Through three games, Terrell McDonald leads UAB with a pair of touchdown receptions, and fellow tight end Bryce Damous has another touchdown catch.
That’s the positive news, considering the biggest offensive question mark heading into the season surrounded the dilemma of replacing the production of Hayden Pittman and Gerrit Prince.
Through those same three games, no one else on the roster has a touchdown reception. Trea Shropshire, who had 41 career catches with nine touchdowns in 22 games, has played in just one full game this season and has just one catch for 56 yards. TJ Jones, one of the team’s fastest players, has a team-best 10 catches but hasn’t found the end zone. Tejhaun Palmer has eight catches while Ryan Davis has four catches with both averaging 13.8 yards per catch. Samario Rudolph is averaging 20.5 yards per catch on his two catches.
Quarterback Dylan Hopkins has been efficient, connecting on 67% of his 52 attempts and has not been intercepted. The Blazers passing attack, which produced 162 yards per game, is last in Conference USA and 115th in the country in passing yards per game.
UAB head coach Bryant Vincent, who also calls the offensive plays, broke down the offensive approach in each of the three weeks, beginning with the season-opening 59-0 win over Alabama A&M when Hopkins was 13-of-18 for 191 yards with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Damous. Jacob Zeno also had a 4-yard touchdown pass to McDonald.
“You look up, and you’re up 21-0,” Vincent said. “You’ve scored on defense, you’ve scored on special teams, and we’ve scored on offense. As the game went, that first game kind of got out of hand the first half. We just really ran the ball and threw some [short naked bootleg passes].”
The next week, in a 21-14 loss at Liberty, Hopkins was 10-of-15 for 114 yards.
“We’re playing in the rain,” Vincent said. “We had the turnovers on offense, so we never really got in a rhythm against Liberty to be able to have some drives and consistencies, to be able to get Dylan comfortable to throw the ball.”
In the most recent game, a 35-21 win over Georgia Southern, Hopkins was 12-of-19 for 125 yards with a 5-yard touchdown pass to McDonald. Hopkins also had a short pass on the goal line to Jones that moved the Blazers inside the 1-yard line and a 36-yard pass to Davis that moved the ball inside the 5-yard line.
“We wanted to keep their offense off the field and we wanted to control the clock and the time of possession,” Vincent said. “Our main focus there was to establish the run and to run the ball. That’s what we did. We were very efficient in that game and did a really good job.”
Obviously, riding a running game that features DeWayne McBride and Jermaine Brown Jr. and averages 253.3 yards per game, which is sixth-best in the country, is a good idea. At some point, though, the Blazers will need more production from the wide receivers in the passing game.
“We do understand that, we’ve got a lot of confidence in our receivers, we’ve got a lot of confidence in Dylan,” said Vincent. “We feel like we’re in a good spot, being able to be balanced on offense. The opportunity really hasn’t risen yet.”
The tight end production is encouraging. McDonald has been mostly a blocker in his first three seasons on the field but has four catches this season, which is three more than he had in his first 21 appearances. He’s teamed with Damous and Maleak Bryant to take the bulk of the tight end snaps.
“We always knew that it was going to be a question mark when [Pittman and Prince] left,” McDonald said. “But all of us knew what we had in the room, we had full confidence. We just had to go out and prove it. With the help of Coach [Vincent] and everybody else, they got behind us and they knew what we could do.”
For McDonald, that meant getting more involved in the passing game.
“You just got to stay down until it’s your time,” McDonald said. “I had a lesser role last year because of [Pittman and Prince]. I just had to do what I had to do. This year, I’m more of a leader– probably the oldest in the room. It’s the same really, just a little more of an increase.”
Vincent said the opportunities will continue to increase for the tight ends.
“I feel like as the games go, people see our tight end position has been very productive,” Vincent said. “We’re tough, we’re physical, we can really block well, we can hold up in pass protection and we can get out and catch the football. As the season goes and the experience grows within our tight end room, you’re going to continue to see that group grow and make plays.”
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