Former Dwyer star Gerald Hearns rising up FAU RB depth chart

Florida Atlantic running back and former Dwyer star Gerald Hearns carries the ball during running back drills on March 24, 2018. (Jake Elman / The Palm Beach Post)

BOCA RATON — At only 21 years of age, Florida Atlantic running back Gerald Hearns has already written books, spoken at events and is planning to run his own business when his football career ends.

But when Hearns isn’t mapping out his future, the fifth-year senior is trying to soak in what could potentially be his final season of football. Part of the fun comes from Hearns enjoying increased carries as a first-team replacement running back to start spring camp.

“One thing about me (is) I can control what I can control,” Hearns said. “Things that I can control (are) coming up here every day, watching extra film. I control calling my coach to ask him questions or (FAU offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr.) if I’m unsure about a certain blitz or a particular play. It’s my job to control going home and re-reading over my install, coming back (the) next day and focusing on the small details.”

Controlling the effort he puts into things is nothing new for Hearns, a former star running back at Dwyer High who earned local attention for receiving the Coach Frank D.B. DiCocco Memorial Scholarship in 2014 because of his leadership and individual success in school. After starting his collegiate career at Florida A&M, Hearns joined the Owls in August 2016 and redshirted during FAU’s 3-9 season.

Though Hearns was lower on the depth chart last season, the redshirt junior had 11 carries for 67 yards late in blowout victories. Buddy Howell’s graduation created a spot higher on the depth chart, allowing Hearns — a four-year starter in high school — to compete for more carries and opportunities.

Hearns has joined his teammates in picking up tips from running backs coach and former Detroit Lion Kevin Smith. While many of FAU’s other running backs rely on their speed to make plays, Hearns continues to work with Smith on elusiveness and agility.

“(We’re working) on getting in and out of my cuts, working on my elusiveness and awareness as to understanding the defensive fronts,” Hearns explained. “This year would be a great year for me to show that (and) what I worked on in the offseason.”

Rising junior and 2017 Conference USA MVP Devin Singletary (American Heritage-Delray) called Hearns “amazing” and praised his teammate’s effort to earn more snaps.

“I take notes from him as far as the way he works,” said Singletary, whose Stallions played Hearns’ Panthers in high school. “He never takes any days off, on or off the field.”

Defense vs. offense: Lane Kiffin and the Owls ended practice with an interesting personnel change, as Singletary played linebacker and safety Jalen Young (Seminole Ridge) took snaps at quarterback in a five-on-five showdown. Known more for his speed and ability to score touchdowns, Singletary showed impressive strength with a hard hit on safety James Pierre.

“I played (defense) growing up since Little League, so it was fun to get back on defense,” said Singletary. “I kinda miss it. … I probably surprised a few people.”

When Kiffin and coaches looked for a quarterback, there was no hesitation in Young’s mind that he would be the man for the job. Young played quarterback for the Hawks in high school and enjoyed his brief return to the position.

“Just to play it for one play, it was awesome,” Young said, “I had a great time.”

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.

Florida Atlantic offers preferred walk-on spot to Dywer star Dalton Hustad

In what has otherwise been a quiet recruiting season locally, Florida Atlantic has offered Dwyer defensive end/linebacker Dalton Hustad a chance to play for the Owls as a preferred walk-on.

“I can’t let my opportunity of playing for FAU pass me up,” Hustad told The Post in a Twitter message, adding that he will announce his commitment prior to Wednesday’s signing day.

Hustad (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) was named to The Post’s Fall 2017 All-Conference Team for Division 7A last month after recording 13 sacks, four forced fumbles, seven fumbles recovered and 14 tackles for losses this past season. Hustad also played in last month’s Palm Beach County All-Star Game.

If Hustad signs with FAU, he will be one of likely a small handful of local players to commit to play for Lane Kiffin this year. Under previous head coach Charlie Partridge, FAU stressed the importance of recruiting in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. FAU had 16 players from Palm Beach County on last season’s Conference USA-winning team and 49 total from those three counties.

Three of FAU’s seven first-team all-conference players this past season were from Palm Beach County schools, with former American Heritage running back Devin Singletary leading Division I with 32 rushing touchdowns. Seminole Ridge graduates Antonyo Woods, Roman Fernandez and Jalen Young were all named to the first team as well.

Only one Palm Beach County player, Palm Beach Lakes athlete Teja Young, has committed to the Owls at this time. Young told The Post last month that he will play defensive back and return kicks at FAU.

FAU has awarded several walk-ons with scholarships in past years, with another defensive end — the recently graduated Haiden Nagel — earning one before the start of his redshirt junior season in 2016.

“[Earning a scholarship is] what I am aiming for by working hard and proving myself — just like at Dwyer,” Hustad wrote.

 

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.