No. 39: Connecticut
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 26, 2010
Few teams were tested quite like the Huskies. The program will never recover from the loss of Jasper Howard, whose blossoming potential was senselessly cut short hours after Connecticut’s win over Louisville on Oct. 17. That scar will never heal. However, UConn can take solace in the fact that it stayed together – as Howard would have most certainly wanted it to do – despite the emotional obstacles in its way, and yielded a four-game stretch to end 2009 that ranks among the best period in program history.
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 8
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 29
- Nov. 11
- Nov. 20
- Nov. 27
- Dec. 4
at South Florida
Last year’s prediction
This is not a bad team: the UConn defense, for example, has a handful of playmakers who can keep that unit among the best in the conference. Still, I have two concerns. The first is the offense. My second concern is the team’s schedule, which will feature three B.C.S.-conference teams out of conference. I’m not predicting the Huskies to fall completely off the map in the Big East, but I don’t think this team will approach another eight-win season. I believe the Huskies will finish no better than 6-6, 3-4 in the Big East.
In a nutshell The Huskies lost three straight following Howard’s death, each by a narrow margin: by four points at West Virginia, by four to Rutgers and by two at undefeated Cincinnati. Connecticut was close to breaking through, but these slim defeats only served to add weight to its already weighty burden. One week later, the Huskies had their moment. A 33-30 overtime win over Notre Dame was the first step in the healing process; it was also the first step towards a four-game winning streak to end the year, one that allowed UConn to post at least eight wins for the third consecutive season. It was done with offense: UConn scored 405 points, the third-most in school history and the second-highest output of the Randy Edsall era. While on the subject of Randy Edsall, it’s time for the 12th-year Connecticut coach to start earning some national recognition.
High point The emotional three-point win at Notre Dame. The Huskies, losers of three straight, were in dire need of a victory to keep their bowl hopes alive. The overtime win was the first of three to end the season. It was followed by an inspired 20-7 win over favored South Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl.
Low point A trio of tough losses, coming on the heels of Howard’s murder, put Connecticut’s postseason aspirations in jeopardy. It began in Morgantown, where a West Virginia touchdown with two minutes left cost the Huskies a road win against a Top 25 opponent. On the following weekend, Rutgers scored an improbable victory thanks to an 81-yard touchdown pass with 22 second remaining. Finally, UConn went toe-to-toe with Cincinnati before falling, 47-45, on the road.
Tidbit UConn allowed 84 first downs on the ground last fall, the 20th-best total in the country. The Huskies were one of three Big East teams to rank in the top 20 nationally in this category, with Syracuse — in a surprise — allowing only 69 first downs, fifth-best in the country.
Tidbit (rookie edition) Sophomore end Jesse Joseph started all 13 games last fall, making 38 tackles (5 for loss) and 2.5 sacks. In doing so, he became the first true freshman in UConn’s F.B.S. history — since 2000 — to start as a true freshman. If you’re looking for a reason for UConn’s recent stretch of solid play, consider this fact: year in and year out, UConn is a veteran, experienced team led by battle-tested fourth- and fifth-year players.
Former players in the N.F.L.
14 FB Deon Anderson (Dallas), OT William Beatty (New York Giants), S Tyvon Branch (Oakland), LB Cody Brown (Arizona), RB Donald Brown (Indianapolis), CB Darius Butler (New England), WR Marcus Easley (Buffalo), TE Tyler Lorenzen (New Orleans), CB Robert McClain (Oakland), QB Dan Orlovsky (Houston), WR Larry Taylor (New York Jets), OG Donald Thomas (Miami), DE Julius Williams (Jacksonville), LB Lindsey Witten (Pittsburgh).
Arbitrary top five list
Places to eat in Old Greenwich, Conn.
1. Applausi Osteria Toscana.
2. Garden Catering.
3. Upper Crust Bagel Company.
4. Sound Beach Pizza Grill & Deli.
5. Beach House Cafe.
Randy Edsall (’80 Syracuse), 66-65 over 11 years at Connecticut. It’s hard to believe it has already been more than a decade in Storrs for Edsall, who oversaw Connecticut’s transition from the F.C.S. in 2000 and has since led the program through independent status (2000-3) into the Big East (2004-present). His first two teams on the F.B.S. level, from 2000-1, are the main contributors to his sub-.500 record; his Huskies went a combined 5-17. However, the 2002 team – the first UConn team to field a full roster of 85 scholarship players – finished 6-6, the program’s best mark since winning 10 games under the current South Florida coach Skip Holtz in 1998. The strong finish has carried over to recent Huskies teams: UConn finished 9-3 in 2003, its final season as an independent, and has won at least eight games four times as a member of the Big East. An 8-5 finish in 2008 saw the Huskies enter the Top 25 for the second consecutive season and make their third bowl appearance, all under Edsall. Though UConn did not crack the Top 25 in 2009, last fall clearly marked Edsall’s finest coaching performance with the Huskies. Edsall’s F.B.S. coaching experience includes stints at Syracuse (1980-90), Boston College (1991-93) and Georgia Tech (1998). With the Orange, Edsall coached the running backs (1983-4, 1986), the tight ends (1985) and the defensive backs (1987-90); this experience made him a logical choice to replace Greg Robinson in late 2008, but Edsall removed his name from consideration. It would be equally logical, should Connecticut continue to grow as a program, to expect Edsall to be connected with at least one major job opening each season. Connecticut’s current status as a bona fide Big East contender is solely due to Edsall and his staff. Contrary to the opinions of some in Massachusetts, Edsall is not planning on going anywhere.
Players to watch
The Huskies may have lost one 1,000-yard rusher in Andre Dixon, who capped a sterling comeback season with a 126-yard, M.V.P. performance in UConn’s bowl win over South Carolina. Few teams can lose one 1,000-yard rusher and return another, as UConn does with junior Jordan Todman. The second-team all-Big East pick paced the Huskies in yards (1,188) while tying Dixon for the team lead in touchdowns (14), coming on strong down the stretch during UConn’s torrid finish to the year. For UConn to keep this running game going, however, it must locate a second back, one who won’t necessarily be asked to duplicate Dixon’s output but merely provide a change-of-pace — and a breather — to Todman, the unquestioned leader at the position. This might be a job for D.J. Shoemate, the U.S.C. transfer who took advantage of the N.C.A.A.’s edict that all transfers from the penalty-ravaged program may receive immediate eligibility at their new school. Also in the mix is junior Robbie Frey, who has been little-used as a runner but has been tremendous in the return game.
This team has two options at quarterback. Both have starting experience: senior Zach Frazer started seven games last fall, junior Cody Endres six. This will be Frazer’s job to lose, however, as the former Notre Dame transfer played well enough down the stretch — eight touchdowns in his final five starts — to land the first crack at leading this offense. Endres is a solid reserve, actually outplaying Frazer statistically in 2009, and gives UConn a pair of capable quarterbacks. Believe it or not — this is hard to believe — UConn looks good at quarterback. Nevertheless, Frazer must pick up his game, playing with more consistency, if he is to hold onto his starting job.
The strength of this offense is its line, which returns four starters. The lone loss, however, is a big one: right tackle Mike Hicks was a four-year starter. His spot will be filled by returning starter Mike Ryan, who moves over from the blind side. The interior of the line is terrific. Junior Moe Petrus was an immediate hit at center, where he was moved for his sophomore campaign after spending 2008 at guard. Speaking of guard, the Huskies return an all-American caliber performer on the strong side, with senior Zach Hurd a reigning first-team all-conference selection. Fellow senior Mathieu Olivier returns at left guard, leaving only blind side tackle open to debate: as of now, the position belongs to sophomore Adam Masters. There’s still some time to go until September, and Masters may lose his grasp on the starting role.
As on offense, the defense returns eight starters. One, however, may not be available in 2010. That’s linebacker-turned-end Greg Lloyd, who suffered a knee injury nine games into last season and remains a question mark as the Huskies prepare for fall camp. UConn has enough depth along the line to suffer little significant loss should Lloyd not return — though a player of his ability would surely be missed, of course. The aforementioned Jesse Joseph will start at one end spot, with fellow sophomores Trevardo Williams (19 tackles, 2 sacks) and A.J. Portee his capable reserves. The Huskies will welcome back junior end Marcus Campbell, who entered last season as a leading contender for a starting role but missed the year due to academic difficulties. He gives the Huskies a talented pass rusher off the edge. Even with the loss of Lindsey Witten, UConn looks good at end. Should Lloyd return to full health, the Huskies will be in great shape.
The interior of the line remains intact: juniors Twyon Martin and Kendall Reyes have started 20 and 18 games, respectively, over the past two seasons. Both are key factors in UConn’s run defense. Beyond merely stuffing the line, however, this pair can make some plays. The duo combined for 14.5 tackles for loss and 7 sacks a year ago.
UConn’s linebacker corps is terrific. It’s led by two all-Big East performers, both seniors: Scott Lutrus in the middle, Lawrence Wilson on the weak side. Lutrus earned all-conference accolades in 2008, when he paced the Huskies with 106 tackles, but was limited to eight games last fall due to a shoulder injury. His injury allowed allowed Wilson to step into the limelight, and the senior flourished. He made 140 tackles — 10th nationally — a whopping total for a linebacker lining up on the weak side. Lloyd’s position change opens up the strong side, with sophomore Jory Johnson, a reserve last fall, the logical new starter.
The most troubling losses on defense come in the secondary, where UConn must replace cornerback Robert Vaughn and safety Robert McClain. This pairing accounted for nine of UConn’s 12 picks last fall, with both concluding their careers ranked in the top 10 in school history in interceptions. Sophomore Blidi Wreh-Wilson returns after making nine starts last, chipping in 40 tackles and an interception. Also back is sophomore safety Jerome Junior, a 12-game starter as a redshirt freshman.
Junior will be joined at safety by senior Kijuan Dabney, who makes the move from linebacker to the secondary. Dabney, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, should take quickly to the position change; he played safety in 2008, making a pair of tackles as a little-used reserve. That leaves one cornerback spot open. Sophomore Dwayne Gratz is the most experienced returning player at the position, despite his youth: he played in all 13 games as a freshman, making 20 tackles.
Position battles to watch
Wide receivers The Huskies do return some talent at receiver, but the passing game will be tried by the departure of Brad Kanuch and Marcus Easley. Not surprisingly, the three most experienced returning receivers currently stand atop the depth chart. All three are juniors: Isiah Moore led all returning receivers with 24 receptions last fall; Kashif Moore chipped in with 22 receptions, including three touchdowns; and Michael Smith made 15 grabs. The top line is experienced, obviously. Nevertheless, this group will be pushed for snaps by a handful or rising sophomores and redshirt freshmen. One such youngster is redshirt freshman Malik Generett, whose solid play during the spring landed him firmly in the mix for significant action. Likewise with sophomores Gerrard Sheppard and Dwayne Difton, the latter a highly-touted recruit who suffered an up-and-down rookie season. Another name to watch — maybe — is Shoemate, who surely has the ability to be a difference-maker at receiver. You’d have to think he chose the Huskies for a chance to play running back, however, and he’ll certainly earn every opportunity to do so before entertaining thoughts of a position change. UConn does have a dependable option at tight end, as sophomore Ryan Griffin made 23 receptions for 272 yards in his debut season.
Game(s) to watch
Michigan should be on upset alert – if it can be called an upset – when the Huskies come to Ann Arbor on the season’s first weekend. That game is a toss-up, as is a road date with Temple, but UConn should enter Big East holding a 4-1 mark. The first game of the conference season, at Rutgers on Oct. 8, will provide UConn with a major road test.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Matching last season’s win total shouldn’t be a problem. Beyond a difficult tussle with Michigan in season opener — a game where UConn might be favored — this team should enter conference play at 4-1, even if Temple will give the Huskies everything they can handle. Better yet, UConn lands its three prime rivals for the Big East crown at home: Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati. Ready for more good news? Check out the 16 returning starters, eight on each side of the ball. On offense, UConn is strong where good teams need to be: at running back, along the offensive line and, to a slightly lesser degree, at quarterback. Defensively, while the Huskies have holes to fill in the secondary, the front seven ranks among the best in the conference. So why have UConn here, and not above Pittsburgh and West Virginia — especially with both those teams coming to Storrs? Pittsburgh is slightly better, in my opinion, and are more complete on both sides of the ball. When it comes to West Virginia… well, the Mountaineers always beat the Huskies, who struggle mightily defending W.V.U.’s mobile quarterback play and wide-open rushing attack. More so than any Big East team that has come before them on the Countdown, however, UConn is a very realistic Big East contender; this team, thanks to its returning talent and nice schedule, could sneak into the back door of the B.C.S. — ahead of its more highly-regarded rivals in Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
Dream season The Huskies finish 10-2, losing only at Michigan and once in conference play, and earn the Big East’s automatic B.C.S. bid.
Nightmare season For the first time since 2006, the Huskies finish below .500: 4-8, 2-5 in the Big East.
In case you were wondering
Where do Connecticut fans congregate? You can find solid recruiting coverage at The Boneyard and UConn Report. Check out The Uconn Blog for additional coverage, though it’s very basketball-heavy right now. Desmond Conner, who covers UConn football for The Hartford Courant, has his finger on the pulse of the program.
Who is No. 38? As of 2000, our next team’s home city was the sixth-largest among cities that house an F.B.S. program in our country’s second-largest state.
You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.
Tags: Connecticut, Randy Edsall
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