It wasn’t long ago that Jonnu Smith was a confused newcomer who barely knew where to line up and whose body type didn’t match his position.
But FIU’s struggling program has asked multiple young players — including the freshman tight end — to grow up quicker than normal, not given the luxury of learning under experienced starters.
After a 10-catch game last week against East Carolina, it is clear that Smith has taken on the challenge and has become one of the most promising young playmakers on the team.
Nowhere has Smith’s transformation been more evident than in sheer physical size.
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ESPN’s recruiting database shows that Smith was just 6-1 and 196 pounds while at West Port High School in Ocala. Smith said that he arrived at FIU weighing 212 pounds.
“When he first got here, he and I used to come out here and run routes,” quarterback E.J. Hilliard said. “At first I thought he was a wide receiver until he told me he was a tight end.”
Smith has gained around 15 pounds since starting work with the team, now putting him close to 230 pounds. That extra bulk — along with developing blocking technique — helps coach Ron Turner trust the young tight end in running situations.
“Coming in, it’s a big difference from high school where defensive ends are 200 pounds,” Smith said. “It’s 250, 260 [pounds] here, so the extra weight is helping me a lot.”
Although Smith has developed as a blocker, his strength is and probably always will be as a receiver.
Last week’s 10-catch, 97-yard performance gave the freshman the team lead in receiving yards, and his 26 catches easily lead the team. Wide receiver T.J. Lowder is second with 17.
But perhaps even more encouraging for FIU is the apparent chemistry that that has evolved between Smith and Hilliard, a combination that will be around for years to come.
Hilliard was named the starting quarterback for last week’s game — his first start that wasn’t dictated by a Jake Medlock injury. Although the sophomore did make mental and physical errors, he found Smith consistently throughout the game, indicating he might favor Smith more than Medlock did.
In addition to the 10 catches last week, all four of Smith’s receptions in the Oct. 5 win over Southern Mississippi came in the second half, after Hilliard had replaced Medlock. Medlock started the Oct. 12 nail-biter against Alabama-Birmingham, and Smith had just one catch for 6 yards.
“We have a good chemistry, good connection,” Hilliard said. “I like throwing him the ball because I know he’s going to catch it, and I know he’ll make the play.”
Turner said Hilliard’s performance Saturday was a mixed bag and that he appears to hesitate on some reads, still unsure after playing a limited role most of the season. But Hilliard said having a tight end like Smith could help simplify things for him.
“I call him my security blanket,” Hilliard said. “He’s an outlet for me. He has great hands, soft hands, and he’s mobile for a tight end. … I call him my security blanket because he basically bails me out.”
And the best could be yet to come.
“The more he [improves], then in years to come, we can do a lot more with him,” Turner said.