BOCA RATON – It the midst of yet another tumultuous start to the FAU season, offensive line coach Garin Justice values a calming influence.
He knows the players on his unit have to be the ones who provide serenity – not only for him but for the entire team.
“A good offensive line calms things down,” Justice said. “If you have a Tom Brady, which there’s only about five of those guys in the world, they can overcome maybe some issues on the offensive line. If you are not one of those five elite quarterbacks in the world it’s hard to overcome an offensive line that is not playing well.”
Maybe someday Jason Driskel will become Brady-esque, but the redshirt sophomore certainly isn’t there yet.
He’s been harassed much of the season – only four FBS teams have allowed more than the 13 sacks the Owls have surrendered. Lack of consistency in the running game only adds to the pressure on Driskel.
FAU’s 18.3 points per game average ranks 114th out of the 128 FBS schools and nearly all of the issues trace back to the offensive line.
“It’s not fair to coach Partridge, it’s not fair to the offense, it’s not fair to anyone that this offensive line, where we’re at right now, is hindering our growth as a team; because we’ve put in a lot of work, a lot of effort,” Justice said. “We’re going to get there. We just have to stay consistent.”
To be fair, this is not the offensive line makeup the Owls planned for.
Of the five players who worked as starters throughout fall camp, only Dillon DeBoer played in all three games thus far – and he did so at two different positions. DeBoer moved from center to left tackle one week before the start of the season when a motor scooter accident ended Reggie Bain’s season.
FAU lost its other tackle, senior Kelly Parfitt, early in the season’s second game. Right guard Antonyo Woods missed the first game with an undisclosed injury, then moved to tackle when Parfitt went down. Roman Fernandez moved from guard to center when DeBoer moved to tackle in place of Bain, but Fernandez suffered an undisclosed injury against Miami and didn’t play against Kansas St.
The Owls are trying to get back to normal. DeBoer returned to center last week and spent this week working out there, too.
“I definitely feel more comfortable at center, now,” DeBoer said.
Redshirt freshman Bryan Beck, true freshman Brandon Walton and walk-on redshirt sophomore Matt Weiner rotated – and struggled – at left tackle against Kansas St.
As the week progressed FAU coaches seemed less optimistic about getting Parfitt back for Saturday, but Justice said Weiner, who started as a fill-in for Woods in the Week 1 game before suffering his own injury that forced him to miss the Miami game, should see more playing time this week – possibly at Parfitt’s tackle spot or at right guard in place of Jakobi Smith – now that Weiner’s shoulder is nearly 100 percent healthy.
“Everybody rotating gets a little messy sometimes,” said DeBoer, a redshirt senior.
For the second-consecutive Saturday the Owls could feature a left side of the line comprised of redshirt freshman Tarrick Thomas at guard and either Beck, a redshirt freshman, or the true freshman Walton at left tackle.
“All those guys are getting invaluable reps, it’s just unfortunate for our offense and our football team that we’ve got to live through this right now, and that’s kind of where were at,” Justice said. “You’re seeing a guy like Tarrick Thomas who from his first start – who really wasn’t ready to start even his first start – but from his first start to now is a much better football player.”
Thomas, and Walton for that matter, may be the future pillars of the Owls’ offensive line, but for now they are apprentices, learning on the job.
“It’s still pretty quick but it’s slowing down,” said Thomas, who is the only member of the offensive line to start all three games at the same position on the offensive line.
Facing a Ball St. team that fires a variety of blitzes at its opponents, Saturday’s game doesn’t figure to get much slower.
Varying defensive looks is particularly effective tactic against young offensive linemen.
“It’s hard to replicate everything you are going to see on game day,” Justice said. “When you have an older guy, they can pull back from their bank of things they’ve had or just their overall concepts and rules to pick things up; whereas a freshman, if you don’t rep it exactly the way you are going to see it on Saturday, they struggle. They struggle just because it’s new to them. It’s not their fault. It’s just they lack that experience an older guys has.”
Sending a young, inexperienced, offensive line to decipher and ultimately block a variety of blitzes isn’t usually the recipe for Zen-like tranquility.
More shuffling this week will likely lead to further struggles against the Cardinals. The season is still relatively early – Conference USA play doesn’t begin until next week – but Justice’s quest for calm carries an uneasy sense of urgency.
“The offensive line’s job should be, whatever (an opposing defense does) – blitz, whatever you do – we calm it down,” Justice said. “We were to a place where we were doing that in August. We’ve just stubbed our toe. We’re going to get to that place again, but now you’re seeing a lot of guys who have to grow up in the public eye, and that’s where you’re seeing, really, the whole offense falter.”
Following the worst loss in program history last week at Kansas St., the re-institution of calm on offense would be the most important step toward the Owls’ second victory of the season, allowing them to enter Conference USA play at 2-2 with a clear path toward bowl eligibility.
“(The Kansas St. game was) round three of a 12-round season, and all of their goals, except the national championship, are all there,” offensive coordinator Travis Trickett says he reminded his players. “Everything that they could want to accomplish – everything – is still there.”