Jonnu Smith’s buoyant attitude and consistent play as a freshman tight end stood out starkly from the rest of a depressing 2013 season for FIU’s offense.
But with team and personal improvement highly probable, something seemed off about Smith as August practice began.
“Training camp, he was really pressing,” coach Ron Turner said. “I could see it. He’s trying to be perfect. He wouldn’t even smile. He’s usually smiling all the time. I said, ‘Jonnu, relax.’”
Smith said, “I didn’t want to let my team down. I didn’t feel I needed to carry the team or anything. I just felt I had a role. And I just wanted to make sure I completed my role.”
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Turner said both he and tight ends coach Kort Shankweiler had long talks with Smith about the “relax” message. Smith did.
Demeanor and approach properly reset, Smith went back to being the best, most dependable player on the offense. He leads FIU in receptions (30), receiving yards (373) and touchdown receptions (three), just as he did in 2013.
Also, though only a sophomore, “I wanted to step up as a leader more. Not so much on the field. But I feel like my voice is (strong) enough to pick up my team and lead them.”
FIU lists Smith at tight end. Occasionally, he even lines up that way. Or, he’ll line up as a slot wide receiver. Or, as an H-back. Or, as an H-back who motions back to being the fullback and lead blocker for the tailback on a running play.
Smith said he is seven pounds heavier, now 232 and 6-3, but “I’m moving well. I feel quicker. I feel faster. Definitely feel stronger.”
He gets through a 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds, a time that’s pedestrian on paper. Turner points out Smith’s football speed ranks with FIU’s wide receivers. You can find some witnesses in the Alabama-Birmingham locker room.
On a bubble screen from a slot wide receiver position, Smith strode outside a textbook block from Glenn Coleman, turned up the sideline and left a fast UAB secondary feeling like the 2012 Olympic 100-meter finalists not named Usain Bolt. The 75-yard touchdown is a definite highlight reel just to watch as the defensive backs think they have the angle one step, then find Smith completely out of reach two steps later.
Smith is one of several players who takes a knee for a brief prayer as he leaves the practice field each day.
“I’m very thankful for this opportunity,” he said. “So many people want to be in this position that we’re in. I’m just so blessed to be in this position. It’s a great feeling to know that I’m one of millions that do what I do. That’s what I’m thanking God for every day.”