Friday, October 09, 2015

Florida well represented in the UConn secondary

Something tells me that the race to get to teammates with no family members coming to tomorrow's game could have been rather interesting this week.

Perhaps nowhere are the need for tickets more pronounced for the Central Florida game than from UConn's defensive backs as four of the eight players on the two-deep chart hail from the Sunshine State.

Starting cornerback Jhavon Williams, a Delray Beach resident, estimated that he needed 40 tickets.

"I don't think I am going to get them all but my parents, they understand and will do their best," Williams said.

Reserve safety Ellis Marder from nearby Windermere couldn't even come up with a number.

"No counting" is how Marder responded when I asked him after Tuesday's practice how many tickets he was hoping to secure for friends and family.

Marder played at Lake Highland Prep in Orlando, just about two miles from the UCF campus.

Lake Highland Prep receiver Hayden Jones is a member of the UCF team and Marder remains in touch with him. Defensive back Drico Johnson, who is considered doubtful to play, is another UCF player that he knows very well.

"Drico played on my 7 on 7 team in high school so we have been close," Marder said. "I haven't talked to him in a little while. I talked to Hayden Jones a little bit, he played on my high school team and he is a great receiver."

The focus of my advance for tomorrow's game is on the quartet of Florid-raised defensive backs expected to see time for the Huskies (reserve cornerbacks Javon Hadley and John Green are both from Miami).

Maybe it's a coincidence that four defensive backs from Florida were not only recruited to UConn but play key roles for the Huskies or maybe not.

"You are going to go up against quick receivers, there is a lot of passing down there and it all about football down there," Hadley said. "Coming up here, we are going against faster receivers at the next level, it is top-level guys I have been playing since I was little."

There are 11 Florida natives on the UConn roster but only seven have made it onto the field this season with kicker Bobby Puyol, tailback Ron Johnson and tight end/h-back Dallas Parker joining the four aforementioned defensive backs. Ryan Crozier, who would have been the starting center had he not been sidelined for the season with a knee injury, reserve offensive linemen Dan Oak and Kyle Schafenacker and freshman receiver Frank Battle (who is redshirting) are the other Sunshine State products on the roster.

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

Ansonia's Newsome displaying the gift of grab at UConn

During his record-breaking run at Ansonia, High School there was little need to throw the ball to Arkeel Newsome because he was doing such damage in the run game. However. things are a little different at the college level.

In his final two seasons at Ansonia, Newsome did not have a game with more than one reception. Last season he led all UConn running backs with 11 catches and 155 receiving yards, 74 coming on one dazzling catch and run.

That was simply a prelude to what Newsome is doing now.

Newsome has caught nine passes for 114 yards over the last two games. I did some research on this and it is the most catches for a UConn running back in consecutive games since Andre Dixon had six against Cincinnati and four against Syracuse back in 2007. Finding the last Husky RB with more receiving yards in consecutive games proved to be more challenging. Actually, I went all the way back to 1981 and couldn't find a time when that happened.

It was a subject I have raised with Newsome before. He said he spent every time this summer catching passes from the JUGs machine to get him ready for his expanding role as a receiver out of the backfield.

"I am just ready for whatever they throw at me, giving it 100 percent with whatever I do," Newsome said.

I spoke with quarterback Bryant Shirreffs and offensive coordinator Frank Verducci about Newsome's gift for grab.

"We try to give him the ball behind the line of scrimmage or really anywhere on the field and he can make some big plays," Shirreffs said. :You may think it will only go five yards and he will turn it into a first down and even more. He is a fun player to play with."

It's been an interesting situation at tailback as it has turned into an "either/or" situation. Ron Johnson had 55 carries in the first three games but just one rushing attempt in the last two games. After carrying the ball just two times against Missouri, Newsome has 27 carries to go with his nine receptions.
Both Verducci and head coach Bob Diaco said that both sophomores are key players in the running game. Newsome is clearly the better receiver and has been utilized more in the last couple of contests.

"The participation pattern, there is a little bit of a shift there but I wouldn't read into it because I feel like right now we are coming back to what I think is appropriate and that is both players getting the ball, running the ball, getting their opportunities to run the ball, let the game come to the guy that is starts to come to," Diaco said. "They both do different jobs well so as the game tilts and one of the jobs becomes more important than the other, a rep pattern could tilt. All things being equal, I believe they will both participate and the game will tilt from there."

Newsome has shown enough when given the chance that he figures to continue to be featured in the passing game as the season moves on.
"He has so many dimensions to his game," Verducci said. "He is deceptively strong besides all the obvious talent or being quick and having exceptional hands and he just loves to play football, he is very fun to coach.

"He gives you the ability sometimes to just forego protection, just throw the ball hot to him and see what he can do with it. He has long ball ability, he has screen game ability, he's got underneath ability so he lets you be as imaginative as you want."

What's interesting is that dating back to 2008 when running backs snared 52 passes, the number of catches dropped each season

2008: 52
2009: 43
2010: 38
2011: 35
2012: 33
2013: 28

Last year there was a slight increase as the backs caught 30 passes. They could make a run at the 2008 total with the way things are going.

It is not all positive, however, with the use of the running backs in the passing game. There have been issues with the running backs missing blocks or heading out on patterns instead of staying in to deal with a blitzer.

"That is an area that has really been a liability," Diaco said. "I am not trying to place blame, I blame ourselves as coaches more than anything else but that position has created a lot more of a pocket stress than the offensive line."

It is an area that has been addressed in practice on a weekly basis. With three of the four running backs being sophomores, Verducci is hoping that there will be fewer missed assignments as the backs get deeper into the season.

"It is a continual work in progress," Verducci said. "You get most running backs, most big-time backs in high school aren't really asked to do pass protection (in high school). Many of them, due to their high school training, are fairly one dimensional, they are really good with the football under their arm. The things that you traditionally have to work on are pass receiving skills and the separator as I call it is their ability to pass protect - not only to pass protect but to identify their protection. We do ask a lot of them in that area and they have had some rough spots along the way in the first half. You've like to think with the experience and the continued development, that will sort itself out as we go through.

"You see it in practice but when you get out on the field and everything is moving 10 times faster so for me I think it is more of an experience factor and I look for us to get better with it as the season moves forward."

Verducci is also determined to get the tight ends the ball more as Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom have just 12 catches between them in the first five games. Verducci said the pass blocking issues of the offensive line and running backs is not a reason for the limited number of times Myers and Bloom are being targeted in the offensive game plan.

"They are really not involved in pass protection to tell you the truth," Verducci said. "We have very few protections that require them to stay in. They are not inactive by design, I will put it that way, there have been some opportunities that we have missed when they have been open in games and I think as the season goes on, they will continue to pop up as they did the first couple of games."

Getting back to Newsome's pass catching prowess, here are some numbers to chew on. His 167 receiving yards are the ninth most for a UConn RB during the FBS era and his is only 113 behind the first-place mark of 280 set by Andre Dixon in 2007. Newsome has the two highest receiving yardage totals for a UConn RB since the Huskies began playing at the FBS level.

Here are the lists of top receiving performances by a UConn running back since the Huskies became an FBS program

Newsome 2-77 vs. Temple 9-27-2014
Newsome 4-63 vs. Brigham Young 10-2-2015
Todman 3-59 vs. Rutgers 10-31-2009
Brown 4-58 vs. Cincinnati 10-25-2008
Dixon 3-55 vs. Louisville 10-19-2007
Dixon 4-52 vs. Akron 9-29-2007
McCombs 3-52 vs. Western Michigan 10-1-2011
Sherman 7-51 vs. West Virginia 11-1-2008
Dixon 6-51 vs. Cincinnati 11-10-2007
Newsome 5-51 vs. Navy 9-26-2015Sherman 3-51 vs. Rutgers 10-18-2008
McCombs 2-51 vs. North Carolina State 9-8-2012

10 Andre Dixon Cincinnati (6), Syracuse (4) 2007
9 Arkeel Newsome Navy (5), BYU (4) 20158 Lyle McCombs Towson (5), Maryland (3) 2014
8 Anthony Sherman West Virginia (7), Syracuse (1) 2008
8 Terry Caulley Temple (3), Vanderbilt (5)

270 Anthony Sherman 2008
231 Cornell Brockington 2004
230 Lyle McCombs 2012
205 Terry Caulley 2002
185 Jordan Todman 2009
176 Terry Caulley 2005
172 Lyle McCombs 2011
167 Arkeel Newsome 2015
155 Arkeel Newsome 2014

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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Injuries, graduation have taken toll on UCF

Heading into the season I knew that the UCF football team was going to have plenty of holes to fill with the departure of an extremely productive senior class. However, it wasn't until I looked into this a little closer that the full brunt of the Knights' departures really hits home.

Losing players like linebacker Terrance Plummer, defensive back Clayton Geathers (team-high 11 tackles against UConn last season) and receiver J.J. Worton (11 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown in the '14 game) to graduation is tough enough but then receiver Breshad Perriman and defensive back Jacoby Glenn declared for the NFL draft. Running back William Stanback, who ran for 141 yards and a pair of TDs against the Huskies the last time out, was dismissed from the team. By my count he is one of 12 players who had remaining eligibility who are not on the current UCF squad including the two players who left for the NFL. Among that group is defensive lineman is Miles Pace, who had three tackles for loss and a sack in the last meeting.

Wait, it gets worse for the Knights. Starting center Joey Grant and starting defensive tackle Demetris Anderson suffered season-ending injuries. In fact according to UCF, the Knights lead all FBS teams with 26 games missed by starters due to injury this season. That has resulted in 13 true freshmen seeing time for UCF and UCF head coach George O'Leary said earlier this week that six true freshmen were on the field at the same time.

According to my math, of the 22 offensive and defensive starters for UCF in last season's stunning 37-29 loss to UConn, 15 of them have departed or are injured and that doesn't include quarterback Justin Holman, who has been sidelined with a finger injury.

Not only are all the UCF players who scored touchdowns against UConn in last year's game gone (Stanback had two, Perriman and Worton one each) but of the nine players with multiple tackles in the 2014 contest, only Thomas Niles and Errol Clarke are back and Clarke is listed as a backup on the UCF depth chart. By comparison, 14 of the 17 UConn players with at least two tackles in the game are expected to suit up for the Huskies on Saturday.

UCF used 55 players in last year's meeting and by my count, 26 are no longer on the team, three are out for the season due to injury and six others are not on the depth chart. That list doesn't even count injured players like Holman and Drico Johnson who should return at some point this season.

This is how I broke it down for UCF
18 players are back who saw the field in last year's game (including Drico Johnson, who was listed as doubtful for the game according to the Orlando Sentinel).
26 have graduated or are no longer with the team
3 are out for the season due to injury
6 are not listed on the depth chart
Neither Holman or Johnson are listed above

So if Holman and Johnson are out, 37 of the 55 players who saw time against UConn a season ago will not be on the field. UConn could call upon 42 of the 54 players who saw snaps against the Knights.

On Monday's AAC conference call, O'Leary said "everything that we have caused we have caused ourselves and if we clean those things up we will be fine."

What does all this mean for UConn? I'm not sure but you can rest assured that coming off three straight losses, the Huskies still know that returning home with a win will be no easy task. The Huskies have been outgained in their last 12 true road games and in 10 of the last 15 true road games the Huskies have not scored multiple offensive touchdowns.

"Does a freshman wide receiver look the same as a high-round, first-round draft pick wide receiver?" Diaco said when I asked him yesterday is this UCF team looks similar on tape to the teams he has played in the last two seasons. "But they have talented players. They have been playing in the conference for three years and they only have two losses, they have produced the top recruiting class over and over and over again so they have a roster full of very talented players. We know who they are and what they are going to be. Coach O'Leary is one of the best coaches in the country for a long, long time and I have no doubt that they are going to be a great, great team like we anticipated."

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Pretty uneventful prelude to UConn/UCF "rivalry" week game

In this day in age where everybody with a computer and access to the Internet can make an attempt at being a social-media comedian, I have to admit that I wondered how Bob Diaco's Tuesday afternoon press conference was going to unfold this week.

Yes, this is conFLiCT game week. UConn will bring the trophy, which is very much Diaco's creation, with the UConn travel party to Orlando. Since a photo of the trophy was posted on Twitter by somebody who works with the football team, the snarky comments have come in fast and furious. The next one that is actually original or even somewhat funny would be the first to meet that criteria but Twitter doesn't lack for people who think they are more clever than they actually are.

However, I digress. The bottom line is that while Diaco was asked about the trophy and rivalry game created by win both on Monday's American Athletic Conference coaches call and during Tuesday's press conference, there were no outlandish quotes coming from him.

This story has taken on a life of its own especially when the people down at Central Florida admitted that they knew nothing about this being a rivalry game.

"I didn't know about it until it really came out on ESPN that he created a trophy," UCF senior defensive lineman Thomas Niles said at AAC media day. "It is OK, you still have to play the game. It doesn't matter in the state, out of the state, in the conference, out of the conference, it is still a game."

Diaco relished the chance to give his thoughts on the importance of having this be a game with a trophy going to the winner.

"Just trying to add some positive fun and energy to a football game in a conference and in half of a conference," Diaco said. "It is just cool, I hope other people do, it is not intended to be anything other than that. It is something meant t energize the players and staffs on both sides, hopefully energize the fan bases on both sides so we can have a grset energetic game that is classy and high character so that is the idea."

Diaco also said that any initial buzz created by this being a rivalry game doesn't last for very long once the game starts.

"The reality of it is that you can create whatever kind of emotion you want to create, it doesn't last," Diaco said. "It is a two-minute ordeal and after that, the other 58 minutes of football, the most prepared team is going to be the team that wins. After the first two minutes of all the things that everybody is talking about, the players who are on the field and coaches who are helping to direct, it doesn't last, that energy doesn't last. There is only one energy that lasts for four quarters, there is only one emotion that lasts for four quarters and you can't create it on game day. It is a love, you love to play football and that is it. The ball is snapped, you love to play so you play, you play as hard as you can play, focus as hard as you can, you know your job, you do your job and here we go."

Not much news to report from the press conference.

Diaco said there are no plans for personnel changes at any positions including the offensive line.

While the line and in particular the veteran offensive linemen have struggled, Diaco said the line "has come a long way."

Diaco is not known for being overly critical of his players but when I asked him about how the running backs are handling their pass-blocking responsibilities he didn't hold back.

"That is an area that has really been a liability," Diaco said. "I am not trying to place blame, I blame ourselves as coaches more than anything else but that position has created a lot more of a pocket stress than the offensive line."

Diaco said that the plan is still to use both Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson at tailback although it has been almost all Newsome in the last two games.

"The participation pattern, there is a little bit of a shift there but I wouldn't read into it because I feel like right now we are coming back to what I think is appropriate and that is both players getting the ball, running the ball, getting their opportunities to run the ball, let the game come to the guy that it starts to come to," Diaco said. "They both do different jobs well so as the game tilts and one of the jobs becomes more important than the other, a rep pattern could tilt. All things being equal, I believe they will both participate and the game will tilt from there."


Monday, October 05, 2015

Despite 0-5 start, UCF has respect and attention of UConn

Yes, it is conFLiCT week and naturally UConn coach Bob Diaco was asked a couple of questions on this morning's American Athletic Conference weekly call about Saturday's game at Central Florida.

Before last year's game Diaco mentioned how much respect he has for the UCF program and head coach George O'Leary and said having a trophy for the game wouldn't be a bad idea. Well, he took it to the next step and created a trophy and the Civil conFLiCT name. When it reached the national media that Diaco had declared UCF to be UConn's rival even though Central Florida knew nothing of the trophy or created rivalry, let's just say it might have been mentioned once or twice through social media.

First order of business, "civil" is no longer associated with the trophy since there was some backlash about that.

Diaco was asked on the conference call whether UCF's 0-5 record has taken any luster off the game.

"It is only a thing if it is reciprocated and either way it is fine," Diaco said. "For me it hasn't and for our team it hasn't. We have the utmost and ultimate respect for Central Florida. They have been competing in the conference for three years and they have two losses total. That is who they are, we know that is who they are and that is the team we are going to prepare against."

He was then asked if the trophy was going to be on the flight to Orlando.

"Of course," Diaco said.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

UConn doesn't stray from defensive philosophy

One of the more intriguing questions leading into Friday's game at BYU was whether the UConn coaching staff would instruct their players to get up in the faces of the Cougars' receivers.

The strategy worked wonders for Michigan who pushed the BYU receivers around in a 31-0 victory.

However, when Bob Diaco came to UConn to breathe life into a struggling program he was bringing his "bend but don't break" defensive philosophy with him.

Cornerbacks Jhavon Williams and Javon Hadley were seven/eight yards off on the first BYU pass play. That was pretty much the way the Huskies played during the game.

In the post-game press conference I asked Diaco if there was a temptation to try to use a similar tactic to what Michigan did.

"It is completely different," Diaco said of Michigan's plan of attack and the way the Huskies play defense. "We felt good about our plan which was working."

Diaco has said the ultimate goal is to limit the number of points being scored. Well, at halftime BYU had outgained the Huskies 283-114 and it was a 7-7 game. After three quarters BYU was up to 438-129 and the game was tied at 10.

"They were executing the plan defensively, we felt good about it and it was working for the better part of three quarters." Diaco said. "We need some more offense, a little bit, there is a lot of pressure, a lot of stress on the other two phases but we will get it. It may take a little bit more time, they are starting to groove and they are younger but we will get it. The coaches are coming together, we will take it on ourselves. they are trying so hard, the young men. We will keep doing a better job of finding plays for them and the things we can do to execute well and close out some of these games with wins."

UConn's soft zone made life relatively stress free for BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum, who was pressed into duty as the starting quarterback when Taysom Hill suffered a season-ending foot injury in the opening game against Nebraska.

Mangum carved up the Huskies' zone defense on third downs.

BYU faced third down plays of at least six yards on 12 occasions and seven times Mangum converted with a pass, usually to a wide-open receiver. Mangum was 7 of 9 for 91 yards with seven conversions on the first nine 3rd and long situations.

The UConn defense did have its moments as cornerbacks Jhavon Williams and Jamar Summers each had interceptions while Williams had a team-high 10 tackles.

"Our coaches were telling us to play our defense, play fundamentally sound and once the smoke we are going to be all right," Williams said. "That is what we tried to do."

Here is the breakdown of BYU on 3rd and 6 or longer
First quarter
3rd and 6 at UConn 45: Jhavon Williams only a couple yards off but Mitch Mathews caught ball a couple yards past first down marker and broke tackle to gain 13 yards
3rd and 6 at UConn 7: Mathews goes in motion and Jamar Summers follows him but can't stop him until after Mathews gets the first down.
Second quarter
3rd and 7 at BYU 45: Mitch Juergens goes in motion and isn't tackled by Ellis Marder until he is past the first-down line
3rd and 14 at UConn 29: Mangum had Moroni Lalau-Pututau open in the end zone just short-armed the throw.
3rd and 7 at BYU 39: Nice coverage by Jhavon Williams on a slant results in incompletion
3rd and 6 at BYU 38: Williams backed up beyond the first-down mark when Nick Kurtz began his route. Kurtz had the first down before being tackled by Williams.
Third quarter
3rd and 8 at BYU 49: Great coverage by Jamar Summers but Mathews comes down with first-down catch
3rd and 7 at BYU 32: Terenn Houk makes catch two yards past first-down line, broke a tackle and gained 24 yards
3rd and 8 at BYU 48: Mangum rolls right and Kurtz finds spot in zone between four UConn defenders five yards past the first-down mark, breaks a tackle en route to a 25-yard gain.
3rd and 10 at UConn 16: Tremendous tackle by Williams stops Juergens two yards shy of the first down
Fourth quarter
3rd and 9 at UConn 40: Mangum's throw to the end zone lands out of bounds although play worked out pretty well for BYU when Andrew Adams kicks ball into stands to get 15-yard penalty.
3rd and 7 at UConn 15: Francis Bernard with 1-yard run.

A couple of other thoughts from the game.

UConn's running backs need to be better in reading who is coming free on blitzes. At least three times including an early sack and the play resulting in Bronson Kaufasi's interception a BYU player came unblocked from the edge. It's been happening all season and if UConn is to have success moving forward, this is an area that needs to be cleaned up.

I was curious what Vontae Diggs did to get a holding call on a kickoff especially when the flag was thrown from "Salt Lake" as the announcers said. I saw Rhett Sandlin going to the ground so it probably was a hold. What I do know for sure is that two BYU players were a full yard downfield at the time of the kickoff so at worst, the ball should have been kicked off again. Who knows, maybe UConn still gets pinned back inside the 20 but if not, the Cougars would not have started the next drive on the UConn 41.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

UConn's Fatukasi, Williams shine in losing effort

If the final score had been a little different, Folorunso Fatukasi and Jhavon Williams would have been toasted for perhaps the best games of their collegiate careers.

However, after Friday night's 30-13 loss at Brigham Young, neither Fatukasi nor Williams were in the mood to pat themselves on the back.

All Williams did was record a career-high 10 tackles as well as an interception. Still, heading home with his team on a three-game losing streak was not going to put Williams in a great frame of mind.

"We put so much time and effort into it and to not come out victorious, it really hurts," Williams said.

"I am just trying to make plays to help my team win so I am hurting."

Fatukasi moved back into the starting lineup after Mikal Myers started last week against Navy. He had seven tackles including a sack, two quarterback hurries and a blocked field goal.

"There is only so much you can control," Fatukasi said. "I can only focus on my job and do what I can do.

"Nobody is ever happy about losing but we are going to learn from our mistakes and grow."

UConn wrapped up non-conference play with a 2-2 record. Now the Huskies play their next four games against fellow American Athletic Conference East Division teams beginning a week from today with a 3:45 p.m. game at Central Florida.

"We just have to stick together, gel as a team," Williams said. "Now we go into conference play and that is the most important thing right now, winning in the conference and going to a bowl game is the most important thing right now for us right now."

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Fourth quarter BYU scoring flurry sinks UConn

It almost seems silly to write that a game when UConn was outgained 539-230 could be considered "one that got away."

However, that is exactly how Friday night's 30-13 loss at BYU felt.

Midway through the third quarter the Huskies were leading 10-7 and heading into the fourth quarter heavily-favored BYU was only up 13-10.

"We made a lot of mistakes," UConn coach Bob Diaco said. "We have to improve, finish and execute, close out games that we very winnable and win it.
"We are in a great game, a dog fight and we have every opportunity to win the game. It was two minute there of error, error, error, a physical error, execution error and mental error and the score was not indicative of how the game went."
Whether it was allowing BYU defenders to have clean runs into the backfield, a holding call on a kickoff return, a 15-yard penalty for kicking the ball into the stands, a missed blocked leading to an ill-advised pass and game-changing interception and there was a season's worth of breakdowns in a small amount of time. There was also a failure to get off the field on 3rd and 8 on one BYU scoring drive, failure to jump on a live ball after a well-executed onsides kick were also plays that if they were executed with more precision, might have resulted in the Huskies returning from the longest regular-season road trip in program history with a spirit-lifting victory.
"We were right in the game halfway through the third quarter," UConn sophomore quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said. "We had some miscommunications and that interception (by Bronson Kaufasi) changed the game. We were so close, nobody realizes it but we are so close to being 5-0. We have to capitalize and execute. We have been saying that I put a lot of pressure on myself.
"It is really difficult, we just have to turn it into positive energy somehow and now we are into the heat of the conference. We have to get back to Storrs and get to work."
A fumble recovery by Mikal Myers and interceptions from Jhavon Williams and Jamar Summers gave the opportunistic UConn defense a chance to keep the Huskies in the game.
For the 12th straight true road game UConn was outgained in the game. The offense did not look impressive for much of the game although Arkeel Newsome (68 yards rushing another 63 receiving) had another strong game.

"Just a couple plays in the game in key situations, if it is just one person not completing their assignment, you need 11 people," Shirreffs said. "If 10 people are completing their assignment, one person doesn't know protection or in my case, I am making the wrong read, I am reading the defense wrong it makes everybody else look bad so I am speaking for myself, I need to improve and prepare more and it is a learning process but it is time to win."

After the game Diaco said that Ron Johnson, despite one offensive touch in the last two weeks, is still a key member of the offense and that Javon Hadley started at cornerback because starter Jamar Summers missed practice time earlier in the week.