Monday, October 20, 2014

UConns young defensive line continues to mature

Due to some quirky scheduling UConn is in the midst of playing one game in 25 days. It has given the UConn coaching staff time to tighten up some things as well as allowing the Huskies dealing with minor injuries the opportunity to heal.

During yesterday's press conference I asked Bob Diaco if there happened to be a particular player or position group which has made the biggest strides in practice during the two weeks with no games to be played. The first unit he mentioned was the defensive line.

"The D line especially the young d-line players are getting better with the fundamental eye progression," Diaco said. "They have done a better job there, (playing) faster, violent, more heavy hands. I think they are moving along."

UConn's defense has allowed opponents between 271-302 yards in the last five games and a major reason is the rapid development of many players seeing their first sustained playing time.

Fifteen different players have tackles for loss for the Huskies and six of them (Junior Joseph, Folorunso Fatukasi, Mikal Myers, Cole Ormsby, Ellis Marder and Cam Stapleton) did not have a tackle for loss heading into the season. Myers and Marder were the only ones of the group to appear in a game before this season and they had a combined total of just 11 career tackles. Marder is the only defensive back among the group so the future of the defensive front seven looks to be in pretty good hands.

"I think we are progressing great," Myers said. "I think we are trying to get better every day and the one thing Coach (Diaco) stresses to us is to get better every day. It doesn't matter what class we are in, as long as we play hard and to the best of our abilities

"They do a great job in strength and conditioning and I feel like I am way stronger than I was when I first got here so that is something helps me on the field, it is showing."

Switching gears, it was rather predictable with Halloween quickly approaching that the announcers calling the UConn/Tulane game made mention of the upcoming holiday when Myers made one of his two tackles for loss since he has the same name (spelled differently) as the main character in the Halloween movies.

"I've been getting that since elementary school, it is something I have always gotten," Myers said. "It gets old after a while."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Story of UConn's Fatukasi is one of perseverance

If I were to rank the UConn football stories I have been dying to write this season I'm not sure I could come up with one to top that of redshirt freshman Folorunso "Foley" Fatukasi.

Back in June of 2013 I went to a practice for the Empire Challenge so I could catch up with Fatukasi, who at that time had yet to step foot back in his Far Rockaway, New York home which was deemed uninhabitable after Hurricane Sandy touched down back in 2012.

With Fatukasi seeing more and more playing time in recent weeks, I requested Fatukasi in each of the last few media access periods but he had a class conflict during the normal Tuesday press luncheons. With this week's media gathering on Sunday because the Huskies play at East Carolina on Thursday, I was finally able to catch up with Fatukasi and it was well worth the wait. The story should be up on the Register's site shortly and will be running in tomorrow's paper as well.

You can't help but be struck by Fatukasi's incredibly upbeat attitude despite the trials and tribulations his family has endured over the last two years.

"I've never had a sob story," Fatukasi said. "I've always been happy because I have a loving family but that seeing people you care about going through the same things you are going through, it was really bad. I can only imagine what people in New Orleans went through in Hurricane Katrina. When it is over you don't know what to expect the next day or the day after that, all you can do is to continue to play and have faith because you don't know what is going to come.

"There is a lot of stuff I can appreciate. A lot of high schools don't have many resources to (help players) become as good of players as they want to. I have all the coaches, all the players here so playing at the college level has made me appreciate football a lot. Hopefully some day I will be able to give back to my community, show those kids how to do it because I did it once."

"I am always willing to give a helping hand. I was always a generous person but you don't know what can happen the next day so I am ready to give a helping hand to people in need or just to people in general "

With his family dealing with the logistical side of life post-Sandy, Fatukasi has focused on his school work and his ever-expanding role on the UConn team.

He had two solo tackles in his collegiate debut, a 35-10 loss to Brigham Young and has three tackles in each of the last three games. He has been listed as the co-starter at defensive tackle with senior B.J. McBryde in the last two depth charts and seemingly has a bright future at UConn.

"Foley is a big strong kid," said sophomore defensive lineman Mikal Myers, who is tied for second on the team with four tackles for loss. "He is starting to get it every single day. He is getting better, he is taking coaching and adding it to his game."

There wasn't too much news coming out of today's press conference. As expected, neither offensive tackle Dalton Gifford or safety Ellis Marder will be available this week and Diaco said he hoped to have more info regarding when or if they may return later in the week.

He said he'd like to continue with a similar substitution pattern at tailback meaning true freshmen Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson could see the bulk of the carries. Diaco said he'd like to use Tim Boyle more at quarterback but Boyle will need to be more productive and not turn the ball over as much when he does get his opportunity to play in games.

Another monster game for UConn commit Beals

One of the newest UConn commits continues to put up staggering statistics.

Tyraiq Beals caught 13 passes for 239 yards and six touchdowns in East Orange (N.J.) High's 48-46 loss to West Essex on Saturday.

Beals had a 20-yard TD in the first quarter, a 15-yard score in the second quarter, touchdown receptions of 25. 22 and 7 in the third quarter and a 65-yard score in the fourth quarter. He has 54 catches for 881 yards and 14 touchdowns in the first five games of the season.

Tyler Davis, who could be the quarterback throwing him the ball at UConn, threw for 123 yards and two touchdown and ran for another 140 yards and two more scores to lead his Mepham (N.Y.) squad to a 52-18 win over Westbury Senior. Davis, who hasn't thrown an interception in his last three games, has completed 69.6 percent of his passes while throwing for 676 yards with nine touchdown passes versus three interceptions while running for 954 yards and 15 TDs in Mepham's current five-game winning streak.

Also, Trey Blackwell had two tackles for loss in Cedar Creek's 20-0 win over Oakcrest while Michael Tarbutt was 3 for 3 on extra points, had a 37-yard field goal and all four of his kickoffs went for touchbacks as Canisius defeated Cardinal Mooney 24-17 to improve to 7-0.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

HS coach: UConn getting "a monster" in Cespedes

When the UConn coaching staff first made contact with New London coach Duane Maranda, Bryan Cespedes wasn't even on the Huskies' recruiting radar.

UConn has looking at productive defensive end Hunter Roman who ultimately committed to Yale. It was during those meetings six months ago that he mentioned that he had a raw offensive tackle they might want to take a look at. Obviously, they were listening as Cespedes became the first in-state recruit to be a part of the current class of commitments.

"They offered Hunter and I told them that whoever got Bryan was going to get a steal," Maranda said.

The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Cespedes began his high school career at Grasso Tech and when he transferred to New London after his sophomore season he came out for the New London football team. Maranda could see the potential in the inexperienced Cespedes and believes that the three-sport high school athlete could be "a monster" once he gets to UConn, concentrates on football and the strength and conditioning coaches get to work with him.

"He reminds me of (former Waterford High lineman) Zach Hurd and he is bigger than Zach was at (as a high school senior)," Maranda said. "Zach had a great career there and even got to the NFL."

Hurd became a two-time All-Big East offensive lineman and started 39 games for the Huskies.

Cespedes considers UConn to be his dream school and his desire to be a part of what the new coaching staff is trying to build only intensified after he went up to a couple of home games.

UConn's offensive line struggles have been well documented and while UConn could transform one of the tight end players who have committed into offensive linemen, he is the first true offensive lineman to commit to UConn.

Maranda was extremely impressed with the "thoroughness" of the UConn coaches during the recruiting process. While they came to New London games and watched film, Maranda said they were just as concerned with what made Cespedes tick as Bob Diaco and his staff made it clear that they value high-character kids as they try to build a winning atmosphere in the locker room.

New London is 5-1 and current sixth in the CIAC Class M playoff points race.

Friday, October 17, 2014

UConn commit delivers in the clutch

Playing in a run-dominated offense doesn't allow UConn commit Frank Battle too many opportunity to make a splash but he certainly came through this week.

The 6-foot-5 Battle caught a touchdown pass with 40 seconds left to give Belen Jesuit the lead and after a defensive touchdown, Belen defeated Varela 34-24 to improve to 5-2.

Battle finished with five catches for 53 yards in the game. The five catches is a season high for Battle in Belen Jesuit's run-dominated offense.

He was one of four UConn commits to catch a TD pass last night.

Chris Lee had two catches for 42 yards including a 7-yard touchdown and added the two-point conversion catch in a 42-11 loss to Broadneck.

Also, Nazir Williams had a 16-yard touchdown catch in Bridgeton's 43-0 win over Lower Cape May while John Robinson IV had three catches for 44 yards in Dwight Morrow's 41-6 loss to River Dell while Ian Campbell had a 13-yard TD reception in Pequannock's wild 55-54 win over Kinnelon.

Last but certainly not least, UConn got a commitment from an offensive linemen as New London's Brian Cespedes, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound offensive tackle, committed yesterday.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

New UConn commit putting up some crazy stats

The receiving numbers of UConn's latest recruit looks like something out of the Arena Football League.

Tyraiq Beals out of East Orange, N.J. High School has played four games and he has 41 catches for 622 yards and eight touchdowns in four games.

Here are his single game totals

Sept. 12 vs. Bayonne 6-130-1 TD
Sept. 19 vs. Oakcrest 10-144-3 TDs
Oct. 2 Livingstone 16-218-3 TDs
Oct. 11 Seton Hall Prep 9-130-1 TD

He announced his commitment via his Twitter account
Im going to be a husky I'm so proud of myself hard work pays off #dbkiller #huskynation

Taking a closer look at UConn's incoming recruiting class

The present-day view of the UConn football team is not exactly a pretty picture especially after another meek offensive performance in last week's loss at Tulane. Rather than use this space documenting how much the Huskies are struggling for at least another day or two, I decided to take a different approach.

I emailed the coaches of the UConn commits who don't have their team's season stats up on the internet to get updated numbers on the future Huskies.

Led by Ian Campbell's Pequannock squad and Michael Tarbutt's Canisius team (both 6-0), the combined record of the UConn commits is 50-36 which includes two head to head matchups.

As you may notice, some players have significantly more information included and that is a result of the some coaches providing the info. A special thanks to the coaches of Trey Blackwell, Chris Lee, Kevin Murphy and Nazir Williams for responding to my request for more information.

Here you go

Frank Battle, Belen Jesuit (Fla.): Has 13 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns for a team running the ball about 75 percent of the time.

Tyraiq Beals, East Orange (N.J.): Has 41 catches for 822 yards and eight TDs in four games including a game with 16 receptions and 218 yards as well as back to back three-touchdown performances.
Trey Blackwell, Cedar Creek (N.J.): Has 34 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and 11 tackles loss in first four games of season.

Ian Campbell, Pequannock (N.J.): Rated as No. 5 tight end in New Jersey by Newark Star-Ledger, Campbell has helped Pequannock get off to 6-0 start.
Tyler Davis, Mepham (N.Y): Is 50 of 79 passing for 668 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions, also has run 110 times for 850 yards and 13 TDs.

Connor Freeborn, Salesianum (Del.): Had an interception in win over Caesar Rodney.
Aaron Garland, Fenwick (Ill.): Had returned interceptions for touchdowns against Carmel and DePaul Prep.
Chris Lee, Severna Park (Md.): Has 18 catches for 223 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Aaron McLean, St. Marks (Mass.): Had 60-yard touchdown catch and named defensive player of game in season-opening win over Middlesex.
Kevin Murphy, West Chester (Pa.) East: Moved to defensive tackle, has three sacks and seven tackles for losses. Played every position on offensive line, starting season at left tackle and currently at center and has eight pancake blocks.

Philippe Okounam, St. Paul's (N.H.): Two-way starter had three tackles in 35-28 loss to Buckingham Browne & Nichols.
Justice Pettus-Dixon, St. Frances Academy (Md.): Hard-hitting cornerback/safety has accepted invitation to play in Maryland Crab Bowl all-star game.

John Robinson IV, Dwight Morrow (N.J.): Has 18 catches for 250 yards and 4 TDs.
Michael Tarbutt, Canisius (N.Y.): Is 22 of 26 on extra points, 4 of 8 on field goals with long of 52 yards, has averaged. 34 yards on five punts and recorded touchbacks on 28 of 36 kickoffs.

Marshe Terry, Northern Burlington (N.J.): Had interceptions against Cherry Hill East and Ewing.
Nazir Williams, Bridgeton (N.J.): Has 17 catches for 234 yards to go with 24 tackles, four sacks and two quarterback hurries.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

UConn in the NFL: Week 6

OK, UConn football trivia buffs, can you remember a time when two former Huskies had at least 10 tackles in an NFL game during the same week because I certainly can't recall that ever happening before.

It occurred on Sunday as Blidi Wreh-Wilson had a career-high 11 tackles and his first career interception in a 16-14 win over Jacksonville while Sio Moore had 10 tackles in a 31-28 loss to San Diego. What has impressive about the production of the former UConn teammates is that they both missed the previous week's game due to injury and were iffy to play coming into the week.

Here is the report
Will Beatty, OT New York Giants: Started in 27-0 loss to Philadelphia
Donald Brown, RB San Diego: Was not active (concussion)
Darius Butler, CB Indianapolis: Was not active (ankle)
Marcus Easley, WR Buffalo: Was not active (knee)
Dwayne Gratz, CB Jacksonville: Did not have tackle in 16-14 loss to Tennessee
Ryan Griffin, TE Houston: Had one tackle in 33-28 loss to Indianapolis
Danny Lansanah, LB Tampa Bay: Had five tackles in 48-17 loss to Baltimore
Robert McClain, CB Atlanta: Had two tackles including a sack in 27-13 loss to Chicago
Sio Moore, LB Oakland: Had 10 tackles in 31-28 loss to San Diego
Dan Orlovsky, QB, Detroit: Did not play in 17-3 win over Minnesota
Kendall Reyes, DT San Diego: Had four tackles including tackle for loss in 31-28 win over Oakland
Anthony Sherman, FB Kansas City: Bye week
Shamar Stephen, DT Minnesota: Had two tackles in 17-3 loss to Detroit
Jordan Todman, RB Jacksonville: Had a 25-yard kickoff return and one yard on four offensive touches in 16-14 loss to Tennessee
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB Tennessee: Had 11 tackles and interception in 16-14 win over Jacksonville

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Former UConn CB draws rave reviews

It has not been the easiest of seasons for former UConn cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson who saw his role with the Tennessee Titans increase following Alterraun Verner's decision to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Wreh-Wilson had some rough games early in the season and then missed last week's game with a concussion.

Well, he certainly looked like he was healthy in a 16-14 win over Jacksonville as he had a career-high 11 tackles (he had a total of 13 tackles in 13 games as a rookie) and recorded his first career interception.

After the game Titans coach Ken Whisehunt spoke about Wreh-Wilson's big game

"No question it helps him," Whisehunt said, "I think confidence-wise for sure, from how he is viewed by other people. Blidi has worked hard, it was tough to have him sit out last week. He had some tough games earlier this year. You have to give the kid credit. He bounced off not playing last week, and played well."


UConn commit Tyler Davis continues to light it up

It was not a weekend to remember for the UConn offense but a future Husky continues to put up some major numbers.

Quarterback Tyler Davis ran 35 times for 253 yards including touchdown runs of 1, 9, 41 and 5 yards and was 9 of 12 passing for 69 yards to lead his Mepham (N.Y.) squad to a 35-14 win over Wantagh on Saturday.

Davis, who is planning to graduate in time to enroll at UConn for the spring semester, is completing 72.7 percent of his passes while averaging nearly 200 rushing yards per game as Mepham has won four games in a row after losing its opener.

UConn's "trying not to lose" philosophy not getting it done

Tulane forced 3 turnovers and had 10 tackles for losses against UConn
The last time UConn played a road game Bob Diaco proved he had no confidence in his offensive line by abandoning the pass game after a nightmarish start in the driving rain at South Florida. Last night it may have been even worse.

Host Tulane came into the game having allowed an average of 14.4 yards per completion but barring any missed tackles, UConn would not be taking advantage of the Green Wave's greatest flaw simply because they weren't going to even try to throw the ball down the field.

Clearly spooked by the flood of costly turnovers and incredible amount of negative-yardage plays, UConn took the art of conservative play calling to new heights.

The end result was three points despite running 28 offensive plays in Tulane territory.

If you take away back to back receptions by Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx for 21 and 19 yards on the final drive when Tulane was in prevent defense mode, the Huskies' receivers had 12 catches for 72 yards. Sorry, but six yards per catch is not going to get it done. The two early attempts to throw the ball down the field were not even close to being completed as if appeared that Davis and Chandler Whitmer were not on the same page as the throws landed several yards from where Davis was on the field.

I do understand where the UConn coaches are coming from. Short completions are better than sacks or turnovers and it is painfully evident that they simply don't think the line is up to the challenge right now. There can't be a more difficult way to play football than when an offense is more concerned about not giving up negative plays and losing possession of the ball rather than trying to attack the defense. I seriously doubt these issues are going to be rectified before the end of the season.

It all started against BYU as the Cougars loaded the box and dared UConn to handle the pressure they were bringing and make plays down the field. The Huskies never came up with the answers and teams have used similar strategies. I would expect more of the same moving forward until UConn can make an opponent pay for their over aggressive defensive philosophy.

I don't know if anybody obsessed more over the offensive line in the last two or three years as I have but even I have been a little stunned at just how little progress the unit has made. UConn struggles to run the ball inside where its most experienced linemen are and the pass-protection issues have been rather well documented.

While I did not make the trip to New Orleans for the 12-3 loss to Tulane, reading the transcript of quotes on the Tulane site and it sounds like a similar chorus being sung by Diaco.

"I'm not surprised with anything," Diaco said after the game. "We are playing so many young players, and they have a maturing process; a cooking process that needs to happen. They need to play in the games. There's no other way to simulate it. No other way to simulate the game, except to play in the games. So they have to play in the games. You know what? They're doing a fine job. They're just creating at the point of attack of some game-changing plays."

I understand there is no more difficult task than trying to run a team with players that somebody else has recruited and I think Diaco does deserve some leeway to bring in his own recruits as he attempts to turn things around.

By my count 67 players have seen time this season and 57 of them have remaining eligibility including 42 with at least two years left to play. There's no question that there are some talented players there. Former Ansonia High star Arkeel Newsome is a true freshman who experienced incredible highs and lows last night as he made his first career start as he had more than 100 all-purpose yards for the second game in a row. He also fumbled the ball twice. Fellow true freshman Ron Johnson ripped off a 23-yard run and based how things went last night, it seems likely that Newsome and Johnson will carry the rushing load for the remainder of the season.

With all due to respect to Newsome, Johnson, linebacker Luke Carrezola, tight end Alec Bloom and cornerback Jamar Summers, who each seem to have incredibly bright futures, the most important members among the 20-member true freshman class could be Ryan Crozier, Dan Oak and Trey Rutherford.

As of right now no true offensive linemen are among the incoming recruits so it appears as if the Huskies are proceeding with the group of offensive linemen they currently have. Sophomores Andreas Knappe and Richard Levy figure to be the starting tackles moving forward but UConn will need to replace center Alex Mateas and guard Gus Cruz and I would expect Crozier, Oak and Rutherford to be at the top of the list of candidates.

Crozier and Rutherford have gotten into every game this season and haven't looked out of place while Oak drew praise from Diaco at Tuesday's press conference for his development. While there are still six games to play, it is already time to look towards the future and if UConn wants to have any chance at success, it simply must fix the offensive line issues especially with games coming up against American Athletic Conference front runners East Carolina and Central Florida.