Florida International U

FIU Panthers’ passing game begins, ends with Jonnu Smith

FIU’s Jonnu Smith (87) drives deep into Wagner territory during their football game Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at FIU football stadium in Miami.
FIU’s Jonnu Smith (87) drives deep into Wagner territory during their football game Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at FIU football stadium in Miami. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

FIU football coach Ron Turner’s answer to the question about sophomore Jonnu Smith — “Do you feel you’ve got an All-America tight end?” — contained all the equivocation of a safety blitz.

“Yes, we do, absolutely,” Turner said. “Look at the numbers he’s putting up. Look what he’s doing. Everyone knows he’s our go-to guy and he’s still producing those numbers. No question about it.”

Expect those numbers to get boosted again in Saturday’s finale against North Texas (3-7, 1-5 in Conference USA). Not because FIU (4-7, 3-4) will force feed Smith. But, rather, because most FIU pass plays either start with Smith as Option No. 1 or end with him being Option No. 1.

That’s caused Turner to lament the lack of another consistent receiving threat after games in which that’s hurt FIU or beam proudly about Smith’s ability to bear the burden he’s handled since his freshman year.

Last year’s 39 catches for 338 yards for an almost historically abysmal offense got Smith put on the watch list for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s outstanding tight end. He remained there at midseason, which was when CBS Sports.com made him the only mid-major player on its midseason All-American teams.

When the Mackey Award committee announced its eight semifinalists this week, the one mid-major tight end was Massachusetts’ Jean Sifrin, who benefits from the defensive attention drawn by wide receiver Tajae Sharpe’s 81 catches and 1,245 yards.

With FIU, Smith’s the receiver defensive coordinators see in their heads when dictating defenses in passing situations.

“A lot of that stuff goes to the Power Five [conferences] and I totally understand that,” Turner said. “I was in that conference [the Big Ten] for eight years as a head coach. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a player in Conference USA who’s as good as any player in the country. And he is. He’s shown it for two years.”

This year’s numbers to which Turner refers put Smith at the top of most of the major receiving categories for tight ends. No other tight end in the nation has more catches than Smith’s 57. Only Kent State’s Casey Pierce has more catches per game, 5.4 to 5.2. He leads tight ends in gross receiving yards with 695, receiving yards per game, 63.2, and touchdowns with eight.

Smith got to eight touchdowns with last Saturday’s three-touchdown game against Middle Tennessee State, the first hat trick of touchdown receptions in FIU history. The game and season touchdown counts broke FIU records shared by, among others, current Indianapolis Colts star T.Y. Hilton.

“I feel I’ve been putting my team in good situations, in the best possible position to win,” Smith said. “Of course, there’s things I could’ve done better over the course of the season, but overall, I feel I’m having a pretty solid season.”

That’s about as close as Smith comes to bragging. That and saying he’s made the most improvement this season in making tough catches.

“He spends more time on that Juggs machine catching balls than anybody we’ve got,” Turner gushed. “Probably more than all of our other receivers and tight ends combined. And they work on it.”

Turner would say Smith’s blocking is his most-improved skill. That’s also about as close to disagreement as you’ll get between Smith and Turner, who took about a month of 2013 training camp to become the biggest Smith fan who doesn’t share blood and chromosomes.

“The amazing thing about him is all the stuff he does,” Turner said. “The same thing he did last year as a true freshman. He plays a true, in-line tight end. He’s fullback, he’s slot, he’s outside, he’s all over the place. And to be able to handle it all mentally is pretty amazing.”

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