They are also making it difficult for FAU coaches to accurately access the progress of the wide receiver unit.
“They don’t get a lot of opportunities down field because we’re not going to throw a lot of them if we’re not hitting them,” FAU coach Lane Kiffin said. “It is kind of hard to evaluate that way.”
Early in the season FAU appeared to have a rising star in DeAndre McNeal. With Daniel Parr at quarterback the former Texas Longhorn tallied at least 70 receiving yards per game, catching touchdowns of 63 and 62 yards.
But since Jason Driskel has assumed the starting quarterback role two games ago, McNeal’s combined receiving yardage total is only 53 yards. He hasn’t found the end zone since Week 2 against Wisconsin.
“I’m not going to have 100 yards every single game even though I strive for it,” McNeal said. “If I don’t, I don’t. Now, what can I do to help the team to make us get this win. If blocking is that thing, that’s what I’m going to do.”
FAU’s increased emphasis on the run, one that corresponds with the three-game success of backs Devin Singletary and Buddy Howell, increases the important of the blocking aspect of the receivers’ game. On Monday Kiffin applauded the blocking of Pico Harrison at the goal line, allowing Singletary to complete his first touchdown run against MTSU.
But receivers like McNeal and Auburn transfer John Franklin weren’t brought to FAU to help others make plays. With 4.25 40-yard dash speed, Franklin is a play maker, one with the ability to change a game on any given play.
Rather than become the Owls’ chief downfield threat, Franklin’s touches have primarily come at, or behind, the line of scrimmage. Part of Franklin’s slow start – he only has four catches totaling 35 yards – can be attributed to his late arrival at FAU camp.
“Hopefully, we’ll get him involved more this week,” Kiffin said.
Franklin Understands FAU Passing Game Struggles
Originally a quarterback when he enrolled at Florida State, then East Mississippi Community College and Auburn, Franklin empathizes with Driskel’s struggles more than most.
“It’s frustrating but also being a quarterback I know how tough it is,” Franklin said. “ It’s halfway through the season but you can see the progressions each week. Each week everybody gets better. We’ll have our breakthrough soon.”
Uncertainty in the receiving corps has contributed to the lack of cohesion. True freshman Willie Wright caught a 95-yard touchdown pass in the season opener but has battled ankle and hamstring injuries in recent weeks. Wright got loose behind the MTSU secondary last week but Driskel, who hasn’t worked much with Wright, missed him badly.
FAU is also trying to incorporate Kamrin Solomon, suspended for the first two weeks, back into the game plan. And with only two catches for five yards, both coming in the season opener, heralded sophomore D’Anfernee McGriff and his 6-foot-1, 2300-pound frame hasn’t made any real impact.
“He might eventually be a tight-end type guy, which is what he’s done before,” Kiffin said. “We were so down at receivers that we kind of forced him out there. We have a lot of tight ends. Part of it was that. And he’s young, too. He’ll eventually be a good player.”
McNeal leads the Owls with 21 catches for 318 yards. With 11 catches, Wright is the only other FAU receiver with double figures in catches. Allowing 245.3 yards per game, Old Dominion’s passing defense ranks No. 10 among Conference USA’s 14 teams.
FAU’s passing game relies on timing between the quarterback and receivers, and with the Owls in a seemingly perpetual quarterback battle, timing has been elusice. The first full week with Jason Driskel as the clear-cut starting quarterback should help, but likely won’t be a panacea.
“The more reps you do, that’s something the better you will be,” Driskel said.