Nov. 6, 2009
Nov. 6, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
The return of sophomore quarterback Nick Fanuzzi against Navy was celebrated, and when sophomore tailback Tyler Smith played at East Carolina after four weeks on the sideline, he was welcomed with glee.
Few will bat an eyelash when sophomore right guard Jake Hicks makes his first start in seven weeks on Saturday against SMU, but in the grand scheme of the offense, Hicks was arguably the most critical missing cog.
"Having Jake back helps out a lot," Fanuzzi said. "Definitely a lot of confidence has been restored, and I feel like our team is getting a little bit of a swagger. I've heard the coaches mention that a lot this week."
When Hicks was lost to a mid-foot sprain on Sept. 19 at Oklahoma State, it initiated a catastrophic domino effect that hamstrung the Owls' offense beyond expectation. With Hicks and his backup, Eric Ball, injured, Owls coach David Bailiff was forced to reshuffle his line, a necessary decision that left the Owls weaker at three positions up front.
Without Hicks, sophomore right tackle Tyler Parish slid inside and manned a position wholly unfamiliar. Junior left tackle Scott Mitchell gamely tried his hand at right tackle, but he wasn't nearly as proficient. His backup, sophomore Kody Emmert, was forced into the starting lineup before he was poised to tackle such an extreme responsibility.
Hicks' return puts the pieces of the offense back in place. The linemen will slide back into the spots they occupied for the first three games of the season while Fanuzzi will make his fourth consecutive start behind sophomore center Keshawn Carrington
. Smith has gradually returned to form following a turf toe injury that sidelined him against Texas Tech, and with his offense at full strength, first-year coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher
has expanded the playbook to accommodate the talent.
"Just the fact that we've got a healthy O-lineman back in Jake (helps)," senior tailback Jeramy Goodson said. "He's looked good making the offensive line actually look like they're clicking a little bit more crisp."
How quickly the Owls can recapture the timing they displayed while scoring 21 second-half points against Oklahoma State will determine their success against SMU at Ford Stadium. Injecting Hicks back into the starting lineup should solve some of the Owls' issues relative to run blocking and pass protection, but so much of what the offense developed during the three games that opened the season was lost in the rash of injuries, rhythm that likely won't return instantaneously.
When Hicks rejoined the offense during practice last week, the coaching staff felt comfortable adding new wrinkles to their base package. However, practice repetitions aren't as strenuous as game activity.
"I don't know if everything is back, but it's a lot closer than it was," Zaunbrecher said. "You lose your conditioning, you lose a little bit of timing, and we've worked hard during this period (the Owls were off last week) to get it back. We'll find out Saturday how close we've come.
"Things have looked brighter ... and it's given us a better opportunity."
The depth at tailback, with Smith, Goodson and freshman Charles Ross all in the mix, should be better exploited behind a studier offensive line. Fanuzzi, who began to show signs of fretting over the pressure he was receiving rather than searching for receivers downfield, acknowledged the positive impact Hicks made even in practice. The ideal timing that Zaunbrecher needs to call an effective game might not be there at the first snap against the Mustangs, but the hope is that it won't take long to return. It has been several weeks since this version of the offense took the field together, but time elapsed hasn't erased the memory of what was accomplished against the 16th-ranked Cowboys in Stillwater, Okla.
That fruitful evening all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The Owls have spent nearly two months attempting to get their offense back in a rhythm, and after scrounging for the necessary components, they look armed for a reprisal of the offensive production that gave them hope.
"How do we get it back? You go out there and do what you're supposed to do," Fanuzzi said. "We've had a lot of injuries in the past, but guys are getting healthy. It's really been a lot of timing issues, and right now I think is a time where we're coming together, guys are getting healthy and taking steps. Right now our step is to go out and beat SMU."
Added Zaunbrecher: "It helps (getting everyone back into the rotation). But you've got to have some success in games."