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]

Florida Atlantic officially announces Lane Kiffin’s 2018 coaching staff

Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Lane Kiffin holds up 10 fingers as fans cheer 10 more years. Kiffin agreed to a contract extension before the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Florida on December 19, 2017. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — Lane Kiffin’s second coaching staff at Florida Atlantic will look slightly different than the one that helped bring about the program’s first Conference USA title last season.

Though several hires had already been reported by various outlets, FAU on Tuesday confirmed that Atlanta Falcons assistant Charlie Weis Jr. is officially replacing Kendal Briles as the Owls offensive coordinator, while former Alabama assistant Wes Neighbors will coach the safeties.

Former UNLV offensive-line coach John Garrison will man the same position at FAU, replacing Garin Justice, who left after the Owls’ Dec. 19 Boca Raton Bowl win over Akron to take the same job at Arizona under former coach Rich Rodriguez. When Rodriguez was fired earlier this month, Justice was not retained by new Wildcats coach Kevin Sumlin and, ironically, will replace Garrison as the Rebels’ offensive-line coach.

FAU also announced two promotions, with player-development assistant Jaron Fairman now set to coach special teams. Fairman — who was hired by Kiffin before the latter’s final season at USC at 2013 and joined him in Boca Raton last spring — and Neighbors will replace Corey Batoon, who held both positions last year before being hired as Hawaii’s defensive coordinator last month. Strength and conditioning coach Wilson Love, who quickly became a fan favorite with his signature barks and shouts at practice, has been named assistant head football coach as well.

Kiffin does not normally make assistant coaches available to the media and did not make a statement on the hirings. When asked about Weis Jr. in a recent interview with Bleacher Report, Kiffin compared hiring the 24-year-old to former USC coach Pete Carroll giving him coach a job when he was just 27.

“I know for a fact [Falcons coach] Dan [Quinn] wasn’t happy losing him,” one NFC scout told Bleacher Report’s Matt Hayes. “You won’t talk to one person who has a bad thing to say about Charlie. He’s going to be a star in this business. Lane is way ahead of the curve on this.”

All other staffers from last season are still on the roster at this time. Lane’s younger brother Chris will continue to serve as the team’s defensive coordinator and their father, soon-to-be 78-year-old Monte Kiffin, will likely stay in the same role as a pro liaison/adviser. Former Florida State/West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett (tight ends), Eric Matheis (defensive line), Kevin Smith (running backs) and Keynodo Hudon (cornerbacks) will all return as well.

Kiffin is expected to comment on the coaching hires, as well as his 2018 recruiting class, in a Signing Day press conference on Feb. 7.