to Nagel, running back Marcus Clark, wide receiver Kalib Woods and offensive linemen Antonyo Woods, Roman Fernandez and Jakobi Smith were freshmen in Pelini’s final year.
As one of the few players left from the Pelini era, Nagel can understand and appreciate the changes this program has gone through during his time in Boca Raton. Pelini, the second head coach in program history, was 5-15 at FAU, before abruptly resigning in Oct. 2013 amid allegations of illegal drug use.
“When Coach Pelini left, there were bad things going on with the team and [former coach Charlie Partridge] kind of eliminated the bad stuff,” Nagel said. “Now, we have Coach Lane Kiffin here and that establishment is still being carried on through the locker room.”
Before Kiffin’s arrival, Nagel was preparing for a breakout season under Partridge, now the Pittsburgh defensive line coach. Less than two weeks before the 2016 season began, Nagel joined senior defensive backs Anthony Hamilton and Alfred Ansley III as players put on scholarship by the university.
Nagel then started with a bang, recording a career-high eight tackles and a sack against FCS Southern Illinois in the 38-30 season-opening win. Though Nagel only got to the quarterback once more, getting half a sack in a 42-24 loss to Old Dominion, the Tampa native finished fourth on the team with 4.5 tackles for loss.
The departure of Hendrickson, who led the team with 9.5 sacks, means that someone will need to step up as a pass-rusher in Chris Kiffin’s new defensive scheme. Three weeks into spring practice, Nagel appears to be the man for that job as he continues to learn from the Kiffin brothers.
“It’s a quick defense; it’s similar to last year but it’s different in some ways,” Nagel said. “Last year, we lacked in sacks - Trey had almost double all of our sacks combined - and that’s what we’re emphasizing as a group this year. We’re learning a whole new scheme and trying to adapt to that.”
After FAU’s April 8 practice at Carter Park in Fort Lauderdale, Lane Kiffin described Nagel as “consistent” and someone who plays with “good pad leverage.”
Earning points from the fifth head coach in program history isn’t enough for Nagel, though, as he’s taking time this spring to assist in the development of younger players. Ever the leader, Nagel pointed to rising sophomore Will Davis as a growing star on the defensive line, saying that the Fort Pierce product has “come a long way since last year.”
If Nagel wants to make sure he is recognized as well, he’ll need to apply the lesson of former Owls defensive coordinator Roc Bellantoni, who instructed his players to “tap the rock.”
“If you keep on working every day, that rock is going to crack and you will shine through,” Nagel said.
FAU SPRING GAME
Saturday, 4 p.m., FAU Stadium