Sunday, August 25, 2013

Youngsters trying to make impact with UConn

There are plenty of familiar faces expected to be in starting roles when UConn hosts Towson in the 2013 season opener on Thursday with nine offensive players and eight players on the defensive side of the ball who started at least one game in 2012 anticipated to be in the lineup.

However, two players in the spotlight Sunday afternoon were a pair of freshmen eagerly awaiting their first collegiate starts.

Obi Melifonwu seemed slated to be a reserve safety who would see time on special teams and perhaps in nickel and dime coverage packages. However, all of that changed when projected starting safety Andrew Adams went down with a shoulder injury late during preseason camp. With Adams expected to be out for a minimum of eight weeks after undergoing surgery on his injured shoulder, Melifonwu has stepped into a starting role.

“I am surprised but I am excited about it,” said Melifonwu, a redshirt freshman from South Grafton, Mass. “I look at it as an opportunity and a blessing. I have a big opportunity. I am a little bit nervous but I am excited about it.”

Since arriving on campus the 6-foot-4, 208-pound Melifonwu has intrigued coaches with his combination of size, speed (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and athleticism (a 41-inch vertical leap). But it wasn’t until he began to practice with the starters following Adams’ injury until he really began to blossom.

“Obi has stepped up,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said, “He has taken some ownership of the position since Andrew went down. A lot of young guys when they are playing second team, maybe they don’t view it as everything is as important because they are not the ones starting. As soon as Andrew went down Obi stepped up and has shown that he can practice consistently. He has done that each day since Andrew has been hurt.”

An injury to Jazzmar Clax, who began preseason camp as the No. 1 fullback, allowed Walsh to see time with the No. 1 offense. He had four touchdowns in a span of 12 plays during a goal-line drill in a recent practice and ever since has been the starter at fullback.

The former Hand High star and the 2012 Register State Football Most Valuable Player, was primarily a linebacker in high school who saw some time in short-yardage and goal-line situations as either a fullback or tailback.

Pasqualoni saw how athletic Walsh was when he was at UConn’s camp and recruited him as a fullback.
Now he is the first true freshman slated to start the season opener on either offense or defense since Jesse Joseph in 2009.

“I couldn’t really ask for more right now,” Walsh said. “I am just really excited to get on the field any way I can. I am really excited for kickoff Thursday night.

“There are a lot of goose bumps especially playing on that field where I won two state championships. You always thought about some day playing in the full stadium. I don’t know what to expect but I am really excited, I can’t wait.”

Walsh has impressed his coaches and teammates with the way he has handled the transition from high school to college football without seemingly missing a beat.

“That boy is a good player,” said Reuben Frank, who was last year’s starting fullback before being moved to defensive end. “He is a real quality player. He comes in and he is focused. He doesn’t say much and is a real humble player and does what coaches tell him to do. That boy can hit too and I like that about him too. I like seeing him come in here and not being afraid to hit. He’s good a real good head on his shoulders, a real good mindset and he will prosper at fullback.”


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