With billboards promoting Heisman campaigns, viral hype videos and coach Lane Kiffin’s Twitter antics, Florida Atlantic has quickly become one of the nation’s more intriguing college football programs.
As Palm Beach County’s lone Division I football team embraces the national spotlight after winning its first Conference USA title last year, the Owls also have caught the eye of local high school football coaches.
FAU’s success “is tremendous for Palm Beach County,” Spanish River coach Bill Caesar said Tuesday at “640 Media Day,” hosted by radio station 640 The Hurricane at CityPlace. “Especially when you’re recruiting kids who want to stay home more. Now they’re getting the recognition, they’re getting on the big stage at home. … You don’t have to go way off when you can stay right here at a program that’s going to another level.”
Nine years after posting its last winning record, FAU went 11-3 in 2017, ending the year on a 10-game winning streak. Sophomore running back Devin Singletary, an American Heritage graduate, led Division I with 32 rushing touchdowns and finished fourth in the nation with 1,920 rushing yards. Both were program records.
FAU has 15 players on its 2018 roster from Palm Beach County high schools. In addition to Singletary, last year’s Conference USA championship team featured three Seminole Ridge graduates who were named to the All-CUSA first team: center Antonyo Woods, guard Roman Fernandez and safety Jalen Young.
FAU has traditionally done most of its recruiting in-state, often focusing on Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Last year’s team had 49 players from those counties, including 14 from Palm Beach. Many were signed by former Owls coach Charlie Partridge, who wanted to recruit more players from local high schools after his predecessor, Carl Pelini, focused on junior college players.
“Before, people were kind of reluctant, they didn’t want to stay at home or they felt FAU wasn’t a good program,” Caesar said. “Now that they’re winning and they’re on another level, kids can see themselves staying home because it’s more competitive now.”
Although Kiffin expressed a desire to create more of a “national recruiting plan” this year, the Owls signed Palm Beach Lakes athlete Teja Young and added two county players — Seminole Ridge offensive lineman Nicholas Screciu and Dwyer defensive end/linebacker Dalton Hustad — as preferred walk-ons. Former Boynton Beach running back Chauncey Mason, who began his career at Arkansas State, joined the Owls this summer and will redshirt this season.
Two former Dwyer players, running back Gerald Hearns and wide receiver Dante Cousart, joined the Owls as walk-ons and had strong spring camps. Both could see additional snaps this season. Kerrith Whyte (Seminole Ridge) is in line to see plenty of action as the No. 2 running back behind Singletary, a job that Hearns also will have the chance to win.
“It’s going to be an opportunity for a lot of those kids that maybe can’t go to (Miami) or maybe are slept on that have a chance to play at FAU,” St. Andrew’s coach Jimmy Robertson said.
Olympic Heights coach Baz Alfred said that with FAU’s recent success and Keiser University beginning play this season, Palm Beach County football fans have two teams in which to invest.
“Miami’s doing amazing things, Central Florida had an amazing year last year, Florida and Florida State will always be contenders, but there’s only two programs within a 30-mile radius,” Alfred said. “It’s exciting. You’re able to bring your team out there, get tickets for those boys, and we enjoy every second as we go on.”
Caesar, a Spanish River alumnus who returned home to coach the Sharks, was one of several local coaches who attended Kiffin’s introductory press conference in December 2016. Looking back, not even Caesar could have imagined the impact Kiffin has had on FAU.
“To grow up in Delray, go to school in Boca and be around (FAU) all the time, it’s just such a big boost,” Caesar said. “We’re right down the street from FAU and that’s my school.”