Wednesday, May 10, 2017

UConn's APR increases yet again

The UConn football team ranks fourth among American Athletic Conference programs with an Academic Progress Rate multiyear score of 975.

Navy leads the way at 991, UCF is next at 984 followed by Cincinnati at 976 and UConn.

This is the third year in a row that the APR number has improved as it went from 957 in the period ending with the 2012-13 season to 960 to 969 and now is at 975. That number is a program best topping the mark of 974 in 2004-05 which is the first year the numbers were tabulated by the NCAA as the organization tracks the student-athletes over a five-year period to determine which programs are having their players remaining in good academic standing en route to graduating.

UConn's APR for the 2015-16 season is 976, well above the average mark of 962.

Three players leave UConn program

Linebacker William Richardson and a pair of walk-ons - linebacker Luke Sowa and defensive lineman Tom Tabur have left the program and have been removed from the roster.

None of departing players, all listed redshirt sophomores on the roster distributed at the spring game, appeared in a game for the Huskies.

Tabur had three tackles and Sowa was in on two stops in the spring game.

There's no questioning that Randy Edsall's way of conducting his business is significantly different to how things were done during Bob Diaco's time at the helm of the program. The coaching staff and most of the support staff have been changed, pictures in the football facilities have been removed. However, there is at least one holdover from the past regime.

The Football 101 Clinic, which features women going through drills under the watch of the coaches and players, was started by Diaco in his first season. Well, the fourth annual event will be on June 14 and expect to see promos coming on Fox 61 featuring prominent female on-air anchors and staff members.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Former UConn OL Levy signed by 49ers

A pair of UConn offensive linemen have been signed an undrafted rookie free agents by NFL teams. Just think about that statement for a bit while pondering the well-documented offensive line struggles at UConn in recent years.

Andreas Knappe was signed by the Atlanta Falcons shortly after the NFL draft came to an end. Today came word that after bringing in more than 50 players for tryouts, Richard Levy was one of three tryout players signed as free agents by San Francisco.

Levy was the starting left tackle as a sophomore and junior but with the emergence of redshirt freshman Matthew Peart, he moved to guard as he started all 37 games between 2014-16. I haven't heard whether Levy was playing tackle or guard for the 49ers.

I took over the day to day coverage of UConn football in 2013 and don't recall a rookie offensive lineman being on the 90-man roster of an NFL team during that time. I did some checking and it looks like the last time that happened was in 2012 when Moe Petrus was signed by Tampa Bay and Mike Ryan by Cincinnati.

By my count, 11 players on UConn's 2014 team - a roster that former coach Bob Diaco managed to squeeze one whole win against a Football Bowl Subdivision team - have taken part or will take part in NFL training camps (not including tryouts at rookie camps).

S Andrew Adams: Started 13 games and had 46 tackles as a rookie with New York Giants
DT Kenton Adeyemi: Signed as free agent in 2016 by Chicago and then Cleveland
WR Geremy Davis: Former sixth-round pick by New York Giants had two catches in 10 games in 2016, now on Los Angeles Chargers' roster
WR Deshon Foxx: Current on New York Jets roster, previously with Seattle
CB John Green: Signed as free agent by Tennessee Titans
DB Byron Jones: Starting safety for Dallas Cowboys who had 88 tackles in second NFL season
OT Andreas Knappe: Currently on Atlanta's 90-man roster
OT Richard Levy: Currently on San Francisco's 90-man roster
DL B.J. McBryde: Spent team either on the roster or practice squad with Philadelphia, Green Bay and San Franisco
S Obi Melifonwu: Second-round pick of Oakland Raiders
WR Noel Thomas: Signed as a free agent by Detroit

Also, defensive lineman Mikal Myers (Baltimore), kicker Bobby Puyol (Baltimore) and cornerback Jhavon Williams (New Orleans) got looks in rookie camp as did Reuben Frank with Detroit in 2015 while a talented group of seniors, who were freshmen on the 2014 team, figure to add to that list in 2018.

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Early signing period is approved

Pretty much from the time that the NCAA Division I Council gave the thumbs' up to the creation of an early signing period for Division I football, it was merely a matter of when and not if it would officially be instituted.

Today was that day as there will be an early signing period from Dec. 20-22. Players can still wait until early February to sign as in past years but the early signing period is expected to cut down on the flipping of commitments in late January and early February until the players make it official. The drawback of the timing is it throws things into disarray for programs who went through what UConn experienced as Bob Diaco was fired at a time when the buyout price went down. When that happens and players who signed early want out of that commitment, it could be a little more complicated than in past years when new coaches simply had to try to hold onto the committed players and not have to deal with the red tape coming from players who have signed their National Letters of Intent. I also have to wonder if schools will be more willing to cut loose a coach in the middle of the season with an eye of minimizing the damage during the early signing period.

During spring practice I asked UConn coach Randy Edsall about the new legislation and here are some of his thoughts:

"I think they got it right, I think there are more things that they can do. I was pleased that the proposal got passed," Edsall said. "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.'

"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."

Sunday, April 30, 2017

7 UConn players getting shot at NFL

We're up to seven members of the 2016 UConn football team getting a chance to head to camp with NFL teams.

Safety Obi Melifonwu was the only one of the seven to get drafted as he went to the Oakland Raiders with the 56th overall pick. Since the draft ended yesterday, there's been plenty of interest for the other UConn seniors.

Cornerback John Green was signed by the Tennessee Titans, offensive tackle Andreas Knappe by the Atlanta Falcons, kicker Bobby Puyol by the Baltimore Ravens and receiver Noel Thomas by the Detroit Lions. Also, defensive tackle Mikal Myers and cornerback Jhavon Williams earned tryouts with  Baltimore and New Orleans respectively. I'm still waiting to hear about Matt Walsh and if he gets invited to camp as well.

All this activity could pale in comparison to what happens next year with Foley Fatukasi, Jamar Summers, Junior Joseph, Vontae Diggs, Tommy Myers, Alec Bloom, Arkeel Newsome, Cole Ormsby and Luke Carrezola among the players who could be on the radar of NFL teams.

Here are the positional rankings for UConn players via the CBS Sports 2018 NFL draft database. Positions listed as they are in the database and not necessarily where they will line up during their senior seasons at UConn

 8 Foley Fatukasi DT
10 Jamar Summers FS
20 Luke Carrezola DE
20 Tommy Myers TE
23 EJ Levenberry OLB
28 Junior Joseph ILB
31 Alec Bloom TE
34 Bryant Shirreffs, QB
49 Arkeel Newsome RB
50 Brice McAllister FS
75 Trey Rutherford OT
79 Vontae Diggs OLB
84 Cole Ormsby DE
88 Tommy Hopkins OG
95 Brendan Vechery, OG
101 Cam Stapleton OLB

Saturday, April 29, 2017

UConn's Melifonwu taken by Raiders in 2nd round

There was some buzz about Obi Melifonwu becoming the third UConn player taken in the first round of the NFL draft and I thought at worst, he would be taken in the top 50.

As it turns out, neither of those things took place but he was selected by the Oakland Raiders with the 56th overall pick.

"I definitely thought it was going to play out a little differently but I am a strong believer in faith and everything happens for a reason," Melifonwu said. "At the end of the day  knew that if I stayed patient, I would get picked up by the right team."

Melifonwu seemingly was visiting a different team on a daily basis as part of the "top 30" visit as each team can bring in 30 prospects not from their geographic area (those players can come to a local pro day and not count against the players visiting) but none of those visits happened to be Oakland. He did meet with the Raiders at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine but it was not among the teams he thought would be taking him. Oakland's track record of getting the size, speed guys is well documented and Melifonwu certainly fits that bill as he posted the best numbers in the broad jump and vertical leap at the combine while running 4.4 in the 40 at 224 pounds.

"He is very gifted athletically, his tape is good," Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. "He's done a variety of roles, he's played on tight ends, he's played on receivers, he's been in the backfield, he's kind of done a little bit of everything."

Melifonwu watched the draft with friends and family in his South Grafton, Massachusetts home.

"We just at back, relaxed and watched the draft together," Melifonwu said.

While some prospects would be a nervous wreck as teams passed on them, watching the draft is Melifonwu's definition of  being "relaxed."

Picks tend to back up during the televised coverage of the draft so word can leak out before a pick is officially announced and that was the case here as Twitter was full of people reporting that Melifonwu was going to the Raiders with pick No. 56.

"My phone was buzzing before that because of Twitter notifications and text messages so when I finally got the call, it was exciting," Melifonwu said. "My family was ecstatic, it was honestly just a great moment. It was one of the best moments of my life. They have been here with me through thick and thin and I am was glad it was a moment that I got to share with them."

Rounds 4-7 are set for Saturday beginning at noon. We'll have to see if any UConn players get taken on the final day of the draft.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Good news on the UConn injury front

When linebacker Chris Britton and defensive back Tahj Herring-Wilson were forced to leave Friday's UConn spring game due to injury, it was uncertain if they would be able to hit the field when preseason camp kicks off in July.

At today's Fenway Gridiron Classic media day in Boston, UConn coach Randy Edsall said both players should be good to go when the team hits the field in three months.

"Chris has a high ankle sprain, Tahj had a concussion and they'll be fine," Edsall said. "That is the one thing that I am pleased about that we came through the spring well in terms of injuries, we only had the one which you don't like to see with EJ (Levenberry)."
Levenberry, a senior linebacker expected to push for a starting job, tore his ACL during spring drills. Edsall said he believes that no other ligaments were torn which could speed up his recovery time.
"He is off crutches now, I don't know what will happen there if he would have a chance to get back towards the end of the season but I am not anticipating that," Edsall said.

Edsall said he is meeting with every player on the team before he hits the road recruiting on Wednesday. He also had a chance to watch film of Friday's spring practice which brought an end to spring practice.

"I don't much of a difference of opinion of what I saw (during) the game," Edsall said. "There were some things during the game that we did well and plenty of things we still have to work on. I started meeting with the players yesterday and I finish that up tomorrow. They are very eager, anxious and hungry to get going with the summer program. They appreciate the honesty and candor that the coaches have as we sat down and talked to them told them what they need to do to get better. They want to get better. There are things that we have in place that we can take advantage of. We will test them this week in terms of bench, squat, power clean, vertical jump but I know we have to become a much stronger team than we are right now but I like the direction we are going in."

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."