Editor's note: This is part of the countdown to kickoff series leading up to Aug. 28. Next up: MAC preview
Corey Small knows all about growing pains.
The senior cornerback is coming off his best season at Florida Atlantic with 103 tackles and five interceptions, but things didn't start out that way.
|Tavious Polo recorded seven interceptions as a freshman last season. (Ralph Notaro/FAU)|
"You can imagine losing all those games, and being so young, it humbled you and changed your ego after coming out of high school," said Small.
But with players getting older and buying into coach Howard Schnellenberger's philosophy, Small knew good things were coming.
"Coach Schnellenberger had us convinced," said Small. "It took a little while; I knew we had to go through some hard seasons. First 2-9, then 5-6 and then the success last year. We knew we could do it. Last season the offense started rolling and all the chips fell into place. Basically all the hard work paid off."
The Owls finally had the breakout season they had been preparing for. They beat Minnesota 42-39, giving them their first victory over a Big Ten squad, and hung with an undefeated South Florida before losing late. They then beat Troy on the road in the final game of the season, clinching the conference title and earning a spot in the New Orleans Bowl.
|QB||Rusty Smith||Jr.||Florida Atlantic|
|RB||Reggie Arnold||Jr.||Arkansas State|
|WR||Casey Fitzgerald||Sr.||North Texas|
|WR||Cortez Gent||Jr.||Florida Atlantic|
|OL||Matt Mandich||Sr.||Arkansas State|
|OL||Brad Serini||So.||Florida International|
|OL||Kelvin Drake||Jr.||North Texas|
|DL||Alex Carrington||Jr.||Arkansas State|
|DL||Jervonte Jackson||Sr.||Florida Atlantic|
|DL||Joseph Miller||Sr.||North Texas|
|LB||Frantz Joseph||Sr.||Florida Atlantic|
|LB||Ben Owens||Sr.||Arkansas State|
|DB||Tavious Polo||So.||Florida Atlantic|
|DB||Alex Suber||Sr.||Middle Tennessee|
|DB||Corey Small||Sr.||Florida Atlantic|
|Ret||Di'Ivory Edgecomb||Sr.||Florida Atlantic|
FAU then really put the program on the map with a 44-27 victory over Memphis in the bowl game. Small received the game ball on defense for his excellent play against a strong receiving corps.
But Small has been more to FAU than just an all-conference cornerback. He has used his experience and wisdom to help others on the team, especially fellow corner Tavious Polo.
"He's like my brother," Polo said of Small. "Anything I need to know, he'll tell me, on and off the field.
"Especially since coming out of high school I played wide receiver, I really didn't know anything about cornerback. I learned from good coaching and anything I needed to know I asked Corey and he told me. He told me from day one -- 'I'm not going to sugarcoat anything, if you want to know anything, I'll let you know.'"
Small made an immediate influence on Polo as the 5-foot-10 corner had a team-high seven interceptions, giving the Owls the nation's leading corner duo with 12 interceptions.
"Polo's a real good guy," said Small. "He's younger, but he's always ready to listen. On and off the field he's like my little brother. He came out of nowhere as a freshman asking questions all the time and next thing you know he's a freshman All-American."
That's just the type of teamwork and close-knit bond that has helped turn the Owls from cellar-dwellers to the class of the Sun Belt Conference.
And now with 10 starters back on offense and eight on defense -- anchored by an excellent secondary -- FAU is favored to win the conference again and looking to take that next step in becoming a big-time program.
Things start off with a bang as the Owls play at Texas to open the season on Aug. 30. It will also travel to Michigan State (Sept. 13) and Minnesota (Sept. 20) before jumping into conference play.
"We're stacked and have depth at every position," added Polo. "Everybody is grown and knows the ins and outs. We are all hungry for back-to-back. We want to do everything that any other team wants -- get to that big bowl game."
Offensive Player of the Year
Rusty Smith, Florida Atlantic: The honors keep piling up for the junior quarterback. After winning the Sun Belt Player of the Year award last season, Smith is one of 31 players on the O'Brien Award Watch List. He threw for 3,688 yards and 32 touchdowns last season, including five touchdowns in the victory over Memphis in the New Orleans Bowl. He also ranked 29th in the nation in total offense and 21st in passing efficiency.
Defensive Player of the Year
Frantz Joseph, Florida Atlantic: After a successful '07, the linebacker is primed for another huge season. Joseph recorded 131 tackles, including 12.5 for a loss last season. He hit double-digits in tackles seven times, including 10 against Memphis in the bowl game. Joseph has already been named to the Butkus and Lombardi preseason watch lists and also earned Sun Belt Conference Preseason Player of the Year recognition.
Predicted order of finish
1. Florida Atlantic: Anything less than a conference title would be a disappointment for the Owls. FAU is loaded on both sides of the ball, returning 18 starters. The Owls will have all-conference performers all over the place, including both the CBSSports.com offensive and defensive player of the year. Keep your eye on Cortez Gent, who should improve on last year's 64-catch, 1,069-yard season and will be one of the top wide receivers in the south.
2. Louisiana-Monroe: The Warhawks are coming off their best season since 1994, winning six games, highlighted by a 21-14 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. And with 19 starters back on offense and defense, look for them to battle for the conference crown. The secondary will be strong with Greg James returning and ex-LSU corner Troy Giddens joining the squad. On offense, QB Kinsmon Lancaster is back for his senior season and Zeek Zacharie (486 yards, 6 TDs) returns as the conference's best TE.
|2008 Conference Previews|
|Mountain West||Big 12|
3. Troy: With the departure of two-time Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Omar Haugabook, the Trojans will turn their attention to sophomore Jamie Hampton, who threw only 11 passes last season. It won't be an easy transition because the team's top running back and receivers are gone too. The defense should be strong with seven starters back, including linebacker Boris Lee (82 tackles), who will challenge for Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year honors.
4. Arkansas State: The Red Wolves should be solid on offense with the return of All-Conference running back Reggie Arnold (1,060 yards, 6.5 average) and junior quarterback Corey Leonard (2,872 yards of total offense), but will have to replace four starters in the secondary, which could mean trouble. Arkansas State might just able to start the season at 3-1, with three of its first four games in Jonesboro.
5. Louisiana-Lafayette: The rushing attack will be the strongest in the Sun Belt with quarterback Michael Desormeaux (1,141 yards rushing) and Tyrell Fenroy (1,021 yards rushing) returning. The biggest question will be, can the Ragin Cajuns stop the run? The defense allowed 228 yards per game on the ground and 35.8 points per game last year. All three starting linebackers return, including seniors Brent Burkhalter and Antwyne Zanders.
6. Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders could be the sleeper of the conference with the return of quarterback Dwight Dasher. He was a freshman All-American honorable mention after leading the team with 530 yards rushing and 1,148 yards passing. If the offensive line holds up, Dasher could really blossom. Expect slotback Desmond Gee (382 yards receiving and 162 yards rushing) to see more action. Defensive back Alex Suber anchors the defense.
7. North Texas: First the good -- former walk-on Casey Fitzgerald returns as the best receiver in the conference, catching 1,322 yards and 12 TDs last season. QB Giovanni Vizza is also back, giving North Texas a fantastic QB-to-WR combo. But here is the real problem -- the Mean Green finished last in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 45.1 points per game. The defense must get better in a hurry or the Mean Green are in for another long season.
8. Florida International: The Golden Panthers have a lot of work to do after winning just one game in two seasons, but Mario Cristobal's squad should see some improvement with nine starters back on offense and a new offensive coordinator in Bill Legg (Purdue). Sophomore Paul Younger (9 TDs, 17 INTs) guides the offense, which also returns running backs A'mod Ned and Julian Reams (2,322 yards combined in three seasons). LB Scott Bryant is back after recording 91 tackles.