Thursday, March 26, 2015

Some under the radar position battles at UConn

Unless UConn moves tomorrow's spring practice to Albany (where I will be for the NCAA women's basketball regional) I won't be at the third practice that the media is allowed to watch the first 20-30 minutes.

That doesn't mean I don't have some thoughts on what has been transpiring during spring camp.

As always, there are some interesting positional battles. No, it is not all about quarterback, quarterback and more on the quarterback competition.

A couple things I noticed from the two practices I was able to watch is that Ryan Crozier seems like the guy at center and that after redshirting last season, Sheriden Lawley and James Atkins are getting long looks to get into the defensive end rotation.

Let's start with the center position. Coming into spring practice the feeling was that Daniel Oak, who redshirted a season ago, and Kyle Bockeloh would fight it out for the starting center spot.

During the opening practice, Crozier (who the last three games of the season at left guard as a true freshman) was the center on the starting offensive line with classmate Trey Rutherford moving into to the starting role at left guard. At practice No. 5, the lineup was the same. Crozier playing center and Rutherford at left guard was a subject I brought up in the press conference with Diaco.

'We are seeing if he can snap and block to the right, snap and block to the left with power," Diaco said on Crozier's work at center. "It looks like he can. We look at the gun snap and it looks like he can. What we've like to do is we'd like to have the best player play and most physically gifted play, to take those five guys and start there. Which guy can snap of those five? The other guys are doing a great job. We will be able to function with all three. The Crozier experience is going to continue to move forward.

"That (Rutherford's experience as a true freshman) is a big help. All of those guys have reps. Crozier was a starter, Rutherford played a ton, Samra was a starter, Andreas was a starter, Richard was a starter so you have five guys who either started or played a bunch of football and they are all back not that you are looking at '16 but this is a young group."

At defensive end Kenton Adeyemi, Folorunso Fatukasi and Cole Ormsby proved last season that they belong as rotational guys at defensive end. Diaco would like to have a fourth player in place before the start of preseason camp in August. When UConn did some 11 on 11 drills, Lawley was out there with the second-team defense.

"He is (competing) for the next guy in spot at defensive end," Diaco said. "You have James (Atkins), you have Sheriden, you have some guys coming in and somebody needs to take over that otherwise we will be 3 (players) for 2 (positions) at that end position where we will take Kenton, Foley, Cole and go 3 for 2. We'd like not to have to have to do that if we develop the next man in so we will see."

UConn announced some details of the March 31 pro day and April 11 spring game.

The pro day (which will not be open to the public) will be on campus beginning at 8:45 a.m. While most of the attention will be focused on NFL combine star Byron Jones and Geremy Davis, normally all the UConn seniors take part in the event.

As far as the spring game, parking lots open at noon (three hours before the spring game) with the gates at Rentschler Field opening at 1 p.m. The fan fest will also open at 1

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

UConn seniors setting the tone

The frustration was rather obvious when Graham Stewart took a peek into his crystal ball.

Stewart and the rest of the seniors felt incredible pain to seeing a respected group of seniors leave the UConn program with a 2-10 record as well as a string of four straight losing seasons. Stewart doesn't know what the record will be in his final season but he is very clear that Stewart and the fellow seniors are taking the steps they feel are necessary to be more successful.

"I am a guy from Connecticut so it is kind of like taking ownership," Stewart said. "I take a tremendous amount of pride in that I definitely don't want to finish my senior year the way last season finished, I think that would stick with me forever and I can't let that happen."

Just like last season, there is a small group of seniors on the UConn roster. Last year other than receivers Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx, center Alex Mateas and cornerback Byron Jones, most of the remaining seniors were either players splitting playing time or those who rarely see the field. That is certainly not the case this time around.

Stewart, fellow linebacker and returning captain Marquise Vann, safety Andrew Adams, defensive linemen Kenton Adeyemi and Julian Campenni are defensive players accustomed to playing key roles, tight end Sean McQuillan, guard Tyler Samra and running back Max DeLorenzo are players with at least two years of being regular contributors while Junior Lee and Dom Manco are among UConn's best special teams players.

The seniors are determined to not only walk the walk but talk the talk as well.

"We got together in the beginning and kind of talked about what we wanted to do and the bigger goals," McQuillan said. "We want to be one of the senior groups that everybody feels like you can come up to, you can approach, you can talk to and we just want to be a close-knit group and make sure everybody is comfortable with each other. This senior group has a goal in mind and we are not going to stop until we get there."

UConn coach Bob Diaco has liked what he has seen from his seniors during the early stages of spring practice.

"Even now we are all in so 'what do we do? How does that look like, sound like, smell like, taste like so what do I do?" Diaco said. "We are ready so that is the kind of phase we are in right now, that group helping them have a voice, helping them have an appropriate voice and collectively all of them from John Bogue all the way to Max to Graham to Kenton to Andrew and that whole group, they are really doing a nice job with the team."

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Walsh making an impact at linebacker for UConn

It certainly hasn't taken former Hand High star Matt Walsh to make his presence felt at linebacker.

Walsh was an All-State linebacker at Hand but when he came to UConn, he was moved to fullback. A team-first player like Walsh gave everything he had to become the best fullback possible but anybody who watched his search and destroy missions when he covered kicks for the Huskies must have figured he was playing out of position.

The UConn coaches certainly picked up on that because they moved him from fullback to linebacker during the offseason. Today was the fifth spring practice and during the 11 on 11 portion of practice that the media was able to see, Walsh was already firmly in place at inside linebacker with the second team.

Today also happened to be the first day we had access to the players and Walsh was among the players I requested to speak to. However, due to a tight scheduling window since today was the first day of classes after spring break. he had only six minutes with the players and tight end Sean McQuillan, tackle Andreas Knappe, safety Andrew Adams and linebacker Graham Stewart were the only players brought in for interviews.

Although I could not speak to Walsh about the transition, others were more than happy to talk about his move to linebacker.

"He is a linebacker more than he was a fullback," Stewart said. "He looks really fluid. he is all here and he is open to absorbing all the information and learning it fast.

"You can't teach the physical part of it, you can teach all the mental parts and nuances so he should be good."

Diaco, who takes an active role in coaching the linebackers, first referred to Walsh's move to linebacker as an experiment meaning that he could move back to offense if it didn't work out. Well, I don't think you have to worry about that happening.

"I'm really pleased," Diaco said. "You hear the rumblings, you follow his high school career, you come here and he is at fullback. You look at that for a year and it is like 'you know what, let's just take a look at this.' It really does look like his natural position (is linebacker) so without knowing too much about the defense, he did some things each day that gives you hope and makes you believe he is at the right spot."

Speaking of former Hand High stars, Diaco also raved about walk-on defensive back Nick Vitale.

"Nick Vitale, I could go on forever about these guys. Nick's got a medical issue, he plays the whole season, never takes himself out, quietly goes about his business," Diaco said. "It wasn't a little thing, it was a big thing and then the season ended, quietly two weeks later he went and addressed it over break. He hasn't missed a meeting or practice, hasn't talked about it. doesn't want us to talk about it or tell the team about it. You see a guy like that who loves Connecticut, he loves the state of Connecticut, he loves the University of Connecticut. We are putting those guys out front. JJ Bivona (a walk-on safety who played at Bunnell) addressed the group today, same thing how much he loves Connecticut, how honored he is to serve UConn, that is what these guys bring to the team. They bring the extra heartbeat that is necessary."

Another walk-on drawing praise from Diaco was former Xavier High star Sean Marinan.

"He (Marinan) is a great teammate, son of a coach so he is a great teammate, he has the right answers, he knows what to do in the locker room," Diaco said. "There are a lot of things that he adds before we even get on the field. On the field, he is a battler. He is a fighter, a scrapper, demonstrative. He plays one of our greatest roles, he is the middle shield on the punt team which as the middle shield, you run the punt team, you are the quarterback of the punt team. He is a field general doing
that job, he embraces that, he loves it."

Health wise UConn looks to be in good shape. As he did in the opening spring practice, safety Obi Melifonwu was wearing a yellow (injury) jersey since he is coming off shoulder surgery. Melifonwu is still out there doing most of the drills.

"He is doing everything except cutting it loose from a live situation," Diaco said. "Controlled drills where he could attack the ball in the air and defend the ball in the air, all of those drills. It is when we start to articulate 11 on 11 is why he has that jersey on and it is so he can participate full speed and not worry if he is going to have contact. He's 100 percent."






Bob Diaco on two latest additions to UConn team

The paperwork has been filed and UConn football coach Bob Diaco was able to talk on the record about Florida State transfer EJ Levenberry and quarterback Garrett Anderson, who is transferring in from Laney College, a two-year school in Oakland.

"He is a national recruit at his position," said Diaco, who recruited Levenberry when he was at Notre Dame. "He was probably ranked in the top 3-5 in the country (at inside linebacker). We wanted him bad, I think it came down at the end of the day to Oklahoma and Florida State. He is big, he is the quintessential inside linebacker in our defense.

"He has good to great speed. He is fast for a big guy. He has an intangible nose for the ball, he is a great young man. He loves to train, he loves to win, he is all about winning so he is going to add to the culture. He has a championship ring."

Because Levenberry enrolled at a junior college after leaving Florida State, there is a chance he could play immediately at UConn rather than sit out the normal one year as a Division I transfer.

"That is a process for his family and the institution he is at," Diaco said. "What waivers, obviously we will do everything we can do to help facilitate the process for sure. If that happens, to me that is icing on the cake, it is gravy, it is not an entree. We are just glad to have him on the team and be able to participate."

Levenberry played two seasons at Florida State and was a member of a national-championship team. If he has to sit out the upcoming season, he can redshirt and have two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Levenberry and Anderson will both arrive in June, enroll in summer session and will be able to take part in preseason drills.

"Same stuff, big, physical, when he was participating, he was really down on interceptions," Diaco said of Anderson. "He is smart with the football, throws a very good ball. He is very mature, kind of taking the next step. My understanding is in the next few months he will be married, family is important. He is a grown man ready to take the next step in his life, finish up his degree work and play some football. There aren't a whole lot of other things that distract him in his life which is nice and he has the tools."

Diaco said "quarterbacks" when discussing the desire to add to the current crop of QBs. There are three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster heading into spring drills. North Carolina State transfer Bryant Shirreffs, who sat out last season after transferring, saw the first-team reps when UConn had 11 on 11 drills at today's spring practice. Tim Boyle is the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap with the Huskies and true freshman Tyler Davis graduated early from Mepham High School, is currently enrolled at school and eligible to take part in spring practice. We'll see if another player is added to the quarterback competition or if the extra person is walk-on Brandon Bisack out of Fairfield Warde or another scholarship quarterback joins the team. Obviously Diaco is limited by what he can say about players who have yet to sign with the Huskies.

"That group is going to be able to grow and the group is going to get bigger over the summer," Diaco said. "There will be a couple of guys added to that group of three and Will (Rishell) but the competition happening between those three has been good."

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QB Shirreffs taking first-team reps at UConn spring practice

There was a little extra treat for the media today as the post-stretching portion of practice began with 11 on 11 drills with the first team offense playing the first team defense before going into positional drills. Normally we only get to see stretching followed by positional drills before the time we are allowed to watch practice expires.

We were requested to shoot very tight videos on the 11 on 11, focusing on individual players instead of wide shots of formations so we don't give away information and trends to opposing teams. Unfortunately, since I use my iPhone to do the videos, I have no zoom capabilities so I held off on shooting video until the positions drills started. I did, however, take some notes on who was working with the first and second teams.

First up, Bryant Shirreffs took the snaps with the first team offense with Tim Boyle coming out with the second team. We only saw a series with each of them and not much to report. Shirreffs certainly looks comfortable throwing on the run but he also missed some pretty easy throws. There were a couple of drops as well while Shirreffs and Boyle took their reps.

Shirreffs looks extremely comfortable throwing on the run but when I asked Diaco about that, he chose his words carefully. He did not want to talk up any of the quarterbacks over the others just yet.

"He does look like that," Diaco said. "He is definitely a threat with the ball in his hands, that is for sure because he is big and fast."

Diaco was quick to add that he thought Boyle also threw the ball well while on the run. In my opinion, Boyle is at his best when he drops back to pass.

"It has looked very, very good," Diaco said. "We are pleased with the position, we are pleased with the battle. That group is going to be able to grow and the group is going to get bigger over the summer. There will be a couple of guys added to that group of three and Will (Rishell) but the competition happening between those three has been good. There has been some separation. I am reluctant at this point to say anything specific about it and I don't mean to be coy but there are more situations that need to happen. Right now it has been even situation downs, we got into a little bit of critical down work, we got into a little bit of red zone critical situation work. Guys will flourish as this string of situations unfold that all requite a different style of quarterbacking. It will happen soon I think, hopefully by the end of this week, hopefully there will be some separation."

Ryan Crozier is the No. 1 center as he was during the opening practice. This is what I had for the starters on both sides of the ball. Richard Levy and Andreas Knappe were the starting tackles, Trey Rutherford and Tyler Samra worked with the first team at guard. Ron Johnson was the tailback with the first unit. I did not get the numbers of all the receivers and tight ends but did see receiver Dhameer Bradley and tight ends Sean McQuillan and Tommy Myers out there during the first series.

On the defensive side of the ball, Kenton Adeyemi, Foley Fatukasi, Julian Campenni and Luke Carrezola were up front, Junior Joseph, Graham Stewart and Marquise Vann were at linebacker with the normal starting secondary of Jhavon Williams, Jamar Summers, Obi Melifonwu and Andrew Adams.

When the second team defense came out, converted fullback Matt Walsh was at middle linebacker.Cameron Stapleton, Mikal Myers, Vontae Diggs, Cole Ormsby, Sheriden Lawley, Jon Hicks, Javon Hadley, Brice McAllister and Junior Lee. My contacts may have been playing tricks on me since it is kind of early but I wrote down No. 25 as the other player with the second-string secondary and since that it backup receiver James Sullivan, my eyes might be playing tricks on me.

The second team offensive line consisted of Brendan Vechery, Tommy Hopkins, Zach Rugg, Steve Hashemi and Dan Oak.

Among the visitors at the practice were incoming freshman Aaron McLean and former defensive linebacker B.J. McBryde. McBryde, who was an absolute delight to cover, said he is getting fired up for the Mar. 31 pro day.

Diaco said he wanted to go right into the 11 on 11 drill just to make sure everybody was mentally engaged since it was the first day back after spring break.

"Monday mornings are always a little bit of a challenge," Diaco said. "Today is always a concern and they did a fantastic job today. I knew right away, I said in the team meeting that there is a different look, a different identity with them sitting there bright eyed, bushy tailed, they are ready to work and excited to be back together and I know we all feel like that.

"It is just in case the lights weren't on full blast, I wanted to hook battery charges up to their chest, give them a little shot of energy. It is hard to put your toe in the water when the first thing in practice after you warm up is to articulate good on good on an 11 on 11 situation. It is a drill we do, it is a speed drill more than it is a contact drill. It is mostly about the speed that they move and the speed of the communication and the challenge of the communication so it is running at an unrealistic pace. The ball is predetermined in the spots that it moves so it is easy to move it at a very fast rate."
There will be much more later today and in the coming days. Unfortunately with today being the first day of the resumption of classes, we were limited to a total of six minutes with a selected group of players. The good news is that two of the four were McQuillan and Stewart who are both quote machines so I should have some pretty good stuff from them to share.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Former Florida State LB transferring to UConn

Former Florida State linebacker EJ Levenberry is transferring to UConn according to a report by www.insidenova.com. The report of the transfer was confirmed by a post via the UConn football official Twitter account.

Levenberry is expected to enroll at UConn in June, had 60 tackles in two seasons at FSU. He was recruited out of Hylton High School by UConn head coach Bob Diaco and defensive assistants Anthony Poindexter and Vincent Brown.

The report said Levenberry will file a waiver in an attempt to be able to play in the upcoming season but if that is denied, he will redshirt and have two seasons of eligibility remaining.

He had a career-high eight tackles in a 2013 game against North Carolina State and had two tackles in the 2013 ACC championship game. Levenberry returned an interception 78 yards for a touchdown in an 80-14 win over Idaho on Nov. 23, 2013 and also had six tackles against Syracuse as a freshman.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Former UConn LB scheduled to take part in NFL veteran combine

Former UConn linebacker Scott Lutrus is among the players expected to take part in the NFL veteran combine in Arizona on March 22.

Lutrus was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars after going undrafted in 2011 but did not make the team. He was signed to the practice squad by the St. Louis Rams three days after being released. Lutrus was signed by the Indianapolis Colts off the Rams' practice squad and played four of the final five games during the 2011 regular season.

Lutrus had three straight games with multiple tackles in December of that year but injuries kept him from building on his strong finish in 2011. He tore his ACL in 2012 and was placed on injured reserve and was released by the Colts in 2013.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

UConn commit stars in state tournament loss

Marshe Terry's basketball season came to an end but not without the future UConn safety helped put a scare into one of New Jersey's best teams.

Northern Burlington was only down 33-30 at halftime to the Ewing HS team ranked eighth in the Newark Star-Ledger top 20. Ewing pulled away in the second half for the 78-65 victory in the Central Jersey Group 3 semifinal.

Terry had 18 points and eight rebounds in the loss. He had two 3-pointers in the game and ended his senior season by scoring in double figures in his last six games. In the three games in the Central Jersey Group 3 tournament Terry averaged 17.3 points as 12th seeded Northern Burlington upset No. 5 Neptune, No. 4 Somerville and then made top seeded Ewing work in the semifinals.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Former UConn DB Butler remaining with Colts

The Indianapolis Colts announced that it had signed Darius Butler to a contract extension.

Butler, originally drafted by New England out of UConn in 2009, will be coming back for a fourth season with the Colts.

He had a career high two forced fumbles during the 2014 season to go with 46 tackles and eight passes defended. Butler has 131 tackles and eight interceptions in 41 games with the Colts over the last three seasons.