Florida Atlantic linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair limited after offseason elbow surgery

Azeez Al-Shaair (2) on the sidelines at the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Florida on December 19, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — Azeez Al-Shaair made it no secret that he wanted to stay on the field. Playing three months with a torn UCL in his elbow, as painful as it may have been, had to happen if Florida Atlantic was to continue winning games.

Having risked his elbow for the sake of the team, Al-Shaair, the all-time leading tackler in program history, has earned a bit of rest this spring. Partial rest, at least, as Al-Shaair is only able to participate in non-contact drills after undergoing surgery on Dec. 27.

“The process is supposed to take all this time and stuff like that, but understand I don’t throw a football or anything like that — I just tackle people,” Al-Shaair said Thursday. “It honestly hasn’t been bad at all.”

Al-Shaair was limited for the majority of last spring as well after labrum surgery, though he didn’t return to drills until late in camp. One bright spot the linebacker recently realized was that the process of cleaning up and repairing the elbow was less painful than his shoulder surgery.

Al-Shaair also acknowledged that knowing he’d be on the mend from the elbow injury contributed to his decision to return for his senior season. Had Al-Shaair entered next month’s NFL Draft, he likely would have been a late-round pick at best.

“You also understand that with everything at the combine, I just thought it would be the best decision to come back,” Al-Shaair said. “It wasn’t one thing more than another (which made me come back), just everything collectively would help me make the decision.”

Robison returns: After being suspended from Tuesday’s practice for a violation of team rules, redshirt freshman quarterback Chris Robison was reinstated and split first-team reps with De’Andre Johnson on Thursday.

Soroh finds new home: Senior defensive back Andrew Soroh, who split time between safety and linebacker last year, has officially been converted to a linebacker for the 2018 season. Soroh had 47 tackles last season, seeing increased playing time when the Kiffin brothers — head coach Lane and defensive coordinator Chris — started playing him as a hybrid.

“They called me a couple days ago, let me know that (the coaches) want you at linebacker now that they see some things in me,” Soroh said. “You have to embrace everything, no matter what position I play. I’m just excited to play this game, play this sport.”

Wright out: Sophomore wide receiver Willie Wright remains out of practice with a “medical issue” and is still considered day-to-day. Wright has attended both practices.

McGriff the running back? Junior wide receiver/tight end D’Anfernee McGriff can add another position to his resume, as the second-year transfer has seen snaps in the backfield. With sophomore Tyrek Tisdale out, McGriff could compete for more snaps in the backfield this spring.

Highlight reel: Playing running back, McGriff made a nice catch in the flat on second-team action with Robison, who briefly spent time with that unit. … All-American junior running back Devin Singletary is showing no signs of exhaustion, already showing off his trademark jukes and spins against the first-team defense. … Former “Last Chance U” star and redshirt junior defensive end Tim Bonner enjoyed his second straight strong practice.

FAU reportedly finds new defensive coordinator in Southern Mississippi’s Tony Pecoraro

Tony Pecoraro, who spent 2017 as the Southern Miss Golden Eagles’ defensive coordinator, has reportedly been hired to take the same role at FAU. (YouTube)

BOCA RATON — Lane Kiffin’s second coaching staff at Florida Atlantic is apparently complete, with FootballScoop.com reporting that the Owls have hired Southern Miss defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro to the same role.

Pecoraro, a former defensive coordinator at Alcorn State and North Alabama, will replace Kiffin’s younger brother, Chris, who took a job as the San Francisco 49ers’ pass-rush specialist last month. Under Pecoraro, Southern Miss finished 20th in the nation in total defense, allowing only 331.9 yards per game. The Golden Eagles defense also ranked 45th in the country in points per game, giving up just over 24.

Pecoraro spent two seasons in Hattiesburg and has prior experience in the Sunshine State, coaching three seasons as the defensive quality-control coach at Florida State and coaching on five total bowl teams. Pecoraro began his coaching career at Webber International University in 2004 and also worked as the team’s recruiting coordinator.

The Owls begin their spring camp on March 20.

FAU has yet to officially confirm the hiring. This story will be updated as more information is made available.

FAU linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair grateful for ‘last hurrah’ with veteran teammates

FAU linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (2) celebrates a defensive stop during the Florida Atlantic University Owls spring scrimmage football game in Boca Raton, Florida on April 22, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — The good news for Florida Atlantic star linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, as he traverses the school’s Boca Raton campus, is that the rising senior is finally being recognized by some of his classmates.

The bad news, if one wants to call it that? Every conversation with Al-Shaair and other students includes them asking him the same question: What is Owls coach Lane Kiffin like?

“That’s the No. 1 question you’re gonna get!” a laughing Al-Shaair told The Post on Thursday.

Al-Shaair, Kiffin, and the rest of the 2017 Owls were honored at halftime of what turned out to be the FAU men’s basketball team’s 79-76 overtime loss to Rice. Al-Shaair and All-American running back Devin “Motor” Singletary (American Heritage) briefly spoke to fans, while wide receiver Kalib Woods gleefully held up the team’s Shula Bowl trophy.

As teammates posed for pictures after the ceremony, Al-Shaair spoke about how happy he was for the team to be recognized after an 11-3 campaign and a Boca Raton Bowl win over Akron. FAU had won a combined nine games from 2014-16 before Kiffin was hired in Dec. 2016. Several outgoing Owls players joined the team for one final reunion on Thursday night.

“Since I’ve been here as a freshman, those guys have been here, so this is like the last hurrah,” Al-Shaair said. “For a final, final last time and they’re going to build their lives. … It was good to see them.”

Given where FAU was only a year ago — not to mention Al-Shaair, who missed all of last year’s spring camp with a labrum injury — the senior linebacker said it was a different feeling to be part of a school-wide celebration like this.

“I think it was more so weird during the season as we were winning (because) it was a new feeling,” said Al-Shaair, who elected to return to FAU for his senior season rather than take a chance by declaring for April’s NFL draft. “Now, it’s something that we want to build the tradition for and the foundation has already been laid down. So if this was a year ago and we were talking about this, I think it’d be pretty weird.”

Al-Shaair and the Owls will begin spring practice on March 20, a 14-practice training camp which will feature visits to Ft. Lauderdale (April 7) and Miami (April 14).

Florida Atlantic stars Devin Singletary, Azeez Al-Shaair honored by Touchdown Club of Columbus

BOCA RATON — Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin has talked about wanting to turn the Owls into a “national program.” Two of Kiffin’s best players, at least for one night, helped the coach make some progress in his goal.

Star running back and reigning Conference USA MVP Devin Singletary (Delray-American Heritage) and linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, both of whom were first-team All-CUSA players this past season, were honored by the 63rd Touchdown Club of Columbus Awards as players to watch in 2018. Singletary led Division I with 32 rushing touchdowns and finished 80 yards shy of 2,000 as a true sophomore, while Al-Shaair finished third in the nation and led C-USA with 146 tackles.

“I would like to thank the Touchdown Club for inviting me to Columbus,” Singletary said through a university spokesperson. “I also want to thank them for labeling me as a player to watch in 2018.”

Singletary, who became the first Owls player in program history to be named an All-American, inspired a Heisman campaign throughout the season with his record-setting numbers. As FAU fans jumped on the #Motor4Hei5man movement, Singletary ran for more touchdowns in a single season than previous program leader Alfred Morris did from 2008-11. Morris had 27 touchdowns before becoming a sixth-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2012.

Al-Shaair, a former USA Today All-American Freshman in 2015, surpassed Frantz Joseph as the leading tackler in program history in the Boca Raton Bowl and announced immediately after the 50-3 win that he would return to FAU for his senior season.

Singletary joined Justice Hill (Oklahoma State), Benny Snell Jr. (Kentucky), Alexander Mattison (Boise State), David Montgomery (Iowa State) and Darrell Henderson (Memphis) as running backs who were honored. Al-Shaair was one of three defensive players honored alongside Nick Bosa (Ohio State) and Buffalo Bulls linebacker Khalil Hodge.

FAU Signing Day 2018: Five Takeaways from Lane Kiffin’s second recruiting class

BOCA RATON — Lane Kiffin’s first recruiting class at Florida Atlantic proved to be a hit, as the Owls won 11 games and a Conference USA title. Will his second class do as well?

A year after his first signing class included “Last Chance U” stars and former Power 5 players, Kiffin and FAU enjoyed another strong signing day this time around.

With the early signing period and the normal national signing day, Kiffin added nearly 20 players who will be expected to help FAU repeat as C-USA champions.

“Our thought was, let’s make sure that we keep ourselves available and spots open to be able to sign the best players that we can,” Kiffin said. “I think that model worked, we battled a lot of Power 5 schools on a lot of these kids and our coaches did a really good job.”

[RELATED: Updated list of FAU commitments and signings]

Five takeaways from FAU’s signing day:

1. Lane has his quarterback(s)

Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr (Dwyer) may be gone, but Kiffin now has two quarterbacks for the future in Chris Robison and Cordel Littlejohn. Robison still figures to be the favorite in spring camp, but the addition of Littlejohn – especially after redshirt junior De’Andre Johnson was cleared for action – adds an unexpected layer to the quarterback battle. Last year’s quarterback battle alone proved that the least-expected candidate (Parr won the job out of camp, only to lose it early in the season to Driskel) will have a chance to start under Kiffin so long as they perform to expectations.

“We bring quarterbacks in as true freshman and we give them a shot – I liked the Cordel story,” Kiffin said. “This was a school that (Illinois) had and one of those things where he  just becomes available … this is a dynamic player that can run, can throw, and a really special kid.”

2. No major flips

Signing day had plenty of last-minute choices and flips across the country, but nearly every recruit who had announced either a prior commitment to FAU or narrowed the Owls to their top three schools signed with the school Wednesday. FAU did get a surprise signing in Austin (Ala.) offensive lineman Marquice Robinson, who had interest from Auburn and Mississippi State before they shied away because of academic concerns.

Robinson has reportedly righted the ship and could be an interesting option to earn playing time in 2018 if he qualifies academically.

“I want a shot at playing in the NFL, and Coach Kiffin and his staff have a lot of experience at getting guys to that level,” Robinson told the Decatur Daily at his signing day ceremony.

3. Defensive line surprisingly earns heavy focus

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that Kiffin prioritized the defensive line when Hunter Snyder, Ernest Bagner, and Steven Leggett all will graduate after this season, but FAU added two JUCO defensive linemen in Charles Cameron (Copiah-Lincoln, Miss.) and Marcel Southall (Tyler, Texas). Given how Jeremiah Taleni – a proven starter at Pittsburgh who arrived as a grad trasfer – was the only transfer lineman to really contribute last season, Kiffin’s decision to stockpile talent with shortened eligibility in the trenches is a curious choice.

4. FAU quietly upgrades wide receivers

No wide receivers may have been among the players to sign with FAU on Wednesday, but former West Virginia wideout Jovan Durante and ex-Auburn Tiger Kyle Davis are both among the official signing class after transfers in the past six months. FAU also added JUCO wideout Nero Nelson (Copiah-Lincoln) and DeSean Homes (College of the Canyons) during the early signing period.

Kalib Woods and Kamrin Solomon may be gone, but Kiffin and new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. will have plenty of tools to play with at wide receiver – and don’t forget, catch/yards/touchdown leader Willie Wright is only entering his sophomore season.

5. Linebackers, secondary among positions left out

Not every position was going to be addressed, but the failure to add another linebacker was notable. Three-year starter Azeez Al-Shaair is entering his senior season and Rashad Smith is a rising junior. The same arguably goes for the secondary, where Armani Adams, Meiko Dotson and athlete-turned-cornerback Teja Young (Palm Beach Lakes) were the Owls’ only signings this year.

Signing Day 2018: Florida Atlantic has benefited from recent last-minute flips

Florida Atlantic Owls running back Devin Singletary (5) is congratulated by Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Lane Kiffin after a touchdown against the North Texas Mean Green at the 2017 Conference USA Football Championship at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Florida on December 2, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — For any Florida Atlantic fans concerned about how Lane Kiffin’s second signing day will go, one thing should ease your nerves.

In recent years, when signing day finally arrived, the Owls have had success convincing some of their main targets — some of whom have become the team’s top players — to flip at the last minute.

[RELATED: Check out FAU’s 2018 recruiting class as it currently stands]

For proof, look no further than running back Devin Singletary, who two years ago this month was all set to sign with Illinois. Singletary, then a two-star prospect by Rivals, was set to go to a Power 5 program led by former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith … until he flipped to FAU and then-Owls coach Charlie Partridge on signing day.

“It feels great to stay home,” Singletary told The Post after making his choice. “Why not? Why change my climate? I’ve been playing in this my whole life.”

Staying in his “climate” has paid off for Singletary, who after only two seasons is FAU’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 44 and counting. This past season, Singletary was also named the first All-American and first Conference USA MVP in school history.

FAU landed another key, Power 5-bound prospect via signing-day flip in that same recruiting class, when Homestead linebacker and three-star recruit Rashad Smith — all set to sign with Syracuse and then-new head coach Dino Babers — decided to stay in the Sunshine State by signing with the Owls. Smith had previously flipped from FAU to Syracuse the previous month before changing his mind on signing day.

One of only two freshmen to start a game on defense in 2016, Smith led the Owls with six sacks this past season and enters next month’s spring camp fully entrenched as one of two starting linebackers alongside Azeez Al-Shaair.

The flips weren’t limited to Partridge’s classes, though, as three-star wide receiver Willie Wright — originally headed for Memphis — signed with FAU last year. Wright became the first true freshman in FAU history to lead the team in catches (56), receiving yards (657) and receiving touchdowns (6).

FAU’s 2018 recruiting class will continue to take shape before Wednesday’s National Signing Day, but if recent history is any indication, some of the more productive freshman this upcoming season will have made a last-minute choice to play under Kiffin.

And if those players do flip, expect them to do so with a sentiment similar to what Singletary said two years ago.

“I know we’re going to be able to do a lot of great things,” the running back said. ‘This program is definitely about to explode very soon.”

Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic gain advantage as C-USA rivals lose key players

Florida Atlantic Owls senior running back Gregory Howell Jr. (9) breaks off a big run against Bethune Cookman Wildcats in Boca Raton, Florida on September 16, 2017. Howell is one of several key FAU players who will not be back in 2018. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — As Florida Atlantic head coach Lane Kiffin continues recruiting potential impact players to South Florida, the second-year Owls coach can take pleasure in one thing.

Unlike some of FAU’s Conference USA rivals, the Owls’ depth at positions of loss should keep Kiffin’s team in contention for a second consecutive conference title. After closing its first season under Kiffin on a 10-game winning streak and having earned top-25 votes in both the AP and Coaches Polls, FAU is losing over 20 players from its 2017 C-USA championship roster.

That’s not to say FAU isn’t losing any important players. Three of the Owls’ starting offensive linemen have exhausted their eligibility, as have running back Buddy Howell, wide receivers Kalib Woods and Kamrin Solomon, and defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni.

FAU will also have to address its quarterback situation, as 2017 starters Jason Driskel (retirement) and ex-Dwyer star Daniel Parr (transfer) are no longer on the roster. Former Oklahoma recruit Chris Robison is the likely front-runner in a quarterback battle that could also feature former Florida Mr. Football Award winner De’Andre Johnson.

However, Kiffin still returns a notable cast that includes All-American running back Devin Singletary (American Heritage), dynamic wide receiver Willie Wright, linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair and safety Jalen Young (Seminole Ridge). Singletary, Al-Shaair and Young were all captains in 2017 and each made the all-conference first team.

Two other first team all-conference players — offensive tackle Reggie Bain and cornerback Shelton Lewis — will each be back for their senior seasons. Second-team tight end Harrison Bryant also will look to build upon a strong sophomore season that saw him finish with five receiving touchdowns.

Some of FAU’s conference rivals will not be as fortunate. FAU’s eight C-USA opponents next year are losing a total of 13 players who made either the all-conference first or second team.

Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White is a potential NFL draft pick, joining tight end Deon Yelder and wide receiver Nacarius Fant among those leaving the Hilltoppers. In addition, junior first-team all-conference linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe declared early for the draft.

Marshall quarterback Chase Litton announced earlier this month that he too will declare early for the draft, meaning the Thundering Herd will have to replace both their three-year starting quarterback and their all-conference tight end Ryan Yurachek (47 catches and nine touchdowns). Rising junior Garet Morrell started two games for the Herd in 2016 and is the only quarterback on the roster to have thrown a pass at the FBS level.

When FIU hosts FAU in the Shula Bowl this November, the Golden Panthers will be without their three most dangerous offensive players. Quarterback Alex McGough, running back Alex Gardner and wide receiver Thomas Owens have all exhausted their eligibility.

North Texas loses senior running back Jeffery Wilson, though gunslinging quarterback and reigning C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Mason Fine will return for his junior season. Though Louisiana Tech loses all-conference senior cornerback Secdrick Cooper, Bulldogs defensive lineman Jaylon Ferguson decided against the NFL and will stay for his senior season.

The losses don’t only affect the teams FAU will face in conference play. When FAU starts its 2018 season in Norman, Oklahoma, the Owls won’t have to deal with 2017 Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, a projected first-round pick in April’s draft.

FAU will close non-conference play against self-proclaimed national champion Central Florida, which lost head coach Scott Frost to Nebraska. Five of the Knights’ nine all-conference first-teamers will not be on next year’s roster either due to graduation or early entry into the NFL Draft.