Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pretty good ending to Diaco's first spring camp at UConn

Bob Daco certainly knows how to talk the talk and talk and talk and talk.

Ask him how's everything going and you might not get a second question in if you have somewhere to go in 30 minutes time. He's said all the right things this spring about changing the culture but there's much more to having a winning team than painting some walls and checking the Vitamin D levels of the players.

So when the offense was forced to punt on six of the seven possessions in the first half of yesterday's spring game, it was impossible not to hear the grumblings of some of the estimated 6,500 fans who made their way into Rentschler Field.

But at game's end I think there were far more positives than negatives.

First, let me start off by saying that reading too much into spring games is a risky proposition since every time the defense looks good that means that the offense helped that to occur or vice versa and the defense should be prepared since it had 14 practices working against the offense so they can recognize formations and know all the plays before they even happen.

Still, I will proceed.

Nothing was better than the weather. You just won't find a better day for football than what we had yesterday and just as importantly, I did not see any significant injuries suffered by any of the players.

As for the on the field stuff, one of the biggest questions surrounded the defensive line. With UConn shifting to a 3-4 scheme, Angelo Pruitt and Julian Campenni have already proven that they are effective and productive players but the performance of B.J. McBryde was an eye opener. At 6-foot-5 and 304 pounds he fits exactly what Diaco wants in a 3-4 defensive end. He knocked down two passes at the line and two of his four tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. Pruitt also had two TFLs and all four sacks were recorded from defensive linemen.

"You think about Angelo, he is one of the older players and he has reps under his belt and played the games, he is playing the whole time playing a different position, grinding it out and being animated, one of more animated down the stretch too that was nice," Diaco said.

Diaco was also happy with what he saw from McBryde.

."Another mature, older player, totally bought in and there are a lot of guys like him that they have been through so much, not necessarily unique to UConn but they have been through so much to be whole hearted, wide open and 'give it to me, teach me coach.' He has been a real stellar teammate."

Perhaps the best on the field aspect of the spring game is the unique scoring system resulted in the game's outcome not being decided until the final drive. The offense trailed by three points in the fourth quarter when Casey Cochran was unable to handle the snap on the potential game-tying field goal. With another chance to win the game, the defense came through with the game-clinching strip and fumble recovery after a short completion.

"It is always competitive and it is good to come out on top," safety Andrew Adams said. "There are definitely some bragging rights going into the summer."

Plenty of young receivers and tight ends got into the act. The leading receiver was redshirt freshman tight end Quinn Thompson (5 catches, 37 yards) and half of the 38 receptions went to receivers or tight ends who came into the program last year.

The three quarterbacks who got starts during the 2013 season had their moments. I thought it was interesting that it was primarily a two-quarterback deal as starter Cochran got five series and Chandler Whitmer four before Tim Boyle came into the game in the second quarter. Whitmer had the best stats and engineered the first scoring drive of the game but Boyle moved the team very well when he came in. Whitmer was pretty up front about how close he came to not returning to the team this season.

It wasn't all positive.

There were five straight 3-and-outs, too many bobbled passes and a couple of drops and the running game looked rather pedestrian with the exception of a couple of hard runs by Max DeLorenzo and some late bursts by Jazzmar Clax and Josh Marriner.

Now the team won't be on the field together for another few months but at least the players and coaches have gotten the chance to find out what makes the other group tick and that should help both the players and coaches moving forward. It hasn't been easy for the players, especially the older ones. The fifth-year seniors were recruited by Randy Edsall, coached by Paul Pasqualoni for two full seasons and the first four games of last year before T.J. Weist took over on an interim basis. Now it is Diaco calling the shots with a brand new staff with the exception of offensive line coach Mike Foley.

"He (Diaco) didn’t agree with the culture and he is doing what he wants to do and so far it is working out great for us," rising senior cornerback Byron Jones said.

"Five years (four) different head coaches, a lot of different position coaches but it is all part of the experience. In Division I football you have to understand that this type of stuff happens. The coaches are changing but your teammates are always the same and relationships are stronger now than ever before."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Some observations from UConn's Blue-White Game

Well, the 15 spring practices under the new regime at UConn are now in the books.

My duties covering the UConn women's basketball team's march to a record ninth national title prevented me from attending as many practices as I would have liked but my time away did make me even more curious about what I was going to see today.

The first thing I wanted to see who is came out as starters especially on the defensive front seven and on the offensive line. That interested me more than the final score (which was 46-37 in favor of the White over the Blue).

Well, there weren't a ton of shockers on either side of the ball.B.J. McBryde (the best defensive player on the field in my opinion) lined up with returning starters Angelo Pruitt and Julian Campenni on the defensive line. Jefferson Ashiru, Graham Stewart, Marquise Vann and Reuben Frank started at linebacker with the expected starting secondary of cornerbacks Jhavon Williams and Byron Jones and safeties Andrew Adams and Obi Melifonwu.

As far as the offensive line from right to left the first unit consisted of tackle Dalton Gifford, guard Tyler Samra, center Alex Mateas, guard Zach Rugg and tackle Richard Levy.

Graham Stewart was the most noticeable of the starting linebackers although the top tacklers were Jon Hicks and Cameron Stapleton, who could be pushing for starting spots at linebacker based on what I saw during the spring.

Offensively, the tight ends were featured early and often as tight ends Quinn Thompson, Tommy Myers, Jeremy Claflin and starter Sean McQuillan combined for 13 of the 38 receptions. Half of those 38 receptions were made by either receivers or tight ends in last year's recruiting class.

When wrapping up his first spring practice, Bob Diaco said that Andreas Knappe, who moved from defensive line to offensive line this spring, has probably made the biggest jump of any player from practice 1 to 15. Other players he mentioned as being impressed with were WR Geremy Davis, Vann, McBryde, WR Deshon Foxx, WR Thomas Lucas, WR Noel Thomas, CB Byron Jones, DL Foley Fatukasi, Frank and punter Justin Wain (who averaged 45.2 yards on 10 punts). Diaco also said that kicker Bobby Puyol was sick as could be and that likely impacted some of his less than pretty kicks.

I thought it was a nice touch that the team captains were not the star players like Davis, Jones, Pruitt or Mateas but under the radar players including former Hand star Nick Vitale.

Video look back at UConn Blue-White game

An estimated crowd of 6,500 turned out on a perfect aftenoon to watch the UConn spring game.

There will be some observations from the White team's 46-37 victory but first I thought I would put up the videos I shot before, during and after the game.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Spring game set for tomorrow

UConn will wrap up spring practice with its annual Blue-White Game tomorrow at 3 p.m. (parking and admission is free).

The offense will wear the blue uniforms with the defense donning the white. The first half will have two normally-timed 15-minute quarters with running time utilized during the second.

There will be a unique scoring system in place including:
Run of more than 11 yards worth a point
Pass of more than 20 yards worth a point
Interception or fumble recovery is worth six points
Sack, tackle for loss and pass breakup each worth a point

The national champion women's basketball team will sign autographs from 1:30-2 p.m. while the football players will stick around after the game to sign autographs

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Nice gesture from UConn football team today

A year ago I saw head coach Paul Pasqualoni and assistant coach Kermit Buggs at the championship ceremony for the UConn women's basketball team.

Bob Diaco took it one step further as he had his entire team walk down from practice in full uniforms to watch today's ceremony outside of the Student Union.

Hall of Fame women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma and senior stars Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley said seeing the football team there meant the world to them.

"Last year was a great turnout but this year was an amazing turnout, to have the football team here was something special," Dolson said. "I was excited to see them and to see them kneel for Coach was awesome."

Saturday, March 29, 2014

McClain signs with Falcons

Former UConn defensive back Robert McClain will remain with the Atlanta Falcons for at least one more year.

McClain, who had a career-high 65 tackles during the 2013 season, has 124 tackles and 15 passes defended in his two seasons with the Falcons. He was a restricted free agent but signed a one-year tender worth $1.431 million.

McClain also returned punts last season but with Devin Hester being signed by the Falcons, it looks like McClain will focus solely on defense during the 2014 season.

Friday, March 28, 2014

BYU AD excited about home and home series with UConn

In the midst of previewing tomorrow's NCAA tournament game between UConn and Brigham Young, I was able to speak with BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe for a few minutes about the August game between the two programs which will serve as the season opener for both teams.

"It is a good game," said Holmoe, a former star defensive back at BYU who went onto be a part of three Super Bowl championship teams with the San Francisco 49ers. "As an independent, we travel all over the country. I think last year we might have had the second most miles traveled. We try to carry all the areas because BYU is a school that is a national school, kids come from all over the country and then go back. We have 350,000 living alums and there are a bunch in the Northeast. I think people will be pleased that we bring a lot of people to the game.

"UConn has had some success in recent years. They have kind of been up and down but once you've been really good then you know it, it is recent history. We fully expect them to be a competitive team and I think the two teams  will be similar and it will be a good game. Some teams won't play us home and home. We are looking forward to going out there for sure and I am sure they will enjoy (playing at BYU in 2015) it's a great place to play."

The 2014 game is set for Aug. 29 at 8 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN. The return game is Oct. 31, 2015 in Provo, Utah.

Holmoe gives much of the credit for jump starting talks between UConn and BYU to Dave Brown, a former vice president for programming and acquisitions at ESPN who now holds the same job for the Longhorn Network.

"When we went independent, that was one of the guys we hooked up with right away to get games," Holmoe said. "We have to schedule 12 games a year and not four so we have been trying to hook up with UConn for a couple of years. It is hard. Sometimes people think, they have an opening, you have an opening and why don't you play but looking at the different schedules, what they are looking to accomplish and what we are looking to accomplish and if that works, you overlap and try to find dates. (UConn AD) Warde (Manuel) is a friend of mine from a few years back so it is funny how each scheduling opportunity is different."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Some continuity in UConn's offensive line

While there's plenty of work yet to be done before UConn opens up the 2014 season against Brigham Young, it is looking like the coaching staff has a pretty good idea who are the building blocks on the offensive line.

At the first practice I attended, the No. 1 line consisted of (from left to right) tackle Richard Levy, guard Kyle Schafenacker, center Alex Mateas, guard Bryan Paull and tackle Dalton Gifford. After nearly a week and a half off due to spring break and more importantly, that much down time for the staff to break down the performance of that line, four of the five players were in the first O-line group sent out at yesterday's practice.

Levy and Gfford remained the left and right tackles and Mateas (who is impressing head coach Bob Diaco with his leadership) was the starting center. Paull moved from right guard to left guard while Tyler Samra moved in at the right guard spot. Again, this is very much subject to change with 10 more spring practices to go before the Apr. 12 spring game.

Gus Cruz, who started five games in each of the last two years at right guard, is still relegated to riding the stationary bike at practice. If he is able to return to the field after seeing his 2013 season cut short due to cardiac issues, it could provide a huge lift to a young offensive line.

Also in the "for what it is worth department" Casey Cochran was the first QB I saw in the offensive reps although the QBs seem to be getting a similar amount of reps and the brief time I was able to watch, I saw plenty of formations with both a fullback and tight end which was a rarity a season ago whether it was Paul Pasqualoni coaching the team or T.J. Weist assuming control of the team. It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out. UConn has an overflow of talented receivers so if the Huskies opt to use a tailback, fullback and tight end, that means only two receivers can be out on the field. The trio of Geremy Davis, Shakim Phillips and Deshon Foxx figure to be among the best playmakers on the 2014 UConn team so that would mean that either the fullback or tight end position would get fewer snaps if Diaco and offensive coordinator Mike Cummings opts to use more three-receiver sets. Davis has looked rock solid in blocking drills so that could also figure into things down the road when the Huskies determine how to best use their receivers, tight ends and fullbacks as  big receivers like Davis (6-3, 216 pounds) and Phillips (6-3, 206) could help in the running game as well as given the No. 1 quarterback big targets on the outside.

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McClain, Griffin lead UConn products in NFL pay distribution

Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Sio Moore are among nine former
UConn stars to earn bonuses of at least $75,000 
The NFL Management Council released the payouts for the pay distribution based on performance and playing time and five former UConn players earned six-figure bonuses with four more getting bonuses of more than $75,000.

Atlantia Falcons defensive back and punt returner Robert McClain earned the top bonus among the former UConn players with a payout of $167,892.41 which ranked fourth among the Falcons. Houston Texans rookie tight end Ryan Griffin was close behind with 166,462.14 (fifth among the Texans) followed by Kansas City fullback Anthony Sherman ($148,992.77), San Diego defensive lineman Kendall Reyes ($122,603.69) and Oakland linebacker Sio Moore ($117,413.29).

A total of 17 former UConn players earned bonus money

Here's the list of bonuses earned by the former Huskies
Will Beatty, Giants OT                 35,320.77
Tyvon Branch, Raides DB             1,800.00
Donald Brown, Colts RB              21,550.08
Darius Butler, Colts DB                66,748.53
Marcus Easley, Bill WR                96,486.45
Dwayne Gratz, Jaguars DB           86,413.15
Ryan Griffin, Texans TE              166,462.14
Danny Lansanah, Bucs LB              4,786.94
Robert McClain, Falcons DB     167,892.41
Sio Moore, Raiders LB              117,413.29
Dan Orlovsky, Buccaneers QB         785.17
Kendall Reyes, Chargers DL      122,603.69
Anthony Sherman, Chiefs FB      148,992.77
Donald Thomas, Colts OL             3,384.86
Jordan Todman, Jaguars RB        76,492.35
Nick Williams, Redskins WR       27,308.05
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Titans DB      92,283.85