They’ve helped set two school records in as many weeks against Air Force and Bethune-Cookman. Yet the unit feels its full potential is still to come.
How can they realize that potential? It starts with fine-tuning the details and building chemistry.
“Truly, I think we have a great line. It’s the little details that we lack, that we need to fix.” right tackle Brandon Walton said after a Week 3 performance saw him and his fellow linemen pave the way for five Devin Singletary touchdowns – a new FAU record.
The efforts against Bethune-Cookman of the big men up front didn’t go unrecognized. Pro Football Focus, a website dedicated to analyzing and grading game film, named Walton, left tackle Reggie Bain, and left guard B.J. Etienne to its Conference USA team of the week.
Individual performances like those show there is no questioning the talent up front. But Walton thinks his unit can hit another gear if those talents can mesh together into one strong collective.
“We have potential to be great because despite our issues, despite our lack of detail, we were still able to do that.” Walton said of the offensive line helping FAU rush for a season-high 376 yards against Bethune-Cookman. “That’s why I feel like our potential is awesome.”
It’s not all that surprising the line endured some growing pains mixed in with their successes. Not only does it have a first-year position coach in John Garrison, there are also three new starters on the interior. Two of those additions weren’t even on campus in the spring.
Graduate transfers from Florida and Tulane respectively, Antonio Riles and Junior Diaz were unable to participate in FAU practices until the fall as they were wrapping things up at their previous institutions.
Upon arriving to camp with the season opener rapidly approaching, they had to learn an immensely complex offense in just a matter of weeks, a circumstance coach Lane Kiffin said was “very unusual.”
Riles understood there would be hiccups along the way in that expedited process of getting comfortable in the offense and with his teammates. He said he feels fully settled in now, and laid out his plan for working out his the minor errors his unit has faced such as missed calls and communication mix-ups.
“It comes down to us doing the little things and making sure we don’t make those mistakes,” Riles said. “We got to play together. We got to play fresh, with a lot of attitude, and a lot of effort, and a lot of energy.”
The guard opposite Riles, Etienne, was on the scout team this time last season, never having played a collegiate snap. He was afforded a starting opportunity on day one of 2018 spring practice and hasn’t ceded it since.
His first game as a starter was no pushover.
Etienne took the field under a crowd of 86,402 screaming fans in Norman, OK., against the nationally ranked Sooners. The Owls’ line, and most of the team, struggled in what ended up being a 63-14 loss, but the promising redshirt-freshman said the road trip was a learning experience that has paid dividends in his development as a player.
The results have also paid dividends for his team.
He has gotten better after each game, and Etienne said he is “definitely” growing and getting more comfortable in his role as the season progresses.
Etienne and the FAU offensive line helped Singletary reach No. 1 in the nation in rushing touchdowns (7) through three games. While the scoring threat remains, Singletary’s efficiency has stumbled a bit – from 6.4 a carry in 2017 to 4.0 through three games of 2018 – as defenses have loaded the box in efforts to stop him.
As a result, the line had to adapt to a more pass-oriented approach.
After allowing quarterback Chris Robison enough time in the pocket to dice up a weary Air Force secondary for a program-high 471 passing yards in Week 2, it’s safe to say the five up front did their jobs.
“As long as we’re getting yards, rushing or passing, it’s a plus,” Diaz said.
No one has had a better view of the line and its week-to-week improvement than the man who is protected by it in Robison.
He holds his linemen to the same standards they hold themselves: excellence.
“I think the o-line’s done pretty good. I’ve taken some hits, but that happens.” Robison said. “I can’t say that they’re terrible, but I can’t say they’re doing the best job. We got to keep working.”
Time will tell in how defenses approach an FAU offense that has proven it can both sling it through the air and pound the ball on the ground.
One thing for certain, though, is that the bar for the five players leading the way is ever-rising.
Where are the expectations for the FAU offensive line now? “Through the roof.” Etienne said.
“It’s pressure, but it’s going to drive us, keep us going.” he said. “If it was a couple of years ago we would have been cool with it, lax, and that really wouldn’t have made us better. But we know we have to keep on it, and keep getting better. So it’s kind of a good thing for us.”
No player has witnessed that transformation more directly than Bain, who has been with FAU since 2014. He went 9-27 over his first three seasons as an Owl.
He knows what winning football looks like and what it doesn’t.
The latter is unacceptable in his eyes.
“We could be really good. We set the standards high,” Bain said. “If we’re not performing to the standard we know that, and we try our best to get to it.”