A possible football paradox: As the overall unit or team improves, the best player’s statistics take a hit because options and the offense can expand while he plays just as well.
Take FIU junior tight end Jonnu Smith, whose three-game total of 14 receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown resemble some of his single-game numbers over his first two seasons.
Smith was a national statistical leader last season among tight ends in catches, yards and touchdowns. Anyone watching FIU for five minutes identified Smith as the prime safety blanket and receiving threat over the last two seasons for the Panthers.
“They have a tight end who has caught a pass in 27 consecutive games,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said in his Monday media session. “He is an all-conference player. He gives them flexibility to do a lot of different things. He will line up as a tight end, wide receiver or running back in the backfield.”
The last FIU offensive player to get as much respect in the conference or nationally as Smith does now plays on Sundays with the Indianapolis Colts. And FIU’s first two opponents, Central Florida and Indiana, paid Smith the compliment of NSA-level surveillance.
FIU coach Ron Turner said, “They were definitely aware of where he was all the time, sometimes had two guys on him.”
Smith assented, “A lot of double coverage. It’s no secret they’re scheming for me. But that’s what comes with [the role].”
As Holtz noted, FIU will line Smith up in the slot, out wide, at tight end, H-back, fullback, then run him in motion and throw quick bubble screens and hitches to him. But, to the credit of sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, he hasn’t tried to force the ball to Smith as it seemed he did late last season. Smith’s three catches were the only times he was targeted in the opening-game win at Central Florida.
Meanwhile, McGough found sophomore wide receiver Thomas Owens 10 times. At Indiana, Smith was targeted nine times total, catching five for 25 yards. But with defenses focused on him, Owens got the single coverage most of the night. He beat it for nine catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore wide receiver Dennis Turner sped past single coverage for a 28-yard touchdown.
7 touchdown receptions by receivers other than Smith in 2014
6 touchdown receptions by receivers other than Smith after three 2015 games
Now it’s back to playing FBS teams after a Saturday beating up FCS North Carolina Central, which didn’t shade to Smith as much. Guess who Louisiana Tech’s more worried about: the sophomore wide receivers who have produced for three games or the junior tight end who produced for two years and didn’t get any smaller or slower.
“We need Dennis Turner and T.O. (Thomas Owens) and [senior tight end Ya’Keem] Griner and [sophomore running back Alex] Gardner and all those guys to continue to make plays, and they’ll get back to playing their defense,” Turner said. “Each week, we have different game plans for him. We’ll come up with things to get him the ball.”
Smith’s been here before. He started last year with a two-catch, two-drop 20-yard game.
“Everybody who has taken on a leadership role thinks they have to do more,” he said. “That’s what leaders tend to do. It’s a bad habit. I just try to relax, stay focused, stay in the game and try to just focus on my job, and that’s it.”
The offensive production — No. 8 nationally in third-down percentage, No. 58 in total offense — after two years of ranking among the nation’s worst in those categories helps keep Smith relaxed.
“We’ve definitely shown a lot of improvement the last three games,” Smith said. “A lot of young guys getting in the mix now. That’s good for our future.”