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Finding the winning recipe for road games is the main focus in practice for the UAB football team this week.
That recipe includes erasing turnovers, limiting mistakes and it could also mean winning with a backup quarterback.
It’s going to be a busy week at UAB.
Perhaps the first step is getting ready to play with Jacob Zeno as the team’s starting quarterback. Dylan Hopkins, the regular starter, is in the concussion protocol after getting injured while scrambling for a first down in the first quarter of the 20-17 loss at Western Kentucky.
Zeno, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound redshirt junior transfer from Baylor, threw his first touchdown pass at UAB — a 14-yard connection with redshirt freshman Fred Farrier II. But he also has stretches of ineffectiveness, struggled at time making on-time decisions and threw a red zone interception to end UAB’s last opportunity.
“When Zeno came in, I wanted to make it comfortable on him early and get him in a flow and get him comfortable,” said UAB head coach Bryant Vincent. “It’s different when you’re coming in, just for a series, than when you’re coming in and you’re the guy, on the road, in that environment, against that defense. I thought that Zeno came in, he did a great job of leading the offense, he did a great job of controlling the huddle, of making good decisions. I didn’t want to put a whole lot on him at that moment. I wanted him to get in a rhythm and move forward.”
UAB failed to score in the second half, but it wasn’t just quarterback play. There were dropped passes, one by Samario Rudolph that had the look of a big play, some pass blocking breakdowns and costly penalties.
“We needed to help him out more,” Vincent said. “We needed to hold up and give him some more time. I felt like there was some throws that we should have made, that he put on the money, that we just didn’t execute. I’ve got a lot of confidence in Jacob Zeno, this team’s got a lot of confidence in Jacob Zeno, I think Jacob Zeno’s a winner. He knows this offense and I think we’ll see this moving forward.”
The moving forward part begins this week in practice. Hopkins hasn’t been officially ruled out of Saturday’s Conference USA game at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), but the Blazers must prepare for Zeno to be the team’s starting quarterback. Vincent said Zeno will take the first team reps when practice begins on Tuesday and Bryson Lucero moves up to the backup spot. Hopkins would return to the No. 1 spot with medical clearance. If Zeno does start, he should be much more comfortable after getting the bulk of the practice reps instead of having to come in off the bench without as much preparation.
What does Vincent hope to see from Zeno during this week’s preparation?
“I just want to see him take command of the offense,” Vincent said. “He’s a confident player. His football IQ is extremely high. He studies the game, he studies the offense, he studies the opposing defense extremely well, every week, whether he’s the backup or the starter. This is his time, the reason he came to UAB, to help lead this football team.”
The next part of winning on the road is eliminating the turnovers. UAB committed 10 turnovers in three road losses. In four home games, all wins, the Blazers have just two turnovers.
Vincent was asked on Monday if he could pinpoint a reason for the turnover problem on the road.
“I wish I had the answer,” Vincent said. “We’ve got three road losses and we’ve got 10 turnovers in our road losses. That falls on me. Our kids are preparing, they’re fighting their tails off, they’re playing extremely hard, they’re playing for each other. I accept full responsibility as the head coach.”
Running back DeWayne McBride, the country’s leader in rushing yards per game, had two of those fumbles at Western Kentucky. He also lost two fumbles in a road loss at Liberty. In those two games, he had a combined 374 yards on 44 carries. The fumbles took the shine away.
“He’s helped us win a lot of big games here [with] his effort, his focus, his commitment to this team,” Vincent said. “He runs extremely hard, he gives everything he’s got. Obviously, being the team player he is, he takes it personally. He takes it to heart. The biggest thing is you’ve just got to learn from your mistakes and you’ve got to move forward. We’ve got to continue to focus on ball security. That’s what we got to do. His confidence is fine. This team’s behind him, this staff’s behind him. We believe in him now, more than ever. It’s just something we’ve got to continue to work on.”
With the losses to Rice and Western Kentucky, UAB needs considerable help to get back in the championship game picture. Even with games coming up against two of the conference leaders, winning out in conference play might not be enough.
“We’re not done, this football team is not done,” Vincent said. “We’re together, we’re focused. Unfortunately, we also realize where we’re at right now. I think there’s a sense of urgency, there’s a sense of focus in this team. We realize there’s a lot of football left and there’s a lot of things that can happen. The biggest thing that we’ve got to do is we’ve got to control what we can control — how we practice, how we prepare, how we work to clean up the things that are hurting us on the road.”
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