BOCA RATON – No FAU offensive play begins before Antonyo Woods is ready.
Woods, who learned to play center during the spring and is still working to perfect his snaps, calls out the offensive line assignments before taking a brief (in this offense, ever so brief) moment to concentrate on the components of a perfect snap.
“I do have to take a second break, mentally, to say, Hey, make sure you get the ball there, because I’ve got to get the play started no matter what before anything,” Woods said.
At times this fall Woods and the Owls’ quarterbacks have struggled to start plays.
Wet conditions, sweaty palms or some form of miscommunication have sent quarterbacks scrambling for errant snaps before attempting to execute the play call.
“There’s a lot of factors that can go wrong on the snap,” Woods said. “At the end of the day it is my job to make sure the ball gets there in sufficient time and I’ve just got to take pride in that.”
As camp moved along Woods and the quarterbacks – add working with three difference quarterbacks who like varying speeds on their snaps to the factors that complicate the exchange – grew more consistent with the snaps, but following Tuesday’s practice, when both the temperature and humidity spiked, FAU coach Lane Kiffin bemoaned an increase in turnovers that once again included some poor exchanges.
Against a Navy offense that grinds the clock and limits the amount of opponents’ possessions, thereby curtailing opponents’ offensive opportunities to make up for mistakes, Kiffin understandably knows that a bad snap or two in Friday’s season opener could be the difference between a winning start to the Kiffin era and the Owls’ needing to beat Top 10 Wisconsin the following weekend to avoid an 0-2 start.
“In this game especially you are going to have limited possessions, limited plays, not what you are used to in tempo offenses,” Kiffin said. “You can’t afford mistakes because you just don’t get the ball back. It takes forever to get it back in this game at times. We need them to not make mistakes, not just at quarterback but everywhere – offense and special teams.”
Woods’ performance will be key for the Owls against Navy, and for the rest of the season for that matter, because at the moment FAU lacks a true back-up at center.
Second-string center Richard Williams suffered a lower-leg injury late in camp and is out indefinitely.
Tarrick Thomas – who is coming off knee surgery that forced him to miss all of spring and much of fall camp – is converting from guard to center, but that’s a work in progress.
“We’ll keep pushing him forward but he’s very limited,” Kiffin said.
Should Woods miss any snaps on Friday, FAU would likely turn a current starter – guard Roman Fernandez has experience at center – shuffling the line to ensure the five best available offensive linemen are on the field.
Offensive line coach Garin Justice, the lone coaching holdover from last year’s staff, employed a similar philosophy in 2016 when injuries decimated the line. The one constant last season could be found at center, where Dillon DeBoer, who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers, handled snaps.
Kiffin also saw such a philosophy work consistently over the past three seasons while working as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama.
“The last place I was at is the best ever at doing that – coach Saban,” Kiffin said. “We have specific plans for that and we’ve repped that throughout the week.”
Unlike last season when left tackle Reggie Bain incurred a season-ending broken hip in a motor scooter accident in the final week of fall camp, FAU’s starting offensive line appears ready to make it to the first game intact.
Bain and Fernandez protect the left side next to Woods. Senior Jakobi Smith, who surpassed newcomer William Tuihalamaka at guard in the final week, and sophomore tackle Brandon Walton comprise the right side.
Unlike the starting unit, the second string has needed to fill some holes over recent weeks. Freshman B.J. Etienne moved to tackle when Matt Weiner was lost for the season. In the last week Etienne flipped sides with Matt Murphy, working as the left tackle.
Slowed during camp while he recovers from offseason surgery, Jack Breshears is back at one guard, with Tuihalamaka at the other.
“It’s not always the second guy that goes in,” Kiffin said referring to the two-deep. “It’s the best lineup.”