BOCA RATON, Fla. -- It's easy for college football fans to dismiss even the best players at a program such as Florida Atlantic, thinking that if they were really elite talents they would be playing in a power conference such as the Big Ten or SEC.
But having coached at programs in both those conferences, Owls first-year coach Charlie Partridge believes there is little separating his starting cornerbacks, D'Joun Smith and Cre'Von LeBlanc, from their counterparts at, say, two of his former schools, Wisconsin and Arkansas.
"They would certainly have significant playing time, if not starting, at the places I've been," Partridge said Sunday at FAU's Media Day.
Both Smith, a senior from Miami, and LeBlanc, a junior from Belle Glade, Florida, have credentials.
Smith was first-team All-Conference USA last year and now is widely considered the best corner in the league. LeBlanc drew interest from the likes of Miami (Fla.), Florida and Tennessee while in high school before off-field problems took him off their radar.
"D'Joun is an outstanding talent, and Cre'Von has had a good camp," Partridge said. "I have a lot of confidence in those guys."
FAU ranked 11th nationally in total defense last year, allowing 326.7 yards per game, and the pass defense had much to do with it as the Owls were second in passing yards allowed (161.5). Smith tied for third in interceptions with seven, three of which came in a 34-17 win against bowl-bound Tulane.
With three of the four starters in the secondary back this year -- strong safety Damian Parms also returns as the Owls prepare for their Aug. 30 opener at Nebraska -- Smith expects the Owls to be even better.
"We were young last year, we were playing free," he said. "Now the coaches are saying, 'You can play free, but you need to play with technique, because technique will carry you further than your talent will.' "
Smith (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) traced the big improvement he made from 2012 to 2013 to work he did in the offseason.
"My focus was much better than the year before," he said. "The whole summer I worked to perfect my craft, keep the negativity out and focus on the task at hand. The coaches were hard on me, and that was fine. If you're hard on me, you're going to get the best out of me."
After playing mostly man coverage last year, Smith said he welcomes a switch to a combination between man and zone.
"You can't be one-dimensional," he said. "If you want to be great, you can't just play man.
"Our coaches are very detailed. If you don't step the proper way, you see [anger] in their eyes. It forces you to focus."
While Smith is gifted physically, he is no more so than LeBlanc (5-11, 175), who made a spectacular interception in practice Saturday and vows that "if the ball is in the air, nine times out of 10 I'm coming down with it."
LeBlanc has a 38-inch vertical leap, which he attributes in part to his love of trampolines dating to eighth grade.
"When I go up, people are always saying, 'That guy can jump,' " LeBlanc said. "When the ball is in the air, either I'm getting it or nobody else is."
A proud product of the Glades Central program, he was expelled for what he calls "a couple mistakes" and had to finish at Crossroads Academy in Belle Glade.
Former FAU coach Carl Pelini gave him an opportunity and he started five games as a sophomore last year. This year, the job is his to lose. Now he looks up to Smith and sees him "like my big brother."
"I know teams are going to come my way now," LeBlanc said. "Coaches and players watch film, and [Smith] doing what he did last year means I'm going to get a lot of heat. I embrace it, so when the time comes I'll be ready for the challenge."