FAU's defense is a creampuff, a C-USA also-ran, the football equivalent of a slumber-party pillow fight.
Just don't say it within earshot of senior inside linebacker Andrae Kirk, the Owls' most seasoned defender on a defense that was scorched to the tune of 784 total yards in their first contest of the season against Nebraska. He may not be big, bug he hits like a freight train, and after a rough first week he is ready for redemption.
Who in the heck is Andrae Kirk?
The 6'2", 225 pound linebacker out of former Florida 6A Champion Miami Central High School has the skills to create problems for the Alabama running game and a still-growing passing attack. With a smallish frame, explosive speed for the position and a penchant for banging opposing running backs in the middle of the field, Kirk' strengths will play right into Bama's likely run-heavy game plan against the Owls.
Kirk combines speed and physicality with an aggressive nature, head-hunting over the middle when opportunities present themselves. Despite his viciousness in defending against the run, Kirk is also adept in pass defense, as his lighter frame gives him the ability to drop into coverage in FAU's preferred 4-3 scheme.
Bama fans would liken Kirk to a freshman C.J. Mosley: a heady but ill-intentioned sideline-to-sideline player. Kirk is a little smaller than Mosley, a size more akin to that of an SEC safety. But that lack of bulk pays dividends for the linebacker in regards to speed and closing ability, and his conditioning is good enough to allow him to be a persistent irritant to the Tide offense deep into the fourth quarter.
After a shelling at Nebraska, Kirk and his fellow Owl defenders feel they have something to prove against heavy-favorite Alabama on Saturday.
"I want to redeem myself," Kirk said. "I felt like I didn't play up to my potential last Saturday. For the team, I feel like we've got something to prove. We went out there and we played bad. This is a great opportunity for us to show our skills and talent and show how much we care for each other."
Despite his admitted struggles in the opener against the Huskers, Kirk led the defense with four assisted tackles and five tackles with one pass defended. If Kirk can improve on his previous outing, he may be just what the Owls need to disrupt the interior of Bama's pro-style offense.
Kirk (who wears number 45) had a fantastic 2013 for the Owls, a campaign that ended with Kirk being named the team's defensive MVP. He had impressive numbers for a team that struggled the way FAU did last season, posting 84 tackles with a sack and an interception in 2013. He played in every game in 2013 and because of his leadership abilities, he became the Owls' first ever underclassman named team captain.
Kirk's size and speed make him ideally suited to defending against the en vogue HUNH style of offense, as evidenced by his play against Auburn last season. Though AU won the game handily, Kirk had 12 tackles in the game, one of three (the others being Tulane and Middle Tennessee State) in which the then-junior recorded double-digit tackle numbers.
Kirk originally broke into the line-up as a starter as a freshman in 2011 after seeing playing time versus Florida in that year's season opener. Kirk has been an every down linebacker since then, giving scouts at the next level reason to take notice. Currently, Kirk is rated by many as the 23rd ranked ILB prospect in the 2015 NFL Draft.
After garnering second team All-Conference USA honors in 2013, Kirk has already been tapped for 2014's Lombardi Watch List.
What We Can Expect From Andrae Kirk in the Bama Game
If Kirk is a man of his word, then Bama tailbacks and slot receivers should be ready for an angry hornet's nest of a defense when game time rolls around. Kirk could be the true stinger in the group, as he is one of few Owl defenders who could make an SEC roster. If he does indeed improve on his nine tackle performance against Nebraska, it could create problems as Bama's offensive line continues to gel and develop rhythm.
While not known as a pass rusher, Kirk has been known to step inside on blitz packages and come late from the outside in much the same way that Alabama has used former safety Vinnie Sunseri in the past. Alabama has struggled over the last year with small pass rushers with elite speed, so if the Owls elect to use Kirk in that capacity, there could be opportunities for leverage in the passing game.
But Kirk will need help if he's going to stop the Bama running attack of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. At 225 pounds, Henry outweighs him by 20 pounds. To that end, Kirk said this week in interviews that in preparation for Alabama, FAU had its tight ends run the ball in defensive drills to get the Owl defense accustomed to handling Bama's size in the offensive back field. Regardless of how tough and talented Kirk may be, he will likely find it hard to tackle Henry and Yeldon in space or in one-on-one situations, as the power differential is probably too great for the linebacker to overcome.
Kirk isn't the best linebacker the Tide will face this season, but he's definitely not the worst. An under-sized, overachieving defender with great leadership ability, Kirk deserves the respect of the Alabama offense, regardless of the overall struggles of the owl defense.
(Note: While Kirk is formidable in his own right, the true best defender on the Owl roster is D'Joun Smith, a cornerback with legitimate NFL prospect cover skills. Last year, for example, Smith was nationally ranked in passes defensed with 20. FAU has a solid defensive back field, and Smith would have been the key piece. However, a shoulder injury against Nebraska in the opener will keep him out of action for the Bama game. Smith is listed as day-to-day, but as of Wednesday evening, he had not participated in practice and is presumed unavailable for Saturday's game.)