Tuesday, September 20, 2016

UConn offense, Syracuse defense in search of early success

There are so many numbers that could be thrown out there with the high-paced Syracuse offense set to meet up with the bend but do not break style of defense installed by Bob Diaco at UConn. However, it is a different matchup that has caught my attention for Saturday's showdown of former Big East rivals.

I did some checking, OK I did lots and lots and lots of checking, and discovered that UConn ranks third from the bottom nationally in total offense in the first quarter and during that same period of time, only two teams have given up more yards than the Syracuse defense. I used that research for the foundation of the story I just filed for tomorrow's paper but here's a look at it.

TEAM     RUSHING              PASSING                         OFFENSE
                    Att-Yards-TD    Comp-Att Yards TD-Int    Plays-Yards-TD
Texas St      14--5-0                     8-12      59     0-0            26-54-0
Charlotte     20-19-0                  10-21      72      0-0           41- 91-0
UConn        30-67-0                     5-8       43      0-0           38-110-0
Rutgers        19-16-0                    6-17    104     1-1           36-110-1
UTEP           24-71-1                   4-13      41      0-0           37-112-1
Tulane          23-87-2                   5-7        30      0-0           30-117-2
Fresno          26-69-1                   9-18      73      0-1           44-142-1
LSU              14-57-1                  7-19       89     1-0            33-146-2
N. Texas       26-63-1                11-23     105     0-2            49-168-1
FIU               12-80-1                 14-24      93     0-1            36-173-1
TEAM     RUSHING              PASSING                         DEFENSE
                    Att-Yards-TD    Comp-Att Yards TD-Int    Plays-Yards-TD
Hawai'i         44-320-4               24-33 309 4-1                       77-629-8
Rutgers         43-302-3               12-22 262 5-1                       65-564-8
Syracuse       22-220-3               12-23 271 2-0                       55-491-5
La-Mon        47-299-3               15-24 166 2-0                       71-465-5
Kansas          40-325-1               11-21-139 2-0                      61-464-1
N IllIinois     31-154-2               14-24 290 2-1                      55-444-3
UNC             41-228-4                15-18 216 2-0                     59-444-6
Akron           48-168-2                19-26 275 3-0                     74-443-5
Kent             46-191-3                13-24 250 3-2                      70-441-6
Rice              35-179-3                12-19 255 1-1                     54-434-4
For those wondering, Syracuse's offense ranks 13th in total offense in the first quarter with 458 yards on 82 (yes 82) plays while UConn's defense would be somewhere in the middle of the pack giving up 335 yards.

UConn's Mikal Myers: "A tough guy with character"

I'll have to give it to Mikal Myers for delivering some memorable quotes to the media at today's press conference.

It's been somewhat of a struggle to get stuff from players, even guys I've covered for three years or even longer as I am sure they have been well schooled on the tactic of saying as little as humanely possible to the media.

Yet, there was Myers taking a page out of the Bobby Puyol school of actually seeming to enjoy talking to the media and showing personality while doing so.

Before the senior defensive tackle came to the front of the room, UConn coach Bob Diaco didn't need much prodding to rave about one of the two defensive captains.

"A plus. I have always enjoyed him," Diaco said. "I love being on the team with him because he is animated. He is tough. He is a tough guy with character. What surprised me is how good and strong of a leader he is. He is a magnetic personality. He has a lot of friends and a lot of people who like him and you want to be around him because he is magnetic, he is fun, funny but the moments when he talks, everybody gets quiet and they listen to him."

Some of Myers best stuff came on his relationship with roommate and fellow starting defensive lineman Foley Fatukasi.

"We fight like brothers, we love each other like brothers also, it has been great to be around Foley," Myers said. "If he is eating too much food, we have to go to price chopper and buy more food. He wants thre bowls of cereal instead of one.

"When he first came in, he had 1,000 questions for and I said 'I am young too. I have only been here for one year.' We have grown a friendship that I am happy about and happy to be his friend, he is a goo all around game and I love him to death.

"He is not messy, he just moves so slow If you have to go somewhere, his 15 minutes is like an hour. He moves on his own time and it bugs me to death. He is from New York so I am like 'come on, we've got to go.'

"I should be the slower one, I am from upstate, he is actually from the city an he doesn't get it."

Myers also recalled playing a state championship game at the Carrier Dome when he was at Newburgh Free Academy.

"It was like a Super Bowl venue, bright lights and it is time to play football," Myers said. "It was the biggest place I played in to that date and it was super exciting for our school and our city."

Monday, September 19, 2016

Injuries mounting in secondary for Syracuse

Syracuse posted its game notes for Saturday's game at UConn and there are some changes on the two-deep chart from the USF game.

The biggest news is that safety Antwan Cordy, Syracuse's second-leading tackler last season, is out for the rest of the season due to a forearm injury. It was also announced that starting cornerback Juwan Dowels (knee) will also miss the rest of the season. The good news is that both injured players are eligible to recapture the season of eligibility.

Rodney Williams is now listed as the starting free safety in place of Cordy (he wasn't even on Syracuse's two-deep chart last week) while Cordell Hudson is now listed as a starting corner in place of Dowels with Christopher Frederick moving into the two-deep chart. Williams and Hudson each started five games last season so Syracuse won't be breaking in newcomers.

Another interesting note regarding to depth chart is that last year's leading rusher Jordan Fredericks was listed as the primary backup to Dontae Strickland last week but now freshman Moe Neal is listed as the No. 2 tailback. Neal is third on the team in rushing attempts to Strickland and quarterback Eric Dungey and has 27 carries to 14 for Fredericks.

Freshman Sean Riley appears as the starter on both the kickoff and punt return teams. Riley has a team-leading 15 kickoff returns so he was already a key guy there and it could be merely the case of the depth chart catching up with what has been transpiring on the field.

Syracuse's notes as well as the AAC weekly released lists Dave Ryan, former NFL cornerback Corey Chavous and Melanie Collins as the broadcast team for CBS Sports Network's coverage of the game.

Other than a possible change at left guard depending on the health of Brendan Vechery, I'm not anticipating many alterations to UConn's depth chart.

The biggest news out of UConn today was that kicker Bobby Puyol was named the American Athletic Conference's Special Teams Player of the Week. UConn didn't even have a player make the honor roll in the first two weeks of the season.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

UConn football: Groundhog Day revisited

Jamar Summers comes up with another huge play
UConn football fans have earned criticism for being a late arriving crew. Well, with the way the first three games of the season have played out, I couldn't blame anybody if they arrived at Rentschler Field for Saturday's game against Syracuse with about 20 seconds on the clock.

If UConn coach Bob Diaco had called the timeout at the proper time in the season opener against Maine, each of the Huskies' first three games would have been decided on the game's final play. It seems like it was pulled right out of the script from the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day with the same events happening time after time or simply maybe it is theater of the absurd.

I did some checking and the only other FBS team that even comes close to accomplishing that feat this year is BYU as the Cougars won Arizona on a field goal with 4 seconds to play, lost to Utah when Taysom Hill's two-point conversion run was stopped with 18 seconds remaining and if BYU had recovered the onsides kick against UCLA after Hill's TD pass with 37 seconds remaining pulled the Cougars within three points, perhaps BYU could have approached the last play insanity that UConn and its fan base have experienced this season.

My thoughts and observations from yesterday's 13-10 game.

First, it was an absolute offensive disaster on both sides of the ball. UConn's first 10 drives (counting the one-play drive at the end of the first half) featured a field goal, six punts, an interception and fumble. Virginia marched 86 and 90 yards on its second and third offensive possessions to take a 10-0 lead. The next seven drives netted a combined total of 85 yards on 31 plays.

Things got so bad that Dan Orlovsky, one of the most prominent alums in UConn football history, called out his alma mater at halftime.

Does Uconn football know it's 2016 and teams score 30+ a game?!?!?!?
I feel like the O hasn't been good there in a decade😡

There are so many numbers that I could throw out there to attempt to quantify UConn's offensive ineptitude in the first three quarters but how about this one - in first quarters this season UConn has run nine plays on the plus side of the 50 and netted a total of five yards while opponents have 95 yards on 14 plays in UConn territory.

UConn's ability to make things happen in the fourth quarter salvaged another victory but this is not a script that will continue to be successful with tougher opponents coming up.

The news wasn't all negative. First, UConn picked up a win. Yes, it was a downright ugly victory but considering that the Huskies are coming off five straight losing seasons (something that has only happened two other times in program history since 1938) so there's no turning your nose up as any sort of victory.

Jamar Summers continues to prove to have exception instincts when it comes to breaking on a pass. His interception, coming the next play after Arkeel Newsome's fumble, was the biggest play of  the game. While I have no way of knowing how the would have played out if Virginia didn't turn the ball over there, it definitely swung the momentum back to UConn.

Trey Rutherford deserves a ton of credit. When starting left guard Tommy Hopkins was injured in the Maine game, I thought Rutherford might move back to guard to replace him since he was good enough to start at guard in the St. Petersburg Bowl. He remained at tackle in the two practices I attended last week and it wasn't until Wednesday when I noticed that he was working at guard as Brendan Vechery donned a red (no contact) shirt in that practice indicating that he was injured. Vechery did snap for the second-team offense but with the red shirt, he did not engage in any duties except snapping the ball. With the injuries on the interior of the line, true freshman Nino Leone was seeing some time with the second-team offensive line.

"A little bit of attrition at the guts of our line," Diaco said when I asked him about Rutherford after the game. "He (Vechery) was cleared for participation today but he really wasn't going to be 100 percent functional so in an emergency situation he would have been used. Kudos to Trey Rutherford, I look forward to watching his play, he was the next plan there as you work through Hop, Vech, (Dan) Oak, three interior offensive linemen who have not been available.

"He is a very aggressive player, he is big, strong and athletic and fast and development is on the (rise). The best thing to do to get ready is to play in the games. You can't get to be a veteran, mature functional football player without playing  in games so it was a grwt oportunity for him today."

 I liked what I saw from juniors Foley Fatukasi and Junior Joseph. Yes, they teamed up on a stop on fourth down in the fourth quarter and that play generated quite the buzz but at first glance I thought this was the best overall game of the season for both of them.

Also, I think getting the ball into sophomore receiver Hergy Mayala's hands is a must. He was targeted as much as anybody in the fourth quarter and his catch on the sideline looked impressive live but watching it on tape, impressive doesn't do it justice as he reached up with one hand so he could corral the ball and still got one of his feet in before heading out of bounds. While seeing Newsome rip off some runs is a good sign moving forward although he would like to have the fumble on the pitch back. It is troubling, however, that after catching 45 passes as a sophomore, Newsome has just two catches in the first three games.

Last but certainly not least, kicker Bobby Puyol continues to deliver and punter Justin Wain bounced back from a tough performance against Navy. I'll have more on Puyol in tomorrow's paper but he has made his last eight field goals and also had four touchbacks on four kickoffs.

On the other side, Andrew Brown and the rest of Virginia's front seven seemingly made a living in UConn's backfield. I didn't rewatch the entire game but on the play immediately preceding Newsome's 38-yard run, Richard Levy barely - and I do mean barely - touched Brown giving him an easy path to Newsome for one of his 3 1/2 tackles for a loss. Levy was also beaten on a sack by Brown on UConn's game-tying drive. Things seemed to get better as the same wore on but I have been extremely underwhelmed by the play of UConn's offensive line this season.

Bryant Shirreffs had an average game. He overthrew some passes and were times when he pulled the down and if not for four Virginia penalties on UConn's first two scoring drives, the Huskies likely would have been down 10-6 heading into their final drive of the game instead of the game being tied at 10. No penalty was bigger than the facemask call on Kirk Garner on a third-down incompletion in the end zone to Noel Thomas which would have likely forced UConn to try a field goal. I taped the game but Garner, who had man coverage on Brian Lemelle on the play, escaped from view when the penalty infraction took place so I can't speak to whether it was the right call.

Also, the secondary play will need to be much better with Syracuse coming to town as Eric Dungey ranks fifth in FBS with 91 completions. His two top receivers are West Virginia's Ervin Phillips (third nationally with 30 catches) and Amba Etta-Tawo (tied for fourth with 28 receptions). The 11 completions in the first quarter weren't as troubling to me as the 26-yarder on the final drive when the defense is designed to stop those throws.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

UConn's Melifonwu set to join select company

UConn senior safety Obi Melifonwu needs three tackles to become the 27th Husky with 250 career tackles.

This will be the 38th career start for Melifonwu and he could finish in the top five at UConn for career starts during the FBS era. He won't approach Moe Petrus' program record 51 career starts or Lawrence Wilson's 50 starts but could finish with as many as 48 starts in his career which would be tied with Mike Hicks for third since 2002.

Player    Years       Tackles
John Dorsey              80-83 495 
Lawrence Wilson      07-10 449
Troy Ashley              86-89 428 
Maurice Lloyd          01-04 412
Mike Jansen              84-87 394 
Vernon Hargreaves  80-83 393
Alfred Fincher          01-04 357
Paul Duckworth        90-93 354
Dennis O'Connell      76-78 341
Yawin Smallwood     11-13 332
Jamal Lundy              99-00 323
Jim Reppi                  90-93 313
Paul Zenkert              91-94 312
Brad Keatley             94-97 311 
Uyi Osunde               99-03 292
Mark Michaels          82-85 290
Abbott Burrell          86-89 288
Terrance Smith         00-03 280
Sio Moore                 09-12 274
Rob Belucore            89-92 274
James Hargrave        02-05 271
Jamar Wilkins           97-00 270
Rich Fenton               73-75 266
Andrew Adams         12-15 263
Lou Donato               81-84 257
Donald Thompson     73-74 250

Friday, September 16, 2016

UConn looking for faster starts

One of the trends I noticed from UConn's first two games is how well the Huskies play in the fourth quarter so I took some time trying to break down the statistics.

The first set of numbers that jump - and I do mean jump - out at me is that quarterback Bryant Shirreffs is 17 for 18 passing for 168 yards in the fourth quarter. The lone misfire was a slant attempt that was nearly hauled in by Noel Thomas against Maine.

Taking it a step further, UConn ranks 9th among 128 FBS teams with an average of 148 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter. Here's the breakdown with all the teams on the list having played two games except for Hawai'i which has three games played.

Team                Plays-Yd-Avg-TD
UCLA                54-403-7.5-4
TCU                   38-396-10.4-5
Purdue               50-386-7.7-4
Nebraska            43-350-8.2-7
Arizona St.         37-336-9.1-5
Wash. State        49-336-6.9-4
California           54-318-5.9-2
Missouri             48-307-6.4-2
UConn               45-296-6.6-1 
S. Alabama        48-289-6.0-2
Rutgers              44-283-6.4-3
Ohio                   40-275-6.9-3
Oregon               38-274-7.2-2
Ball State           37-273-7.4-3
Troy                   45-271-6.1-4
Texas Tech        41-270-6.6-4
Louisville          35-259-7.4-3
C. Michigan       25-258-10.3-4
Hawai'i              51-383-7.5-3
Clemson            45-250-5.6-3
A couple of notes worth mentioning. First, UConn joins Central Michigan, Louisville, Rutgers and UCLA as the only teams to average at least 125 yards of offense and less than 50 yards on defense in the fourth quarter while UConn is the only one of the 20 teams listed above not to have multiple offensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter. What all of this means tomorrow? Probably not a heck of a lot but perhaps some of you will find it interesting.

Here is a breakdown of how UConn fares in the American Athletic Conference

First quarter: 29 plays-89 yards (11th, ahead of only Tulane's 87 yards)
First half: 66 plays, 282 yards (11th , ahead of only Memphis' 172 yards)
Through three quarters: 89 plays, 420 yards (11th, ahead of only Memphis' 237 yards)

First quarter: 25 plays, 211 yards (10th, only UCF and Navy have given up more yards)
First half:  51 plays, 409 yards (10th, only SMU and East Carolina have given up more yards. UConn is last in yards per play allowed in both the first quarter and first half).
Through three quarters: 89 plays, 589 yards (8th).
Fourth quarter: 21 plays, 85 yards (3rd behind only Tulane and Memphis)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

UConn grooming Donovan Williams as quarterback of the future

The words uttered by coaches on national signing day can often be little more than idle chatter. If the words are taken at face value, each recruit signed would be a three-year starter and All-American candidate.

However, when Bob Diaco said, "there are others who could quarterback our team but Donovan (Williams) is "the" quarterback, he was brought in for that purpose. It could be argued whether he was a national recruit but he was close. He was a 20-40 offer player, a spectacular young man, high achiever in all areas. He make all the throws, athletic, fast and every time I see him he gets bigger" this was not just typical signing day hype.

Fast forward to this week and during both Tuesday's and Wednesday's practice and there was Williams gets reps with either the first or second team offense. He wasn't in there a ton but he was getting the chance to go up against the No. 1 defense in 11 on 11 drills and not as the quarterback of the scout team which would be normal operating procedure.

When I spoke with offensive coordinator Frank Verducci after Wednesday's practice, the first question I had pertained to Williams' chance to work with the top offensive units.

"Any benefit we can give him as far being exposed to the varsity to bring him along, that is what we are trying to do right now," Verducci said. "Obviously if there is an apocalypse plan because you have plans for everything ... so you want to get him exposed as much as possible. If he never plays a down this year, he is going to start in spring ball at a level so much higher than he would have been if we just put him on the scout team the whole year. He is obviously a great physical talent."

Let's be honest here, UConn does not want to put Williams into a game this season. In a perfect world, he gets to redshirt this season, he moves into the role as No. 2 quarterback next season and then takes over as the Huskies' signal caller during the 2018 season.

Williams roomed with starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs during preseason camp which was another smart move since it allowed him to spend plenty of time with the team's starting quarterback and one of its four captains.

"Donovan's a great kid," Shirreffs said after Tuesday's practice. "A really good kid, he stays quiet but once you get to know him, you learn who he is. He is a really hard worker and a pleasure to be around."

Another youngster who earned praise from veteran players and coaches was sophomore receiver Aaron McLean. Both Shirreffs and senior receiver Noel Thomas raved about the block McLean threw on one play and he had a key 24-yard catch on the final drive of the game. What I didn't realize until talking to Verducci was that those were McLean's only two plays in the game.

"McLean is really the exceptional one because he played two plays," Verducci said. "One play he did a kickout block like a fullback and puts the guy on the ground. The other play, he catches a 24-yard pass so give credit to him for his preparation and staying in the game. He had every excuse to not be focused but when those guys got gassed on the two-minute drill, he goes in and makes a play. It is not a scripted play, it is a scramble, it is an adjustment and he makes an adjustment and makes a play."

Those are the types of plays that should get McLean more than two snaps of playing time in the future.

Verducci chose his words carefully about how junior running back Arkeel Newsome has been utilized in the first two games but it was noteworthy that Newsome's 10 touches in the Navy game were the fewest for the former Ansonia High star since the third game of last season when he had two carries and one catch in a loss at Missouri. Newsome averaged 22 touches per game for the rest of the season. Playing time is earned during practice and Newsome hasn't been flashing as much the practices this year as he did a season ago but it is clear he is still a key piece of the offensive game plan. I would expect him to get more than the 10 touches he had against Navy on Saturday as the UConn coaches hope that he can return to being one of the most explosive playmakers on the team.

"Ron has shown some growth and we are happy with that but for us to be as good as we can be, both of those guys have to have a contribution," Verducci said.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Thomas on record-setting pace at UConn

It's not very often when you click on the list of offensive leaders on the NCAA database and see a player from UConn near the top of the list.

Yet, two weeks into the season Noel Thomas is tied for third among FBS players with 20 receptions. That reception total, if it came at the end of the season, would have ranked in the top five at UConn in six of the last eight seasons. Off the subject, it should be noted that Bryant Shirreffs is third nationally with a completion percentage of 79.6.

As I mentioned in the story I wrote on Thomas for today's Register, there are 96 FBS players with at least 10 catches this season and Thomas is the only one to account for 50 percent of his team's receptions.

It got me to wondering where his numbers through two games would rank in UConn history. According to my research, Thomas broke Mark Didio's record of 16 catches through two games which was set in 1989 and matched two years later. Some of my research came back in 2013 when Shakim Phillips got off to a blistering start so I can't recall if I went back to the pre-Mark Didio days but the only player in the top 10 on UConn's season receiving mark is Keith Hugger, who had 57 receptions during the 1981 season so my apologies if he should be on this list.

Noel Thomas     2016 20-186
Mark Didio         1989 16-283
Mark Didio         1991 16-208
Shakim Phillips  2013 15-255
Alex Davis         1991 14-244       
O'Neil Wilson    2002 14-147
Geremy Davis    2014 13-209
Terence Jeffers   2007 12-121
Carl Bond           1997 11-240
John Fitzsimmons 98  11-203
Keron Henry      2004 11-183
Shaun Feldeisen 2002 11-171
Dak Newton       1996 10-240
Jason Williams   2004 10-200
Geremy Davis    2013 10-154

I certainly do not expect Thomas to end the season averaging 10 catches per game. There were some encouraging signs in the fourth quarter against Navy as sophomore receivers Hergy Mayala and Aaron McLean combined for 80 yards on four catches. I didn't have the space to include Thomas' thoughts on the development of the younger UConn receivers but here's what he said.

"It definitely is big for those guys," Thomas said. "The play Aaron made, I wasn't even on the field so that was a hell of a play by him. Hergy, (five catches) for 68 (yards) I believe, that is his career high and it is just going to get better from here. Aaron had two plays in the game (counting a memorable block) and both were highlights so that is awesome. It is huge because it shows the selflessness to go out there in the game and make a block then to not play until the last drive and come up big, that is awesome to see."

As I mentioned in today's story, Thomas also became the 18th UConn receiver with 100 career catches during the fourth quarter of the loss to Navy but just the sixth to accomplish the feat during the FBS era (Keron Henry and Shaun Feldeisen hit triple digits but played some of their career before UConn made the jump).

239 Mark Didio 88-91
200 Alex Davis 89-92
186 Glenn Antrum 85-88
173 John Fitzsimmons 96-00
165 Geremy Davis 11-14
161 David Dunn 85-87  
159 Brian Kozlowski 89-92
145 Carl Bond 95-98
126 Kashif Moore 08-11
118 Jason Williams 02-05
116 Ryan Griffin 09-12
113 Tory Taylor 95-98
111 Keron Henry 01-04
107 Shaun Feldeisen 00-03
104 Michael Smith 08-10, 12
103 Keith Hugger 79-82
103 Noel Thomas 13-present101 Scott Sweitzer 84-87