Saturday, April 22, 2017

Former walk-on Rishell getting his kicks at UConn

Among the most surprising aspects of last night's spring game was just how much range Will Rishell showed on his field goal attempts.

Rishell made a 44-yard field goal while a 47-yard attempt had the distance but was slightly off target.

Following the graduation of Bobby Puyol, one of the best kickers in program history, I figured Michael Tarbutt would be the Huskies' kicker. That still may happen but with Tarbutt out of the spring game and much of spring drills due to a quad injury, Rishell was given the chance to show what he can do. Now there will be serious competition at kicker in summer/fall camp.

Rishell, like most kickers, was more focused on the field goal and extra point that he missed than the field goal and the six extra points he converted. He approached Edsall about focusing exclusively on being a kicker instead of splitting his time at quarterback and kicker and that hard work is certainly paying off.

"Obviously I want them back but that is kicking, you can't get them back," Rishell said. "It is good to get out here at the Rent and get some (kicks in). Now that we had some production, now we can into the summer and we have three months where we can work on it. It is Brett's first time holding, it is my first time working with the whole operation so it is getting better and better."

Not only is punter Brett Graham the holder for the first time at UConn but Jeffrey Sidebotham is the long snapper giving UConn three new faces at all three levels of the place-kicking routine.

"Will has done in there and he's got a good pop on the ball," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "There are some things we need to work with him mechanically but he is also one of those guys he knows . He's a guy that understands it and is a competitor. He's had good enough leg strength, he's hit them from over 50 but we have to get him more consistent. Some of that is the operation, the snap, the hold all those things we are not as smooth as we need to be so it is not all on Will. I like the kid, I like the way he competes."

So what does Rishell feel like his range is?
"In the spring I've hit a couple of 50 yarders, a 51," Rishell said. "I think my range right now is probably about 55 and that was indoors so with the wind, that changes a little bit. Hopefully by the time the season comes along, I can hit it a little farther than that but you have to get the short ones
before you get the long ones."

Rishell has yet to appear in a game at UConn as he prepares for his fifth season but he still has had an journey to end all journeys.

After being a quarterback, defensive back and safety at RHAM, he decided to enroll at UConn and became a walk-on. Even though he was far down the depth chart, Rishell was among the first people at practice and the last ones to leave. He did the work in the weight room and in the classroom. His work did not go unnoticed as former UConn coach Bob Diaco awarded scholarships to Rishell and fellow in-state players Sean Marinan, Jason Thompson and Nick Vitale.

"That is one of my most favorite experiences here and something I will never forget," Rishell said. "Coming in as a walk-on, being able to get that with Nick and JT (Jason Thompson), JT is one of the best friends, we came in together and those two guys were both from Connecticut. It is awesome to be recognized for coming in every day, working hard. Regardless of how much I get to play here or if I don't, it was just an awesome memory for me and just to be able to share that with those guys, it was great.

"There is no guarantee so when you show up here, it is your first few days or first few weeks and you are a walk-on, you are just trying to figure things out. As the first few years go on, you get to know the guys and kind of find your place, that recognition is awesome because coming out here every day, you don't have any guarantees, you love football, you love the work and love coming out here and trying to make the team better is what we were doing and to be recognized for that was great."

It made for quite the special phone call to his parents who wouldn't have to pay for his final three semesters at UConn.

"It was awesome," Rishell said. "They have supported me my whole life obviously and the whole time here there are a lot of things you give up when you have such a busy schedule like we do and I don't get to see them as much but they have supported me through the whole thing so I can give them that call so they were obviously proud and happy for me."

Thompson had carries in 2016 games against Houston, Cincinnati and East Carolina and got the start against Cincinnati. Marinan had 20 tackles playing in 24 games during the 2015 and 2016 seasons while Vitale earned a regular role on special teams as he returned three punts during the 2015 campaign and in 2016 he made five tackles. Rishell knows that he is part of a group of former Connecticut high school players who can serve as motivation for future in-state products who opt to go the walk-on route at UConn.

"You have the guys who come in after and some times it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, you can kind of become an example for them that if you do the right thing, if you work hard, if you come in every day to try to make the team better, it is going to work out for you," Rishell said. "You are from Connecticut and you are a walk-on, you kind of gravitate towards the other guys who share in that experience so to be able to receive the scholarship with them was pretty special."

Rishell shares something else in common with Marinan as he has been honored for earn a 4.0 grade-point average on multiple occasions.

"I wish I was a 4.0 every time but it is up there pretty good," said Rishell, an electrical engineering major. "I've taken pride in doing the best I can in the classroom while I have been here, it is good to be able to see that achievement."

Friday, April 21, 2017

Wrapping up UConn's spring game

If the opening couple of drives in the first and third quarters in Friday's spring game is an indication, UConn's offense could pack more of a punch in the coming season under new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee's up-tempo, no-huddle offense.

Tyraiq Beals caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Bryant Shirreffs to open the scoring and then Nate Hopkins tied the game with a 1-yard scoring run. Yes, I know it is a spring game and not against another team going all out to disrupt UConn's offensive game plan, but this is the first time UConn has scored an offensive touchdown in the first quarter since the 2016 spring game as the Huskies were the only FBS team not to score an offensive touchdown during the 2016 season.

"I am getting used to it," receiver Hergy Mayala said with a laugh." I feel like there are going to be a lot of those coming."

UConn actually scored three TDs in the first quarter as Tahj Herring-Wilson fell on a fumble in the end zone.

The third quarter began with a 53-yard TD reception by Beals and an 80-yard scoring reception by Mayala.

Let's get down to the details. The final score was Team UConn 27, Team Huskies 24. Players switched teams so often that it got a bit confusing trying to keep up with the accurate score.

Here are the game leaders
PASSING: Bryant Shirreffs 19 of 33, 310 yards, 2 TDs; Brandon Bisack 19 of 29, 222 yards, 1 TD

RUSHING: Ja'Kevious Vickers 9-54, Nate Hopkins 15-50 3 TDs, Arkeel Newsome 11-35

RECEIVING: Quayvon Skanes 7-75, Keyion Dixon 5-94, Tyraiq Beals 6-95 2 TDs, Hergy Mayala 3-111 1TD, Aaron McLean 3-57

TACKLES: Tyler Coyle 8, Tre Bell 6, Nazir Williams 6, Foley Fatukasi 6,  Junior Joseph 5, Tahj Herring-Wilson 5, Vontae Diggs 5, Marshe Terry 5

SACKS: Fatukasi 2, Cole Ormsby, Cam Stapleton, AJ Garson

FIELD GOALS: Will Rishell good from 44, missed from 47

The starting offensive line was from left to right: tackle Matt Peart, guard Trey Rutherford, center Dan Oak, guard Steve Hashemi and tackle Cam DeGeorge. Returning starters Ryan Crozier and Tommy Hopkins missed the spring game and all of spring camp but both should be healthy when the team reports for summer/fall camp in late July.

Defensively, familiar faces like Fatukasi, Ormsby, Joseph, Jamar Summers, Diggs, Brice McAllister and Anthony Watkins started and they were joined by defensive lineman James Atkins, linebacker Chris Britton and defensive backs Tre Bell, a Vanderbilt transfer, and Coyle, a redshirt freshman got the call.

I never got around to doing something on Hashemi and DeGeorge during spring drills but I did ask Edsall about them after today's event. Hashemi, a former St. Joseph of Trumbull star has seen time at tight end and offensive tackle and now he has a new position while DeGeorge will be a redshirt freshman in the fall.

"Steve is an aggressive guy, a physical guy," Edsall said. "He has good toughness and he is a guy who has been around, he's got experience. He is a guy who we think will step up his game. There are things that he has to improve on but I really liked his effort and liked his (physicality) that he has shown this spring.

"(DeGeorge is a) young kid that is just going to continue to get better. Has to get stronger, we have to put more weight on him and this next three months for him is going to be critical in terms of gaining strength, gaining weight to put himself in a better situation as we get going at the end of July."

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Young players to be in spotlight at UConn spring game

Fans will get their first look at the 2017 UConn football team at tomorrow's spring game.

While the conditions aren't ideal with weather guessers calling for rain for most of the day and night, after sitting through the UCF, Temple and Tulane losses a season ago, a few rain drops hopefully won't dampen the fans' enthusiasm tomorrow night.

It will give me the first chance to see the actual pecking order at all the positions on offense and defense. In the practices I went to,  I didn't get to see much in the way of 11 on 11 drills. I did get to see which players were running with the first team at some of the positional drills and in particular the ones featuring the offensive line.

I'm especially interested to see how the freshmen look tomorrow night.

At practices last year running backs Nate Hopkins and Ja'Kevious Vickers looked the part and usually were good for at least one impressive run a day. Receivers Keyion Dixon and Quayvon Skanes saw time with the starting offense in recent spring practices while I am also curious to see how offensive linemen Cam DeGeorge and Nino Leone look.

On the defensive side of things, it is more of a veteran group but I've seen redshirt freshman Tyler Coyle and true freshman Omar Fortt running with the first team quite a bit.

As for the non seniors, one of the more noteworthy aspects of spring practice has been Brandon Bisack working ahead of former starter Bryant Shirreffs at quarterback at times while junior defensive lineman Sheriden Lawley has been a player I've noticed making his presence felt.

It would be a mistake to read too much into who is seeing first-team reps at certain positions. The offensive line has been missing center Ryan Crozier and guard Tommy Hopkins throughout spring because of injury, quarterback Donovan Williams has been sidelined as has been defensive end Luke Carrezola. The quarterback situation isn't going to be sorted out for a while with a junior-college transfer and two freshmen joining the team for summer/fall camp. I would also expect former South Carolina running back David Williams to be a player to push for a significant role once he arrives on campus.

There won't be much in the way of special teams work. Edsall said they may have punter Brent Graham take a snap and kick to a returner but the punter, snapper and return specialist would be the only players on the field. Trust me, the Huskies will get back to actually returning punts but it won't be happening on Friday night.

Past spring games have proven to not necessarily been an accurate glimpse into the future. The top two passers in last year's event where Tyler Davis and Garrett Anderson, who combined to throw for 111 yards during the 2016 season. On the other side of the ball, UConn had 13 players with at least 20 tackles during the 2016 season and they combined for a total of 13 tackles in the spring game while players who left the team before the start of the season combined for 14 tackles.

Admission and parking is free and gates open at noon.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The sad, tragic life of Aaron Hernandez

There are so many levels of emotion attached to the news of Aaron Hernandez's death.

Tragic is a word associated with Hernandez, who I would include among the most talented high school football players I have ever seen play. He had size, speed and he simply was unstoppable.
It was 11 years ago when I was assigned the story to do a feature on Hernandez for the Register's special section previewing the high school football season so I set up an interview with Hernandez and his mom in the parking lot of Bristol Central High School. What do I remember about that day?

For whatever reason, it was that I was running late. It is one of my pet peeves, if I say I'm going to be somewhere at 2, I will almost always arrive no later that 1:45. But on that day I was running behind schedule.  I've been doing this for more than 30 years and if I counted the number of times I ran late, I would need only one hand and would have a couple of fingers left over. I remember how understanding they were once I did finally make my way there.

The interview went well and I wish I could post a link to the story I wrote on Hernandez but the online archives don't go back that far. The best I can do is provide a link to the story through another archive service.

It was a more innocent time. Hernandez was coming off a junior season when he set the Connecticut single-season mark for receiving yards (breaking Seymour's Dennis Rozum's 36-year-old mark).

Another brilliant season followed as a senior and I was part of the committee who picked Hernandez as the Register's State Player of the Year. Although there was plenty of competition as Bunnell's Steve Smith had an absolutely brilliant season, Ansonia's Alex Thomas was in the midst of a record-breaking career. Mike Golic Jr. was headed to Notre Dame and players like Dan Mulrooney of Holy Cross, future UConn players Erik Kuraczea and Marcus Campbell were first-team All-State picks as was current MLB catcher Curt Casali. However, Hernandez was clearly the player of the year. He still owns Connecticut high school career records for catches, receiving yards and TD receptions.

I had no idea then what the future had in store for Hernandez or any of the honorees. Certainly I never envisioned he would be sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of murder or that I would wake up to the news that he allegedly committed suicide in his jail cell.

I have conflicted emotions at the current time. I believe that was the only time I interviewed Hernandez so I can't provide a glimpse into his soul or say that I knew him particularly well but I am saddened by the carnage he left in his wake. I mourn for the families who crossed paths with Hernandez and the victim/victims who lost their lives. I feel for Hernandez's family who must deal with the death of their family member at the age of 27. I also wonder what could have been. I remember watching Hernandez play in high school and thinking that there's no way he won't end up in the NFL. He did just that. If he had followed his brother D.J. to UConn as it first looked like he would, I'd have to think his name would be all over the UConn football record book. Instead he played at Florida for three years before leaving a year early for the NFL. There's no telling how many Super Bowls winning teams he would have been a part of, how many catches he would have made had he been able to stay out of trouble off the field.

Instead, he is a tragic figure, somebody who was blessed with an incredible amount of talent for football but never could fully realize those gifts. It upsets me that there will be countless online remembrances of a convicted murdered but the passing of murder victims like Odin Lloyd don't draw nearly the same amount of attention. I'm as much to blame in this instance as anybody else.

It's easy to suggest that the loss of his father forever changed Hernandez's journey but he's certainly not the first person to lose a parent at such a young age. There are plenty of examples of people dealing with the loss of loved ones going onto lead successful and productive lives.

I remember interviewing UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma about Hernandez, who he coached in AAU, back in 2013.

Among the things Auriemma said on that day, I thought he summed up the life of Hernandez perfectly when he said, 'it is just sad, no matter how it comes out it is sad."
 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

UConn's Edsall a fan of proposed rules changes

Some new rules are on the verge of being implemented and count UConn coach Randy Edsall among those applauding the expected move to an early signing period as well as the addition of a 10th assistant coach and capping the number of players on scholarship in one class to 25.

Here's the release on the rules changes that were approved by the NCAA Division I Council and still need to be ratified at the Division I Board of Directors meetings which end on April 26.

"I think they got it right,' Edsall said after Tuesday morning's spring practice, "I think there are more things that they can do. I was pleased that the proposal got passed. It is steps in the right direction, I do like the early signing period. We were getting to a point where people were just throwing offers out there because other people offered kids and now what happens, it will be interesting to see how many kids want to sign or commit to a school that offered and say, 'no you can't commit.'

"I am for all those things, the 10th coach, having the (limits on) camps on campus, all that. They just have to get back to civility in recruiting, let these kids be kids, tell them the truth, don't fill them with things that aren't there. Now I wish they would stop where you couldn't offer kids early enough. Having official visits in April, May and June, that will be different especially when they talk about the academic part when you bring kids in when you don't even have six semesters in of grades on them. That will be interesting to see how those things turned out."

There's not a ton to report off today's practice.

Tyler Davis was moved from tight end to receiver (his third position since arriving at UConn). It was his first day working with the receivers.
"Anybody who can help us win and help us score is welcome," receiver Hergy Mayala said. "Today was his first day so he has a lot to learn obviously but I think he is going to all right by the time fall (camp) comes along. He's a great worker, he's going to add to what we are doing so far."

Edsall said that Davis would probably be considered the fourth-string tight end and now he has a better chance to stepping onto the field as a receiver.

"He is not strong enough to play tight end so I think he is athletic, he runs well," Edsall said. "In terms of what we do in the offense, I think he fits better there right now. Right now he would probably be fourth in terms of where we are at tight end so now moving to where we are going to move him, he has a chance to come in and challenge that guy to be a starter or be the backup. I am worrying about trying to put the best team that I can together for this coming year and as I looked at it and evaluated it, I felt that would be the best spot for him for 2017."

Edsall also announced that Nazir Williams moved to the middle linebacker slot (likely caused by the injury to E.J. Levenberry) and Tyler Coyle is now at safety. Coyle was out there with the starting defensive backs along with fellow freshman Omar Fortt at the very end of the portion of practice open to the media. Williams looked impressive in the pass rushing drills when linebackers went up against running backs.

Arkeel Newsome, Quayon Skanes and Keyion Dixon all got work returning kickoffs today.

Edsall said that Friday's spring game will be more of a scrimmage that actual game. It will start off with the first-team offenses and defenses going head to head followed by the second team units squaring off. There could be live punting but no punt returns. Offensive linemen Ryan Crozier and Tommy Hopkins as well as defensive end Luke Carrezola remain in red no-contact jerseys so don't look for them to take part in Friday's 7 p.m. scrimmage.

Admission and parking will be free to the spring game at Rentschler Field.

There is one more practice in the spring and that is on Thursday but it is not open to the media.

I will also be filing a story on defensive back Jamar Summers, who many people thought might be preparing for the NFL draft right about now instead of returning for his senior season.

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Report: Miami DL Jenkins transferring to UConn

Randy Edsall said his staff would explore the possibility of adding players to its  roster and according to a report by Peter Ariz, owner of the CanesInSight.com site which follows University of Miami recruiting, former Miami defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins is transferring to UConn.

Former Miami DT Courtel Jenkins has committed to UCONN to finish out his college career. Disruptive lineman -- good get for the Huskies

The 311-pound native of Jersey City, N.J., Jenkins played in 34 games for the Hurricanes over the last three seasons. He had 54 tackles, 7 1/2 tackles for loss and 2 1/2 sacks. He posted a career-high six tackles in a 2015 game against Clemson.

His time at Miami came to an end when he was dismissed from the team a couple of months ago for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Among his visits during the recruiting process was one to Maryland for the spring game when Edsall was the Terrapins' head coach.

Jenkins played as a true freshman in 2014 so I would have to think he will not be immediately eligible to play during the 2017 season at UConn but will one year of eligibility remaining.

The NFL Draft Scout database run by CBS Sports lists Jenkins as the No. 59 rated defensive tackle prospect in the 2018 draft.

Friday, April 14, 2017

UConn's Melifonwu making the rounds

It seems like every morning that I log into Twitter I see a posting about former UConn safety Obi Melifonwu being part of a top 30 visit to another NFL team.

I've seen reports of him visiting Dallas, San Francisco, Carolina, Cleveland, Washington, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and today he is in Miami. With nearly two weeks until the draft, I would imagine that there would be more of these visits set up for Melifonwu. I saw a report that he was expected to take a top 30 visit to Seattle but I'm not sure if that has taken place yet.

The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Melifonwu opened plenty of eyes during practices at the Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine and the pro day at UConn. With a 4.4 40-yard dash, 44-inch vertical and broad jump of 11-9, Melifonwu is one of the most intriguing athletes available in the draft.

The first round is April 27 and there's a good chance that Melifonwu could join Donald Brown and Byron Jones as the UConn players selected in the first round of the NFL draft.