Trying to hold it together

FAU linebacker Shomari Earls, one of the team's few seniors, is being counted on to provide leadership this fall


By Ted Hutton
Staff Writer
Posted August 25 2005

 

BOCA RATON Shomari Earls remembers how the cold penetrated into his bones.

He was standing on the sidelines as Connecticut was embarrassing Florida Atlantic on a freezing November day in Storrs.

"It was like some nightmare," Earls said. "We got beat something like 60-3, and I will never forget how that felt."

Earls was a freshman in 2002 when Connecticut beat FAU 61-14 with the temperature in the 20s by the end of the game, leaving the Owls frozen and 0-8.

Earls is a senior now and one of a handful of Owls who shivered through that annihilation. But Earls makes sure the new players know about that game and how bad it felt.

"They all hear it. We make sure they know. We aren't going to let that happen again," said Earls, a middle linebacker.

The game proved to be a turning point in FAU's short history. The Owls went on to win two of their last three games that season, their second, to finish 2-9, and are 22-7 since the loss, going 11-3 in 2003 and 9-3 last season.

But echoes of 2002 are bouncing around the Tom Oxley Athletic Center as FAU begins its fifth season, since FAU lost the 26 seniors responsible for much of that success. The Owls have gone from one of the most experienced teams in the nation to one of the youngest.

Several publications have FAU ranked 119th out of the 119 Division I-A schools. Combine that with its first schedule against all Division I teams, including Oklahoma State, Minnesota, Kansas and Louisville, and envisioning several Connecticut-like outcomes is not a stretch.

FAU coaches are looking to Earls to help avoid that.

"He played behind those seniors and didn't have to be a leader," linebacker coach Kurt Van Valkenburgh said. "Now he needs to take command."

"Shomari has to rise to the occasion, go to another level," defensive coordinator Kirk Hoza said.

"I am looking forward to it," Earls said of his new responsibilities. "I am ready to step up and hold the torch."

Earls has developed physically -- he weighed 202 as a freshman and is now 250 while his height has stayed at 6 feet 2 -- and after being moved from outside to middle linebacker last season ,led the team with 81 tackles.

Earls' progress has been steady. He played in seven games as a true freshman and had eight tackles. In 2003 he appeared in all 14 games and had 41 tackles, before moving into the starting role last year.

"When Shomari shows up at the point of attack, it isn't a subtle arrival," Hoza said.

But missing this season are Chris Laskowski and Tyrone Higgins, the four-year starters at linebacker who are No. 1 and No. 2 on the career tackles list and played on either side of Earls last year.

While they are gone, Earls said their spirit is with the team.

"They laid down the foundation. Everyone here knows that we lay it on the line. We always play against bigger schools that have been playing football for a hundred years and we shock them," Earls said.

That is the message he was sending to the young players in preseason camp. "They're ready. We're going to be like crazed dogs let out of a cage," Earls said.

He's a natural-born leader out there," said Cergile Sincere, a sophomore who is expected to start at outside linebacker.

Earls has had to be a fast learner. He didn't play tackle football until he was a freshman at Palm Beach Gardens.

 

"My mom didn't want me to play before that," said Earls, who played in the street and in a flag-football league when he was a youngster.

Earls father, Greg, had played in high school and college, but "Dad had to agree with her. He was in the middle," Shomari said.

"He was exposed to the game [before high school]," said Greg Earls, whose Southwest Atlanta High School team won the Georgia state championship in 1973. But Greg Earls deferred to his wife. "She has been the backbone of the family," Greg Earls said.

Shomari Earls made quick progress, starting as a sophomore. By the time he was a senior, Iowa State, Rutgers, Illinois State and FAU were recruiting him.

Greg Earls admits to giving his input to his son. "He didn't know who [FAU coach] Howard Schnellenberger was. But I did. My basic message was winners attract winners,'' he said.

"I've been a pretty tough parent and would have understood if he wanted to get far away. But he picked FAU, and I think it's worked out just fine."

Earls is the second oldest of six children. His older brother did not play football and is now with the Navy and stationed in California. Earls has four sisters, the youngest still in elementary school.

"We don't condone any sort of foolishness in this house.'' Greg Earls said. "I've been blessed to have a son like Shomari. He's excelled in school and in football and never been in trouble."

Greg Earls likes Schnellenberger because he believes he is a kindred spirit. "We're both old school," Greg Earls said.

And Schnellenberger likes Greg Earls' son.

"I think he is going to be a great player for us this season and be a great leader," Schnellenberger said.

Ted Hutton can be reached at thutton@sun-sentinel.com