BOCA RATON — As the college football season nears, Florida Atlantic coaches and players said they just enjoy the opportunity to take the practice field and get better.
The Owls practiced in full pads for the first time during preseason camp Tuesday, leading to blocking, tackling and big hits.
"We're really excited about this chance to get better. We have some live contact, tackling and took some people to the ground. So it was really good," senior linebacker Andrae Kirk said.
After becoming bowl eligible in the 2013, more is expected from the Owls, who won only eight games in the previous three years combined. In the preseason coaches' poll, FAU was picked to finish third in the Conference USA East Division.
If the Owls are to compete for a division title, the defense that finished the 2013 season ranked No. 11 in total defense could be a factor. Kirk said the group looking to retain its form from last season.
Including Kirk, FAU returns some of the defensive playmakers that helped it close last year on a four-game winning streak. The Owls allowed less than 20 points in each game and held Southern Miss, FIU and New Mexico State to 10 points or less during their final four games.
Returning from the secondary this year are cornerback D'Joun Smith, who led the team in interceptions, and physical strong safety Damian Parms, who was second on the team in tackles.
But younger players like freshman Raekwon Williams are also looking to earn spots on the depth chart. Williams doesn't expect to start, but he could provide depth.
"I feel like I'm fitting in pretty good. I'm just learning the playbook and just trying to get better and better every day, looking upon [Smith] and Trevon [Coley] and Reggie [Brown]," Williams said.
The defensive line will have two new starters at end, but return junior tackle Brandin Bryant, who tied for second in sacks with six.
Despite returning some playmakers, coach Charlie Partridge said the defense won't get complacent because FAU's offense will keep the squad accountable.
At practice on Tuesday, the offense was able to connect on a big plays from Jaquez Johnson to William Dukes.
"[We] just keep the pressure on them all the time, and the good thing is we've got some playmakers on offense that keep that pressure up against our defense every day," Partridge said.
Partridge added that Johnson would be the starting quarterback "if the season started today," but that sophomore Greg Hankerson was pushing him.
Partridge, who is in his first season at FAU after serving as an assistant at Arkansas, said his main concern was getting defensive players to their ideal weight and football shape.
"Right now, I feel like we've got a really good group of starters that are continuing to get better each day. We're still working our way into game shape, but they came in in good cardiovascular shape, but game shape is different," Partridge said. "Plus we have guys that have put on significant weight, Brandon Bryant came in weighing 292 pounds, Trey Coley was 305."
The Owls don't have a cupcake nonconference schedule to work its way into playing shape. FAU opens the season at Nebraska on Aug. 30, before a trip to Tuscaloosa for a date with Alabama on Sept. 6.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun