Heading into last season there was not a position on the UConn team with more experience than offensive tackle as the duo of Jimmy Bennett and Kevin Friend have been protecting the edge for a few years.
In the "what a difference a year makes" department, now the Huskies have a starting left tackle (sophomore Rich Levy) who played a couple of snaps in a mop-up role against Buffalo and the other right tackle was projected to be former defensive lineman Andreas Knappe. With Knappe likely to miss the season opener against BYU due to a lower-leg injury, Dalton Gifford returns to man the position where he started six games in place of Friend a season ago.
BYU didn't exactly set the world on fire in the pass-rush department last season and the returning players accounted for just 14 sacks during the 2013 campaign. Still, there will be plenty of eyes on the offensive tackles to see how they hold up.
"It is just a matter of stepping on the field and getting going, getting game experience," UConn offensive line coach Mike Foley said. "Guys like Rich Levy have done a tremendous job through camp and through the spring and it is game experience now. He has the tools, it is just a matter of getting up there and gaining that experience, being productive. That is college football too, you don't keep them forever so it is the next guy up to go in there and be productive. It is their time to go in there and get it going. The other tackle, Gifford is in there and he has done a nice job throughout camp, he's played for us. He started for us last year when Kevin Friend went down towards the end of the year. Those guys are going to be on the field and they are starting to come together.
"It will be a real test for us and we are real anxious to see where we really are. I think we have gotten better within ourselves playing against our own team and everything else but now it time to line up against somebody else and see where we really are. We are not a finished product. I think this is an offensive line that will grow and get better as the year goes on. That is not saying that we won't be ready to play Friday night, we will be ready but I think we will be a group that will keep improving because we don't have a ton of experience with these guys."
Both Gifford and Levy said they learned so much from Bennett and Friend even when they weren't playing.
"It was motivation for everyone, the fact that we can fill their shoes in terms of picking up where we left off at," Levy said. "For me, it was motivation because with Kevin (Friend) and (Bennett) leaving and I wanted to be how he was, if not better. I learned a lot. I learned not to get down after a bad play, I learned how to bounce back, I learned how to persevere and keep going no matter what the situation is."
Gifford relied heavily on any advice he could get from Friend when he was thrust into the starting lineup.
"I just took it a day at a time. I was really close with Kevin and Jimmy and those guys," Gifford said. "Being with the 2's and being around them all the time allowed me to be ready for anything so whenever I have to go in, I was ready to go in to play at a high level. Kevin really prepared me and made sure I wasn't too rattled to go in the game.
"In the beginning when I wasn't sure if Kevin was going to be able to play or not and I was just making sure I was going to try my best to play at his level or above his level. Once I got into the flow of the game, the nerves settled and the smoke cleared I just played at my level and hope that was good enough for everyone."
Gifford drew praise from Foley and UConn head coach Bob Diaco for how far he came during preseason camp. He rose to the challenge after Knappe went down and Gifford began to work with the first team.
"I've been making sure to work on a lot of my fundamentals and the little things that make the big things happen easier," Gifford said. "That is the focus I have had in preseason camp to make myself better starting with the small steps and working up to the big stuff."
Levy's focus was more on the physical side of things. He is in the best shape of his life and it shows.
"I feel like I made the most progress with my footwork," Levy said. "I didn't have the best footwork last year and I committed time to getting better in the offseason and really grinding. I would say the change that we went through as a program and the nutrition factor really helped me a lot."
Emotions will be riding high when Levy trots onto Rentschler Field for his first collegiate start on Friday night.
"I just remember where I came from and all the people who depend on me back home, people who want to see me succeed as much as I do," Levy said. "I use that as my motivation every day to do the best of my ability.
"It is going to be very special. It is going to be a very different thing to witness but I feel as though I have worked for it."
Labels: Dalton Gifford, Mike Foley, Richard Levy