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.

Florida Atlantic Owls begin second spring camp under Lane Kiffin

FAU head coach Lane Kiffin at practice in Boca Raton, Florida on March 23, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — The Lane Train — and all that entails — has left the station for its second trip around the college football world.

Fresh off an 11-3 season which featured a Conference USA title and a Boca Bowl victory over Akron, Lane Kiffin and the Florida Atlantic Owls hit the Oxley Center fields Tuesday morning for one of 15 spring-camp practices.

“I thought the defense had a good day today … good leadership by those guys,” Kiffin said. “Lot of veterans coming back … Same issue (on offense) as a year ago, even though (there are) different players. We had a snap issue much like we did a year ago. Too many turnovers.”

Even with the turnovers, the start of spring camp marked a return to action for an FAU offense that averaged over 40 points per game last year. Former Florida State and “Last Chance U” quarterback De’Andre Johnson was a full participant in his first practice since undergoing surgery for blood clots in his arm last September.

Kiffin told his players early to avoid the “rat poison” and positive talk which came from the Owls’ first winning record since 2008 and first-ever C-USA title.

“(At) 7:45 this morning, we made sure we understood that this was a different team,” Kiffin said, adding he reminded his players their current record is 0-0. “(This has) nothing to do with what that team did. … (That was a) very special season, but that means nothing — like a preseason ranking.”

Kiffin drew from his past experience as a head coach to motivate his players, explaining that his 2012 USC Trojans were No. 1 in the AP preseason polls, but “ended up out of the rankings.”

All-American running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Devin “Motor” Singletary (American Heritage-Delray) was among the players who took Kiffin’s words to heart.

“It was good. Everything that we did, of course, that’s gonna be remembered forever,” Singletary said, pausing. “But it’s 2018! We gotta make a new name for ourselves.”

QB battle: With Chris Robison suspended indefinitely, Johnson took roughly 75 percent of the snaps on Tuesday. Kiffin indicated Robison could be back at any time, but the starting job is Johnson’s for the time being. Former walk-on and Cypress Bay quarterback Conor Miller is the backup until Robison returns.

Hold the line: Joining returning tackles Reggie Bain and Brandon Walton on the offensive line were guards BJ Etienne and Will Tuihalamaka and center Tarrick Thomas. Thomas primarily served as the backup center last season after starting four games in 2016 before suffering a season-ending injury.

Whyte in: Redshirt-junior running back Kerrith Whyte (Seminole Ridge) was a full participant in practice on Tuesday. Whyte was in a boot this winter for an Achilles injury.

Cameron impresses: JUCO transfer defensive tackle Charles Cameron showed no signs of struggling to adjust to the Division I level, blowing past offensive linemen without any issues. Cameron is the only player who signed with the Owls during the inaugural early signing period who is participating in camp this spring.

“He made a lot of plays out there,” Kiffin said of Cameron. “There’s no pads, but he was in the backfield.”

Five storylines to watch as Lane Kiffin, Florida Atlantic begin spring camp

FAU players celebrate 41-17 win over 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 — All aboard the Lane Kiffin Train for its second round, something likely no one saw coming when the well-traveled head coach arrived at Florida Atlantic in Dec. 2016.

Kiffin and FAU pulled off the improbable in 2017, winning their final 10 games after starting 1-3 to complete their first winning season since 2008. FAU posted its first winning record in Conference USA since entering the league in 2013 and dominated its opponents en route to not only winning the conference, but also its first bowl game since 2008.

Now, the pressure is on Kiffin — who verbally agreed to a six-year contract extension in December — and the Owls to replicate last year’s success. The challenge begins with the Owls’ second spring camp under Kiffin, which starts Tuesday at the Oxley Center.

Here are five storylines to watch as FAU begins its title defense.

1. Big-name quarterback battle: Kiffin promised a quarterback competition not even an hour after FAU’s 50-3 Boca Bowl win over Akron on Dec. 19, but the pieces and circumstances have changed quite a bit since then. Last season’s starter, Jason Driskel, has retired to focus on school and Daniel Parr (Dwyer) transferred to Duquesne, but “Last Chance U” star and former Florida State recruit De’Andre Johnson returns from blood clots which sidelined him for nearly all of 2017. Competing with Johnson is ex-Oklahoma recruit Chris Robison, who transferred to the Owls last August after violating team rules. Even if Kiffin doesn’t name a true starter by the end of spring camp, this year’s battle will have plenty of star power attached.

2. Will Devin Singletary’s workload be limited? Singletary ran for 1,920 yards and an FBS-best 32 touchdowns in his first year as the Owls’ primary running back, but lost in his success was the junior-to-be leading Division I with 301 carries. Singletary was adamant last season that he could keep working as much as the coaches needed him to, but Kiffin may want to ease his All-American back into action this spring. Without their Motor, the Lane Train only runs so far.

3. Can Charles Cameron transition from JUCO? Three-star defensive tackle Charles Cameron (Copiah-Lincoln C.C.) is the only player who signed during the inaugural Early Signing Period in December that will be in camp this spring. Other players who transferred from junior colleges, including defensive linemen Ernest Bagner and Tim Bonner, were open about their own troubles adjusting to Division I. Cameron, who could earn first-team reps following Jeremiah Taleni’s graduation, will try to avoid those same struggles.

4. Finding blockers may not be easy: FAU was already losing All-Conference USA center Antonyo Woods, left guard Roman Fernandez and starting right guard Jakobi Smith to graduation, but finding their replacements is becoming tougher by the day. Rising junior Jack Breshears retired due to a nagging shoulder injury and versatile backup Matt Murphy took a job with the athletic department. Former walk-on and Suncoast alum Matt Weiner’s status is uncertain after tearing his ACL last August.

There is good news for Kiffin and new offensive-line coach John Garrison, however: All-CUSA tackle Reggie Bain and Brandon Walton will both return for their senior and junior seasons, respectively.

5. Who’s really calling the shots? Kiffin hired Charlie Weis Jr., 24, to be the offensive coordinator of a team that averaged over 40 points per game last year. Kiffin allowed Kendal Briles to run the offense last year while the first-year Owls coach took more of a hands-on role with both the offense and defense for the first time in his career. Will Kiffin aim for the same balance with the baby-faced Weis, who isn’t much older than the team’s longest-tenured players?

[DeAndre McNeal headlines Florida Atlantic offensive players to watch this spring]

[“Last Chance U” star Tim Bonner leads FAU defenders to watch in spring]

[Former Auburn wide receiver Kyle Davis will get second chance at FAU]

[Ex-West Virginia WR Jovon Durante expected to make waves at FAU this spring]

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.

New FAU defensive tackle Charles Cameron brings brute force, power

BOCA RATON — When defensive tackle Charles Cameron arrived in Florida from Mississippi last month, the three-star recruit immediately knew what topic was off-limits.

“I came from Copiah-Lincoln and we played East Mississippi one time,” Cameron said, referring to the junior college that currently fields two FAU players and tight ends coach Clint Trickett. “That was the time we beat them, but I ain’t gonna bring that up to them.”

Cameron, 21, was one of five players to sign during the inaugural early signing period on Dec. 20 and has already reported to FAU for workouts. Trickett, then the Lions’ quarterbacks coach in a loss to his future player, was instrumental in recruiting Cameron to Boca Raton.

The 13th-ranked defensive tackle in this year’s JUCO recruiting class by 247.com, Cameron (6-3, 305 pounds as officially listed by FAU) had ten sacks and 54 tackles over the past two seasons for the Wolfpack. With starting defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni having exhausted all years of eligibility, Cameron could potentially work his way into first-team reps during spring practice.

“Hopefully, I can bring leadership and be a big impact on the defensive line,” Cameron said. “(Showing the) defense can hold up, that motivates me.”

Owls coach Lane Kiffin said on Signing Day that Cameron has already impressed in the team’s conditioning program.

“We were able to watch him work out and like a lot of kids (who come in), it’s a change from junior college,” Kiffin said. “It looks like he’s done a good job of staying in shape, fit right in there, and it’ll be exciting to get him in the mix.”

FAU has had strong results with two recent defensive line transfers. Taleni finished second on the Owls with five sacks after arriving in August following a transfer from the University of Pittsburgh, while Brandin Bryant — who spent a year at Fort Scott Community College (Kan.) in 2011 — tallied 9.5 sacks and 25 tackles for loss from 2012-15, earning stints with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets.

Copiah-Lincoln teammate Tre’Veon “Nero” Nelson, a three-star wide receiver and the No. 2 JUCO wideout in this year’s class, also signed with FAU in December and will arrive in the spring. Kiffin did something similar in his first recruiting class, signing EMCC teammates quarterback De’Andre Johnson and defensive end Tim Bonner.

Cameron said he enjoyed Kiffin’s infamous Twitter antics and was excited to play under the veteran head coach.

“He’s a really nice coach, real cool,” Cameron said. “(There were) no problems with the coaches.”

Cameron and FAU will begin practicing on March 20 in a spring camp which also features visits to Ft. Lauderdale (April 7) and Miami (April 14).

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.

Lane Kiffin’s second recruiting class at FAU taking shape

Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Lane Kiffin at the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Florida on December 19, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

With just over a week until signing day, Lane Kiffin’s second recruiting class at Florida Atlantic has shades of his first class.

As of Tuesday morning, Kiffin has 16 players who have either signed a letter of intent or announced their commitment to FAU. Per 247 Sports, 10 of those players (247 has 12 listed) are three-star recruits. 247 gives the Owls’ 2017 class a current overall grade of 83.51, higher than last year’s 82.

The Orlando Sentinel first reported Longwood-Lyman defensive back Deon Woods’ commitment last week. FAUOwlAccess.com wrote on Tuesday morning that Tulane center Junior Diaz will be signing with FAU as a graduate transfer, while safety Armani Adams (St. Petersburg-Lakewood) has not publicly announced his commitment, but did confirm his intention with The Post earlier this month.

Former Auburn wide receiver Kyle Davis transferred to FAU and already is enrolled in classes for the spring semester. Davis was a four-star recruit in 2016 who caught 19 passes in two years before being dismissed from the program in October.

The Owls will also likely list quarterback Chris Robison (Oklahoma) and wide receiver Jovan Durante (West Virginia) among their 2018 signees, despite the two having been with the team since last August. Robison is the likely front-runner for the Owls’ starting quarterback job after Jason Driskel’s retirement and ex-Dwyer star Daniel Parr’s transfer to Duquesne University.

Palm Beach Lakes star Teja Young is one of the more notable commits so far, though he is the only Palm Beach County player at this point to commit to FAU for next year. Three-star quarterback Cordel Litlejohn (Roswell, Ga.) announced his commitment on Sunday, days after two in-state prospects, offensive lineman Doug Johnson (Fort White) and running back Malcolm Davidson (Osceola), did the same. Both Johnson and Davidson are listed as three-star recruits.

Landing top recruits at FAU has become a slightly easier task for Kiffin after leading the Owls to an 11-3 finish in his first season. Even after three straight 3-9 seasons from 2014-16 under previous coach Charlie Partridge, Kiffin had what many recruiting services called Conference USA’s best signing class last season.

“It’s always easier for (recruits) to buy into something that has proof,” Kiffin said late last season. “When you first get to a place, you’ve gotta say, ‘Well, OK, here’s what we did with Reggie Bush or these people and here’s all these records,’ and then people have to believe that to come.”

Kiffin landed five players in the first-ever early-signing period in December, three of whom came from junior colleges. Kiffin reached out to the junior college ranks for several of his 2017 signees, leading to him joking that FAU was becoming “Last Strike U” in reference to JUCO powerhouse East Mississippi. Ex-EMCC stars De’Andre Johnson and Tim Bonner will return for their second seasons in Boca Raton, though a third former Lion — quarterback/wide receiver John Franklin III — has exhausted his eligibility.

Defensive tackle Charles Cameron (Copiah-Lincoln, Miss.) is the only early commit to have enrolled on campus for the spring semester. Cameron will practice in spring camp before being joined this summer by three-star wide receiver and former teammate Nero Nelson.

Nelson will compete for snaps against another JUCO transfer in DeSean Holmes (College of the Canyons, Calif.), a former USC commit for Kiffin as the Trojans’ head coach in 2013. When Kiffin was infamously fired on an airport tarmac by USC athletic director Pat Haden that September, the school’s hiring of Steve Sarkisian led Holmes to de-commit.

“When [Kiffin] left and I went down to USC the next year to meet the new coaching staff, I didn’t get the same feeling I did with Kiffin,” Holmes told The Post by phone earlier this month.

National signing day is set for Feb. 7. Kiffin is expected to speak to the media that day for the first time since FAU’s 50-3 win over Akron in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 19.