Saturday, February 18, 2017

Plenty of returnees for new UConn defensive coordinator to work with

Luke Carrezola, seen during 2015 win over Villanova, is among top
returning players for new coordinator Billy Crocker to work with
Call it the tale of two coordinators.

New UConn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has his work cut out for him trying to turn around one of the nation's most underachieving offensive teams. The process is probably going to take a while. Something tells me, however, that new defensive coordinator Billy Crocker has the pieces in place to put together an elite defense in the upcoming season.

I've been doing some research in the last few days and here are some numbers of interest.

The NFL Draft Scout site has a database of the top prospects in the Class of 2018 and while I'm not a huge fan of mock drafts and pro prospect projections this far out, the list of players does provide an indication of which teams have the most talented senior classes.

I went through all 12 American Athletic Conference teams and UConn has five players in the top 30 at their position. South Florida is next with four players and no other conference team has more than one.

Here's the breakdown:
Fatukasi DT-8
Summers FS-10
Carrezola DE-20
Levenberry OLB-23
Joseph ILB-27

CINCINNATI: 0
EAST CAROLINA: 0
HOUSTON 0
MEMPHIS- 1 (Genard Avery ILB-23)
NAVY- 0
USF 4 (Deatrick Nichols CB-7, Deadrin Senat DT-9, Auggie Sanchez ILB-11, Tajee Fullwood FS-23)
SMU 1 (Justin Lawler DE-24)
TEMPLE 1 (Sean Chandler CB-8)
TULANE 0
TULSA 1 (Jordan Mitchell FS-26)
UCF 0

Taking it one step further, I went through the list of returning players (a process made more challenging since four teams have yet to post their 2017 rosters online yet). UConn ranks second in the number of interceptions among returning players and third in sacks. Individually the Huskies  also rank rather well. Again, this is very unofficial since I won't have an accurate accounting of all the returning players until all the rosters are updated. Also, I don't include stats from transfers at their previous schools. Here's where UConn's returnees rank

TACKLES2. Junior Joseph, UConn 215
TACKLES FOR LOSS4. Luke Carrezola, UConn 21.5
12. Cole Ormsby, UConn 16
19. Foley Fatukasi, UConn 13.5

SACKS5. Foley Fatukasi, UConn 10
7. Luke Carrezola, UConn 9
7. Cole Ormsby, UConn 9
INTERCEPTIONS1. Jamar Summers, UConn 11
When Crocker brought his Villanova team into Rentschler Field for the 2015 season opener, four of the players he will be coaching (Fatukasi, Carrezola, Joseph and Summers) started on defense for the Huskies and four others got into the game so he has some sense of what he has to work with.

There will be more on this subject in tomorrow's paper

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Can Auburn connection provide punch for UConn's offense

Saying that Rhett Lashlee and J.B. Grimes have difficult jobs could go down as the largest understatement of the year.

When they were on the Auburn coaching staff together they helped the Tigers win the SEC title and earn a spot in the BCS national championship game as Auburn ran for 4,596 yards and 48 touchdowns during that magical 2013 season. Now it could be argued that other than head coach Randy Edsall, there probably aren't two UConn coaches who will have more eyes on them than Lashlee, the offensive coordinator and Grimes, the offensive line coach.

When I mentioned to UConn director of athletics David Benedict (who worked with both of them at Auburn) than Grimes may have the toughest job on the staff considering the horrendous level of play of the UConn offensive line in recent years, he wasn't ready to agree with me.

"It is going to require a herculean effort for all of our coaches to come in overcome a transition and overcome the fact that we've had Randy be the fourth coach in six years that's led this program," Benedict said. "That is a challenge in itself. I think it is going to be collective effort and it is not going to be on one particular coach but I will tell you this, if we needed a coach to take on more challenging positions, you want a guy like J.B. who has over 40 years of experience and probably has been in this situation before."

The one complaint from UConn fans in the last couple of years that I've heard the most was the pedestrian manner with which the Huskies played on offense. While other teams in the American Athletic Conference have adopted the philosophy that playing fast on offense is the way to go, there was Bob Diaco encouraging a style of offense that probably would have worked in the 1950s or 1960s. Lashlee made it clear that those days are over.

"We are going to play fast, we are going to try to dictate the tempo the best we can, play to the strengths of what we have until we recruit to the level to get where we want," Lashlee said. "We are going to be exciting to watch and hopefully we can score some points.

"If you were to ask our guys to get into a huddle, after a couple of weeks for us they wouldn't know how to do it. No huddle, we believe in tempo. I think it is exciting for the guys to play, exciting for fans. I believe in balance, being able to run and throw the football. I don't mean 50-50 distribution, 40 runs and 40 passes. I believe balance is being able to take what the defense gives you. One game they may be defending the pass and you have to run the ball more. The next game they may be loading up to stop the run and we will throw it and we are able to do so.."

Lashlee, who opened a few eyes when he left Auburn to take the same job at UConn, said that the offense the Huskies will be running is already being run by AAC teams. I followed up and asked him which programs in particular does he think are most similar to what he will run at UConn.

"(SMU coach) Chad Morris worked at Clemson and took the offense from Clemson and just won a national title so we run the same offense," Lashlee said. "Mike Norvell at Memphis, we all come from that tree so there will be a lot of similarities hopefully in the success rate too.

"It's not about how many plays you have, how many plays you can run well? We have to figure out what we do well, what our guys can do well."

Lashlee said he hasn't been pouring over game film to get a sense of what he has to work with but has viewed cut-up footage of individual players. He wants to use the spring and fall camps to make his observations on the UConn offensive personnel.

He also said he won't be surprised if no starting quarterback is announced until fall camp especially since three players who could compete for the starting job won't be enrolled at UConn in time for spring drills.

"It is going to be an interesting spring," Lashlee said. "It will be interesting to see what Bryant (Shirreffs) and Donovan (Williams) can do, we have two or three new guys coming in but they won't be here until the summer.

"The best guy is going to play whether he is one of the four guys here currently competing or whether it is one of the three guys coming in new, it will probably will be one of those deals where  we will be in fall camp before we figure it out this year."

I was also curious about the role the tight ends will have in the offense. Despite recruiting plenty of tight ends, Diaco and his staff didn't utilize them too often in the offense. I looked at Auburn's stats and saw that in 2013 there were only 12 passes caught by tight ends (11 by current NFL tight end C.J. Uzomah), there were 13 the following year, none in the 2015 season and two last season.

"We do have a lot of tight end bodies on our roster and if they become some of the better players on our roster, we need to use them," Lashlee said. "Some of that (lack of use for the tight ends in the passing game) was maybe difference of opinions and I believe if we have tight ends we should use them. We have had success in tight ends. you look at Charles Clay, C.J. Uzomah so we kind of like those hybrid guys who can live in both the run game and pass game and are a little bit of mismatches for us."

Now onto Grimes. UConn does have five offensive linemen who have between 9-15 career starts but that doesn't mean they will be the starters when the Huskies open up against Holy Cross.

"We don't have a depth chart right now," Grimes said. "We'll know a lot more after spring ball is over.

"There will be frustrating times, I can predict that it is going to be frustrating but you don't ever go negative on those kids. They are what we've got. We can't go out on the waiver wire and get new players, We've got some new guys coming in and we will see what they can do when they get here but they are not going to get here until June so the guys we have to win with are here right now pretty much. That may change over the course of fall camp but you can't go negative on these kids. You to have to coach them in a positive way but deal in realities. Don't try to tell something that isn't true, always deal with realities."

So what does Grimes look for in a successful offensive lineman?

"There are seven factors that are very critical in an offensive lineman, is he big enough, is he strong enough, is he quick enough, does he have balance, can keep his rear end off the ground, does he have a football IQ and two most critical factors are character and toughness, what kind of character does that kid have. Is he a kid who can take good, hard, fair coaching or is he going to back away from good, hard, tough coaching? Is he a tough guy? Does he like the game? The bottom line is if you don't love it, don't do it. It is not worth it, go get a job waiting tables, be a newspaper man. Character and toughness are the two most important factors. Then when you get those other five (parameters), you don't always have to have all five of those, you can have three of the five and be OK, be an efficient player. All of those are critical factors you look for in an offensive linemen."

I didn't get to all the coaches but do have stuff from running backs coach Terry Richardson and defensive coordinator Billy Crocker that I'll pass on in the coming days.

The first spring practice is March 21 with the spring game set for Friday night April 21 at 7 p.m. The first practice in fall camp will be on August 4.







UConn duo headed to NFL combine

This is not exactly earth-shattering news since it has been previously reported but the list of prospects being invited to the NFL combine was officially announced today and former UConn stars Obi Melifonwu and Noel Thomas are among the participants.

Melifonwu, a 6-foot-4, 219-pound safety, led UConn in both tackles and interceptions as a senior and his performance during the practices and in the Senior Bowl have NFL draft insiders projecting Melifonwu as a second-day pick with a chance of him becoming a first-round selection.

Thomas, who caught a program record 100 passes as a senior, has a lot more to gain from this exposure as strong performances could led to him hearing his name called during the draft.

Utah running back Joe Williams, who had three carries for UConn in a 2012 game against Temple before trouble off the field led to his departure, is also among the players headed to Indianapolis.

The receivers are slated to arrive for registration, orientation and interviews on March 1 with the on-field workout slated for Mar. 4. The defensive backs will be the last group to arrive and their on-field workouts are set for Mar. 6.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A look at UConn's 2017 roster

UConn has posted its 2017 roster on its site and the biggest news is that there isn't much news at all to report.

Every scholarship player expected to return is on the roster. I don't see a pair of walk-ons - running back Rick Bartone of Derby and linebacker Richmond Williams on there. Running back Ron Johnson, who previous announced via social media that he is transferring is gone from the roster as is defensive lineman Felton Blackwell, now enrolled at ASA College.

As far as position changes, fullback Teddy Allmendinger is now listed as a tight end and linebacker A.J. Garson is now a defensive lineman. Luke Carrezola and Connor Freeborn have also gone from being listed as linebackers to defensive linemen but Cam Stapleton is still considered a linebacker.

There were some changes in the weights as well most notably promising offensive lineman Cam DeGeorge going from being listed at 255 pounds on the final set of game notes in 2016 to his current weight of 283. Tight end Chris Lee is now listed at 280 pounds, defensive back Tyler Coyle (196 to 205) and offensive lineman Ian Campbell (287 to 296) are other players who have added some weight while offensive lineman Nino Leone went from 345 to 337.

Defensive back Omar Fortt is the only new name on there as the former St. Luke's star has enrolled early.

More pre-draft love for UConn's Melifonwu

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock released his positional rankings and former UConn safety Obi Melifonwu is rated as the No. 5 safety.

Ohio State's Malik Hooker, LSU's Jamal Adams, Jabrill Peppers of Michigan and Washington's Budda Baker are the only safeties rated ahead of Melifonwu who helped his stock at the Senior Bowl.

Melifonwu led UConn with 110 tackles and four interceptions as a senior and figures to only help his stock when it comes time to run and jump for the pro scouts. I've seen some chatter about Melifonwu becoming a first-round pick as former teammate Byron Jones was two years ago so stay tuned.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

UConn schedule is out

The American Athletic Conference released the 2017 schedule today finalizing the order of games in Randy Edsall's return to UConn.

It won't take long to see when the Huskies stand when the Huskies host South Florida in the conference opener on September 9.

The Bulls lose leading rusher Marlon Mack (who has made himself eligible for the NFL draft) and top receiver Rodney Adams but dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers is back. A total of seven offensive starters and eight on the defensive side are slated to return for the Bulls under new coach Charlie Strong.

Here's the schedule. UConn gets an early bye week on September 23 before a run of four straight conference games. It is also worth mentioning that Houston, Navy and Tulane, three of the seven teams to beat UConn in conference play a season ago.

Times and TV information will be announced later, likely much later although the AAC schedule release lists the Memphis game as being televised on ESPN.

It is also interesting (at least to me) that of the 103 early entrants into the NFL draft, three would have played against UConn had they returned with Mack being joined by Missouri defensive lineman Charles Harris (who had two tackles for loss and a sack in the 2015 game against UConn) and Tulsa receiver Keevan Lucas among those with remaining eligibility opting to throw their names into the NFL draft.

August 31 Holy Cross
September 9 USF
September 16 at Virginia
September 30 at SMU
October 6 Memphis
October 14 at Temple
October 21 Tulsa
October 28 Missouri
November 4 East Carolina
November 11 at UCF
November 18 Boston College (at Fenway Park)
November 25 at Cincinnati

Monday, February 06, 2017

UConn to hold meeting, tryout for walk-ons

One of the best things that Bob Diaco did during his time as UConn's head coach was look for walk-on candidates during the recruiting process and then follow that up by rewarding many of those players with scholarships.

Punter Justin Wain, offensive lineman Brendan Vechery, defensive lineman Sean Marinan, defensive back Nick Vitale and running back Jason Thompson are among those players who went from walk-ons to scholarship players and contributed on the field.

Time will tell just how Randy Edsall and his staff will handle the non-scholarship players but one thing they will be doing is holding tryouts for walk-ons.

It was announced today that an informational meeting will be held on Feb. 13  at 3:30 p.m. in the Burton Family Football Complex with tryouts scheduled for Feb. 17.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

20 players part of UConn's recruiting class

Today might be the first day when there were few surprising twists and turns on the recruiting front for UConn although the Huskies did get a commitment from quarterback Marvin Washington, a former UCF commit.

Beginning with the dismissal of Bob Diaco as head coach on Dec. 26 (eight days after a pair of recruits committed to play for him at UConn), things have been a little chaotic on the recruiting front.

Players have come and they have gone and only now are things settling down.

The UConn recruiting class will officially be announced this afternoon in an on-campus press conference. I am currently in Philadelphia to cover the UConn/Temple women's basketball game tonight but my colleague David Borges will be covering the press conference for the Register.

Here's a look at the players who have sent in their National Letters of Intent (FYI, Omar Fortt is an early enrollee so he didn't need to sign today). We'll see if any additional names get added to this list. With Ron Johnson's decision to transfer, I counted 24 available scholarships so there will be some spots left for either next year's class or if the opportunity to add some transfers.

"It was an interesting process take a look where the needs would be," Edsall said at the press conference announcing the class.

He said that bringing in three quarterbacks, "provides tremendous competition." He mentioned the winning pedigree of all three incoming QBs.

Also, that getting quality offensive linemen was a priority as was adding size, speed and athleticism at the wide receiver position.

It was interesting to me that he didn't rule out having one or more of the offensive linemen be in the mix to play this season since that is usually one of the hardest positions to make the jump from high school to Division I college football.

"Robert Holmes could have a chance (to play as a true freshman), Van Demark wll be a 300 pounder, James Tunstall another guy that has the size."

Obviously he was asked about the backlash on pulling scholarships. Edsall said he was limited with that he could say because players hadn't signed.

"You try to make the best decision for the program and sometimes when that happens people don't agree with you."

Here is the class
Darrian Beavers LB 6-4 215 Colerain High School
Brayden Brown S 6-1 193 Fort Hill High School
Garrison Burnett WR 6-0 190 Maret School
Ryan Fitton TE 6-5 240 Staples High School
Omar Fortt S 6-1 190 St. Luke's (already enrolled in school)
TJ Gardner LB 6-2 227 Windsor High School
Cameron Hairston WR 6-3 180 Lee's Summit North High School
Robert Holmes OL 6-5 330 Oxbridge Academy
Stanley Hubbard OL 6-3 300 St. John's College High School
Robert King III CB 5-11 180 Father Judge High School
Jordan McAfee QB 6-4 220 Everett High School
Abiola Olaniyan CB 5-11 180 Woodberry Forest School
David Pindell QB 6-1 185 Lackawanna CC
Jordan Swann CB 5-9 165 Saint Frances Academy
Ian Swenson S 6-1 180 Loyola Academy
Caleb Thomas NG 6-1 275 Mansfield High School
James Tunstall OL 6-5 315 Lackey High School
Ryan Van Demark OL 6-7 265 The Hun School
Marvin Washington QB 6-2 185 Dr. Phillips High School
David Williams RB 6-1 220 Imhotep Charter (University of South Carolina)

Williams and Pindell lead the list of players who could step onto the field this season as they had fortified a couple of positions where the Huskies were lacking depth. UConn has certainly added quality and quantity at the quarterback position with three of the pledges slated to be QBs with the Huskies. With so many young receivers, I wonder if Burnett and Hairston can play immediately and there could be opportunities to play immediately at safety. Darien long snapper Brian Keating is the one preferred walk-on I've heard about but we'll see how many others there are.

One major change I see with the new regime is players are being brought in to play positions they did in high school (for the most part). Under Diaco's watch, there would be an incredible amount of tight end types who would be moved to other positions.

The press conference is set for 1 p.m. and head over the www.uconnhuskies.com if you want to watch it live


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

UConn lands another in-state prospect

This has been one hellacious recruiting cycle at UConn with the change of coaches and I mean every single coach from Bob Diaco's staff being replaced by Randy Edsall and his new staff.

Predictably there have been some recruits who have opted to go elsewhere, most doing so while still being on the Huskies recruiting radar but obviously that is not the case for all them.

There was a key addition of former South Carolina running back David Williams that at worst provides depth at tailback and at best gives the Huskies another running back to feature in what will be a different looking offense, I am sure. There was also depth concerns at quarterback and some of that has been rectified with word that junior college quarterback David Pindell (who was also being recruited by Temple) has committed to UConn (I believe Mike Anthony of the Hartford Courant was the first to report this).

Now comes news that All-State linebacker TJ Gardner, a former Boston College commit, will sign with the Huskies tomorrow.


I would like to officially announce that tomorrow I will be signing my NLI to play for the UCONN Huskies 🐺🐾 #BleedBlue

Gardner had 65 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and an interception as a senior at Windsor High School as the Warriors recorded six shutouts. He also ran for 1,142 yards and 17 touchdowns while adding 31 catches for 438 yards and four more TDs for a team which advanced to the Class L title game.

There are five players who committed to UConn before the 2016 season who are expected to be part of the incoming recruiting class including early enrollee Omar Fortt. Four other players including three offensive linemen committed from the end of the season and the time that Diaco was fired and eight others (nine counting Williams) who committed after Edsall was hired.

Unfortunately, I won't be at tomorrow's press conference when the recruiting class becomes official. I am currently in Philadelphia as the UConn women's basketball team plays at Temple but my colleague David Borges is slated to be at the press conference and there will be plenty of signing day content coming from our top-notch high school staff as well.

There will be updates on the UConn football Twitter page as the letters start rolling in and the press conference can be seen live. Check out www.uconnhuskies.com for details.