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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 72: Connecticut

Welcome to Storrs, Conn., home of diminishing quarterback results since the last time Dan Orlovsky buttoned his chin strap for the hometown Huskies. That would be in 2004, eight seasons ago – an eternity in college football, as you know, and a period that encompasses the program’s entire history as a member of the Big East. Last fall, trick-shot-artist-turned-starter Johnny McEntee completed a hair more than 50 percent of his attempts while throwing 12 touchdowns; that doesn’t sound like much, but McEntee’s touchdown total was a program-high since 2007, when Tyler Lorenzen tossed 13 scores. As a team, the Huskies have thrown for 11,346 yards over the last five years. If that doesn’t sound that bad, think of that number a different way: UConn’s averaging 177.3 passing yards per game since 2007. Good, average? Nope. That’s just not good enough, period, and it’s a situation that Paul Pasqualoni and his staff must rectify immediately – or if not today, at some point before September.

Conference
Big East

Location
Storrs, Conn.

Nickname
Huskies

Returning starters
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 67

2011 record
(5-7, 3-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 79

2012 schedule

  • Aug. 30
    UMass
  • Sept. 8
    N.C. St.
  • Sept. 15
    at Maryland
  • Sept. 22
    at Western Mich.
  • Sept. 29
    Buffalo
  • Oct. 6
    at Rutgers
  • Oct. 13
    Temple
  • Oct. 19
    at Syracuse
  • Nov. 3
    at U.S.F.
  • Nov. 9
    Pittsburgh
  • Nov. 24
    at Louisville
  • Dec. 1
    Cincinnati

Last year’s prediction

One thing I do feel safe in predicting: UConn is not going back to the B.C.S. in 2011. There are some major issues, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. The quarterback situation is a mess, though it’s important to note that UConn has gotten by without solid quarterback play for years. The good news: the defense is definitely good enough to lead UConn back to bowl play. But it won’t be a pretty season, in my mind – a year full of low-scoring, tight wins and losses. I think UConn gets back to bowl play but not by much: at least six wins, perhaps seven, but not in the Big East title picture.

2011 recap

In a nutshell The Huskies had several opportunities to reach bowl eligibility, both in September, during non-conference play, and again later in the season against Big East competition. That UConn fell short has much to do with an offense that was even less explosive than in the recent past – at quarterback, which wasn’t surprising, but also in the running game, where the Huskies took a significant step back. The offense did feature a 1,000-yard back for the fourth consecutive season, but UConn slipped from 34th nationally in rushing yards per game down to 97th, second-to-last in the Big East. The defense was there, but on an every-other-week basis: the Huskies would go from shutting down South Florida to getting mauled by Pittsburgh; from slowing down Syracuse to shooting themselves in the foot against Louisville; and from manhandling Rutgers to failing to stop Cincinnati. An uneven team, though perhaps that was to be expected following the winter’s coaching change.

High point UConn devastated Rutgers, 40-22, on the second-to-last Saturday of the regular season; the win left the Huskies within a victory of bowl eligibility, while the loss crushed the Scarlet Knight’s hopes at claiming the Big East crown. The win came about in typical UConn fashion: opportunistic on defense, inept throwing the football, successful running the football in the red zone and steady in the return game.

Low point Sloppy losses to Vanderbilt and Iowa State – by a combined seven points, thanks in large part to a combined seven turnovers – left UConn in a position where it needed four wins during Big East play to reach bowl eligibility. The Huskies almost got there, needing only to beat Cincinnati, but lost to the Bearcats, 35-27, in the season finale.

Tidbit UConn was one of the seven original members of the Big East when the league was founded in 1979, joining Boston College, Seton Hall, Syracuse, Providence, Georgetown and St. John’s. With B.C. already gone – it’s even hard to remember the Eagles as part of the conference – and Syracuse pegged to leave for the A.C.C. after this coming season, UConn will be the final football-playing original member to remain part of the Big East.

Tidbit (fourth quarter edition) This wasn’t a terrible fourth quarter team – actually outscoring the opposition, 89-80, on the year – but the Huskies’ late-game collapses during non-conference play cost them a fifth straight bowl berth. UConn allowed the final 10 points in a 24-21 loss to Vanderbilt, gave up the game-winning score against Iowa State, a 24-20 loss, with little more than nine minutes left, and after taking a 24-17 earlier in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan, was outscored by 21-7 over the game’s final 10 minutes in a 38-31 loss.

Former players in the N.F.L.

19 OT Will Beatty (New York Giants), S Tyvon Branch (Oakland), RB Donald Brown (Indianapolis), CB Darius Butler (Carolina), LS Derek Chard (New York Jets), WR Marcus Easley (Buffalo), OG Zach Hurd (Oakland), LB Greg Lloyd (Philadelphia), LB Scott Lutrus (Indianapolis), CB Robert McClain (Atlanta), WR Kashif Moore (Cincinnati), QB Dan Orlovsky (Tampa Bay), C Moe Petrus (Tampa Bay), DT Kendall Reyes (San Diego), FB Anthony Sherman (Arizona), K Dave Teggart (Chicago), OG Donald Thomas (New England), RB Jordan Todman (Minnesota), LB Lawrence Wilson (New Orleans).

Arbitrary top five list

Shooting guards in the 2012 N.B.A. Draft
1. Bradley Beal, Florida.
2. Dion Waiters, Syracuse.
3. Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut.
4. Terrance Ross, Washington.
5. John Jenkins, Vanderbilt.

Coaching

Paul Pasqualoni (Penn State ’72), 5-7 after his first season. Pasqualoni returned to the Big East after six years in the N.F.L., sandwiching a two-year stay as Miami’s defensive coordinator with two separate stints with the Dallas Cowboys. But it’s for his long, successful stay at Syracuse that Pasqualoni is most well-known: he was the Syracuse head coach from 1991-2004 after spending four years as one of Dick MacPherson’s lead assistants. He lead the Orange to nine bowl games, winning or sharing four Big East titles, including one in 2004, his final season with the program. While Doug Marrone has reversed Syracuse’s losing ways, it’s still clear that the university made a woefully poor decision when it relieved Pasqualoni of his duties after 14 seasons. He concluded his stay with the Orange with 104 wins, second-most in program history, and won 64.4 percent of his games, the most of any Syracuse coach of the modern era. Pasqualoni won nine games for three straight seasons from 1995-97 and won 10 games three times: in 1991 and 1992, his first two years, and again in 2001. This sort of experience is unmatched in the Big East – and matched by only a few other coaches in the F.B.S. – and is clearly Pasqualoni’s most positive attribute. But he has more, including deep, meaningful, long-lasting ties with many of the region’s recruiting hotbeds, which will be of enormous benefit. He shouldn’t have been dismissed from Syracuse in the first place; Connecticut gave Pasqualoni a second chance at rebuilding his reputation. Considering how Randy Edsall’s departure caught the program flat-footed, UConn was wise to hire a veteran, experienced coach with the knowledge of what it takes to win in the Big East.

Players to watch

I don’t agree with Pasqualoni’s decision to hold off naming JUCO transfer Chandler Whitmer his starting quarterback. First, a little background: Whitmer, who signed with Illinois coming out of high school, spent last season at Butler Community College, one of the top JUCO programs in the country. It was patently clear both during spring drills and the spring game that Whitmer was the Huskies’ best option under center. While he’s mobile, where Whitmer distanced himself from the competition was in his ability to deliver the football; for a program starving for a polished pocket passer, Whitmer’s capacity for making the throws the rest of Pasqualoni’s quarterbacks cannot makes him the Huskies’ best option – and based on what you saw in April, it’s not really much of a competition.

Pasqualoni is holding off naming Whitmer the starter, and yes, that’s his prerogative. He’s waiting for Whitmer to prove himself again in August, which is the safest way to proceed; there is still a chance that Whitmer falls flat, or that a quarterback like McEntee, Casey Cochrane – a true freshman – or Scott McCummings bursts to the top of the depth chart with a splendid two or three weeks heading up to September. But the positives for throwing his hat in with Whitmer outweigh the negatives. Naming Whitmer the starter today answers one major question with this offense – it allows the rest of the offense, the line, backs and receivers, to gel around Whitmer’s presence as a team leader. UConn doesn’t merely need more production at quarterback; the Huskies also need more leadership from the position.

It’s a guessing-game with any first-year starter, and perhaps more so when the quarterback has only proven himself on the JUCO level. But Whitmer is still the Huskies’ most polished pocket passer, which distances him from the other options, and in McCummings (285 yards and 5 touchdowns), a sophomore, UConn has a nice secondary option to use in the Wildcat formation. Naming Whitmer the starter prior to fall camp allows the first-team offense to move forward from day one rather than treading water waiting for Pasqualoni to name a starter.

With the loss of two senior starters, the Huskies’ receiver corps look towards another pair of transfers. Unlike Whitmer, this pair comes straight from the A.C.C. – Shakim Phillips from Boston College, Bryce McNeal from Clemson. While the latter won’t be around until August, Phillips, a sophomore, has already staked a claim to one starting role after a very strong spring. In terms of returning contributors, UConn has senior Nick Williams (11 receptions for 236 yards), one of the Big East’s best return men, and sophomores Tebucky Jones and Geremy Davis. Jones and Davis will see hugely increased playing time as second-year players.

But the Huskies are counting on Phillips and McNeal to lead the way. Both can play, obviously, though neither made much of an impact at their previous stops – McNeal had 19 receptions in 2010 but played a miniscule role last fall. What both bring to the table is supreme athleticism, something that UConn has lacked at the position for several years. The hope is that with Whitmer under center and two gifted receivers out wide – not to mention Williams, who can run, and those two promising sophomores – UConn will finally be able move the ball through the air with some degree of explosiveness. It’s not a stretch to say that this team’s overall health hinges on whether the passing game takes a step forward.

Lyle McCombs, a sophomore, became the third UConn running back in four years – with Jordan Todman doing it twice – to crack the 1,000-yard mark. But it wasn’t a pretty 1,151 yards for McCombs, nor was the Huskies’ running game anywhere close to the pounding, punishing, physical attack we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from this program. In a way, however, that McCombs did reach that mark, and did so as a freshman, bodes well for his future as the Huskies’ lead back. There’s room for improvement: McCombs is far from a finished product, and must get a little bigger in order to withstand the weekly pounding as top back in this offense.

I think he’ll get some help from Whitmer and the passing game in 2012, which should allow McCombs to see fewer stacked decks on first and second down. What UConn really needs is a second option to help take some weight off of McCombs’ shoulders; McCummings will help, but the Huskies need a backup running back as a change-of-pace option. With former U.S.C. transfer D.J. Shoemate’s career over due to injuries, UConn could hand leftover carries to junior Martin Hyppolite, redshirt freshman Max DeLorenzo or incoming freshman Joseph Williams.

This defense could be the best in the Big East – and one of the top 25 nationally, to quote a fairly random number – if it can find some answers at defensive tackle, where two multiple-year starters, Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin, have exhausted their eligibility. The pair takes 85 career starts into the sunset; as a result, UConn is rebuilding at defensive tackle for the first time in several years, and this typically stout run defense might take a step back as a result. It’s not an overstatement: With experience returning along the back seven, whether this defense can recover some of its lost momentum depends almost entirely upon what level of play the Huskies land along the interior.

Senior Ryan Wirth and junior Shamar Stephens (17 tackles), last year’s understudies, are the likely starters come September. Wirth is looked at as a veteran leader for this defensive line, but he’ll need to produce as the starter to hold off younger tackles like sophomore Angelo Pruitt and redshirt freshmen Kenton Adeyemi and Julian Campenni. Stephens is the key: he’s big, strong and potentially tough to handle one-on-one, which would free his running mate at tackle – and UConn’s solid ends – to disrupt plays in the backfield. The Huskies are short on experience and production at tackle, even if the new main players don’t lack for talent; until they prove themselves, however, this is a weakness.

Hopefully, the tackles can do just enough to allow senior end Trevardo Williams (43 tackles, 15.o for loss, 12.5 sacks) to carry his torrid finish to 2011 over to this coming season. To say that he finished strong would be an understatement: Williams had 9.0 sacks over his last five games, including a four-sack performance in the win over Rutgers. When given room to operate, Williams is the best edge-rushing down lineman in the Big East. UConn looks to get an improved season out of senior Jesse Joseph (29 tackles), who led the team in sacks as a sophomore but struggled finding a rhythm a season ago. Further depth comes from senior Teddy Jennings (33 tackles, 8.0 for loss), who could even start ahead of Joseph, and sophomores Jonathan Louis and B.J. McBryde.

All three starting linebackers return: seniors Sio Moore (86 tackles, 16.5 for loss, 6.5 sacks) and Jory Johnson (team-best 97 tackles) on the outside, sophomore Yawin Smallwood (94 tackles) in the middle. Moore is an all-conference pick, as those numbers suggest; when lined up over an end on passing downs, he helps create a very dynamic and troublesome combination for opposing offensive tackles.

Smallwood has clearly benefited from playing between two seasoned starters like Moore and Johnson, though he’ll likely continue serving in the shadows until taking center stage as a junior. It’ll be hard for any backup to earn any major snaps at linebacker, but former Maryland transfer Ryan Donohue could push for playing time behind Smallwood in the middle – he’s a proven player on special teams, so that’s one way that he could make an impact.

That this secondary was able to force some mistakes – making 18 interceptions, second-most in the Big East – helped it overcome a very unsteady season against the pass. While enough pieces return to expect improvement, the Huskies must do more to slow down the stronger passing teams on this schedule; Western Michigan ripped this secondary to shreds last fall, as did Pittsburgh and, to a lesser degree, Rutgers. It’s about avoiding the big play, even at the cost of missing on a turnover here and there, and about making it more difficult on quarterbacks to convert on third down. Teams will find it easier to run on UConn in 2012; therefore, the secondary must work that much harder to pick up the slack.

The reasons to expect improvement are simple: one, UConn is in its second season in Don Brown’s system – and Brown also works with the cornerbacks; and two, there’s a solid amount of returning experience. This includes both starting cornerbacks, seniors Blidi Wreh-Wilson (37 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Dwayne Gratz (53 tackles, 3 interceptions), as well as a leading reserve in junior Taylor Mack. This group was picked on a year go, but Wreh-Wilson and Gratz showed that they can hang with Big East receivers back in 2010 — they’ll improve as seniors.

The secondary would return nearly intact if not for Jerome Junior, the would-be senior who was suspended for the season in February following a violation of team rules. That robbed UConn of a valuable cog in the defensive backfield, but it’s not a crushing blow. All Junior’s suspension does is place added importance on the play of two capable sophomores, Ty-Meer Brown (52 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Byron Jones (51 tackles). Brown and Jones can play; all this does is speed up their learning curve. It’s not a perfect situation, but the Huskies can trust in this duo’s ability to grow into starting roles on the fly.

Williams showed what kind of weapon he can be in UConn’s win over Rutgers, when he consistently gave the Huskies wonderful field position in the 18-point win. When it comes to special teams, the biggest hole lies at kicker, where the Huskies lost all-time leading scorer Dave Teggert. He’ll be replaced by junior Chad Christen, last year’s kickoff specialist. UConn has one of the Big East’s best punters in junior Cole Wagner; he was a second-team all-conference pick a season ago.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line The gang that couldn’t shoot straight – last year’s line – takes on a new feel both with its personnel and on the coaching staff, as offensive coordinator George DeLeone takes on added duty as the Huskies’ line coach; former line coach Mike Foley will now work with the tight ends, though he’ll be a valuable second voice. The 2011 front did nothing right: the running game struggled, taking that nosedive in the national rankings, and the line was absolutely terrible in pass protection. It’s natural to assume that the line should improve, if only because this group can’t possibly fare any worse than it did a season ago. However, the Huskies will look to take a step forward without a pair of all-conference starters.

That UConn went without one returning starter, Adam Masters, and a second lineman pegged for a starting role, Jimmy Bennett, prevented the group from rounding into form during the spring. That hurt development in the short term – it would have been nice to solidify a starting five in March and April – but it may pay dividends down the road, thanks to the snaps it gave to younger linemen like Dalton Gifford and Gus Cruz. The key with Bennett is not just getting him healthy but having him remain in the lineup; he was perhaps UConn’s best tackle before suffering a season-ending knee injury last October.

In a perfect world, DeLeone would have a healthy Bennett at left tackle, Masters at right guard and junior Kevin Friend at right tackle. Another junior, Steve Greene, returns at left guard. The hope is that former Penn State transfer Alex Mateas, a sophomore, can step in for Petrus at center; Mateas has been a very nice addition so far, outplaying competition like Tyler Bullock, who will be a very valuable reserve all along the interior. One factor to watch in August is the arrival of several incoming freshmen who could impact the two-deep. Beyond the personnel, UConn simply needs to improve across the board – opening up holes on the ground and protecting the passer on third down. The only place to go is up.

Game(s) to watch

The Huskies open the year against a would-be regional rival, Massachusetts, before taking on a pretty tough three game stretch: N.C. State, at Maryland, at Western Michigan. As was the case a year ago, UConn would be putting itself in an enormous hole with a 2-3 mark during non-conference play – this assumes wins over the Minutemen and Buffalo. The Huskies are also the unlucky beneficiaries of four Big East road games, though they do close the regular season with two home games over a three-week span. The final month is difficult, but the Huskies should look at this as an opportunity; after falling short last fall, UConn will control its own destiny – even its B.C.S. hopes – by closing against South Florida, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Cincinnati.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell There are several questions that remain unanswered, and in a way, this sense of uncertainty surrounding this team’s coming season makes the Huskies both an intriguing contender in the Big East and a genuine threat to finish outside of bowl play for a second consecutive season. Consider the case at quarterback, for example. UConn will take an enormous step forward if Whitmer can deliver the ball down field with consistency; UConn will be an also-ran if he’s not the answer, or if the passing game continues to scuffle along its current level of mediocrity. Consider wide receiver: UConn is hoping that the two transfers lend some explosiveness to the position; if not, it’ll be more of the same. And offensive line, where health could determine whether the front makes any improvement, or the defensive line, where there’s talent but little proven production at tackle, or in the secondary, where the Huskies have a pair of talented cornerbacks whose play left much to be desired a season ago. If UConn lands its dream scenario at each spot this team can wear the Big East crown for the second time in three years. It’s one thing to like about UConn: the idea that if all goes right, this team can be a very serious Big East contender.

But nothing ever goes according to plan — not just in Storrs but elsewhere. That the league is so open will help UConn get back to six wins, squeezing into bowl play, but the rest of the Big East’s top portion has far fewer question marks; teams like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville have issues, of course, but no team is banking on a dream scenario quite like the Huskies. So what if UConn gets nothing from its new faces at quarterback, wide receiver and elsewhere — what then? If that happens, this is a real plan, vanilla, grey team that will quietly open play in September and disappear just as quietly in November. It won’t be that bad. I think that UConn gets back into bowl play, making steady improvement at quarterback and along the offensive line, and shows some new life in its second season under Pasqualoni. But if this team gets what it hopes for, don’t sleep on UConn making a push in the BIg East.

Dream season After an unsteady start while the new pieces fall into place, UConn turns it on during Big East play. The Huskies go 8-4 overall, 6-1 in the Big East, and earn a second B.C.S. bid in three years.

Nightmare season The offensive line is again abysmal, but it’s merely one in a long line of disappointments. Quarterback play gets worse, believe it or not. The receiver corps is shaky. The Huskies don’t produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2007. The line can’t stop the run and the secondary can’t muster up any defense against the pass. The end result is a 3-9 season, with two of those wins coming Massachusetts and Buffalo.

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 often very basketball-heavy. Desmond Conner, who covers UConn football for The Hartford Courant, might take umbrage at emails sent from a Boston College address but has his finger on the pulse of the program.

Connecticut’s all-name nominee RB Martin Hyppolite.

Word Count

Through 53 teams 201,483.

Up Next

Who is No. 71? The male and female mascots at tomorrow’s university were “married” — it was an arranged marriage, which should be frowned upon — in 1986. That made last year the pair’s silver anniversary.

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Comments

  1. Xenocide23 says:

    Looks like Arizona is up next!

  2. Rutgers Prof says:

    I don’t think the tidbit is exactly correct. In 1979 UConn was not a division 1 football program like Syracuse and BC. Also, I think that St. John’s and/or Georgetown were playing division 3 or club football.

    Paul: You’re right. Needs to be tweaked to reflect F.B.S. status. Georgetown was a very good Division III program that has struggled since moving up to the F.C.S. six or seven years ago.

  3. Ed says:

    Paul, Uconn has had 4 2,000 yard rushers in the past four seasons, in 2009 Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon both rushed for over 1,000 yards. If anything we have had 5 since Todman did it twice haha.

    Paul: Wow, forgot about that. Good one. Amazing run by this program. Imagine if the Huskies also had a quarterback.

  4. CL82 says:

    The link you have for UConn’s biggest message board, The Boneyard is out of date. Correct link is http://the-boneyard.com/forums/uconn-football.2/

    Paul: Sorry, guys. Fixed it above. Thanks.

  5. Hokieshibe says:

    It could aslo be NCSt, couldn’t it? Mr and Mrs Wolf were married (by the Demon Deacon, I believe)… Not sure on the year though…

  6. Hokieshibe says:

    oops, nevermind, they were married in 1981, apparently. My bad.

  7. rudy says:

    This team is the biggest sleeper I have seen in years. No one is aware of what is going on there.

    -RE to PP change in style of play was huge, took the team a lot to change. Year 2 will be better.
    -They have a top 20 D in the nation, no joke.
    -QB was a walk on that couldn’t play. If Whitmer can be just a average BCS qb, this team may do big things.
    -Joe Williams will backup Lyle, huge sleeper in the recruit class.
    -You nailed it on the improved WR position
    -Rutgers and Pitt with new coaches, Cuse hasn’t touched us in years, USF and LVille are the competition. We get Cincy at home.
    -MD and NCST hold the keys for us, 5-0 ooc and UConn may be BCS bowling.

    Paul: So close to being fully on board with this. Wish I had portrayed that better above. Think that UConn is the Big East’s bigger sleeper. But team is banking on too many variables to take such a leap of faith.

  8. Blades says:

    Paul, very balanced and informative look at Uconn,
    you did your homework. I linked it on the Uconn Report.

    Your Whitmer remarks were spot on, Coach P is probably
    just keeping the QB’s hungry over the summer. Everything hinges on the passing game being able to
    move the sticks. Which helps keep the D off the field which hasn’t been the case for years. Plus the former Maryland DC Brown’s new aggressive system usually takes time for players to adjust to, as it did with the D on the Terps .

    Also I can add that Uconn’s number one WR in 2010 Micheal Smith (with 46 recs) is back this year after missing 2011 for grades, one more thing that should help the passing game.

    Overall this was one the best informed, non-local media, looks that I have found on the web.

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