Thursday, October 17, 2013

Difficult senior season for UConn's Kevin Friend

This is not how Kevin Friend envisioned his final year at UConn was going to play out.

The veteran offensive tackle has been a mainstay on the line during his sophomore and junior seasons but even before his senior campaign got underway he found himself in the unfamiliar role of reluctant spectator.

Friend suffered a concussion late in preseason camp which forced him to miss the season opener against Towson. Cleared to play against Maryland, Friend made his first start of the season but fell awkwardly to the ground when he was pushed by a Maryland defender. Friend suffered a high-ankle sprain in the first quarter of that game. He came back in for a couple of plays but then missed the rest of that contest as well as the Michigan and Buffalo games.

Finally, Friend was able to start and play the entire game against South Florida. However, he won't be remembered for the crushing blocks which helped to spring Lyle McCombs for a career-high 164 yards or his rock-solid effort in pass protection but his inability to corral the ball on the first quarter strip sack which turned into South Florida's only touchdown of the game.

Still,though all of his trials and tribulations, Friend has maintained a positive attitude.

"It definitely felt good to get back on that field," Friend said. "I haven’t played, I had a couple of snaps against Maryland but that was it. It has been kind of frustrating this season, I haven’t been about to be out on the field with my teammates and contribute in the game. I thought I played pretty well, there are obviously things watching film where I could have done (better) but just getting back into football will help me but overall I think I played a physical game and did a pretty good job."

And what about that fateful play when he failed to jump on the fumble by Tim Boyle

"We don’t really work on hand drills and I wasn’t really expecting it," Friend said. "My gloves, they are not like receivers’ gloves so I went to grab the ball and as soon as I got it in my right hand, somebody pushed me to that side and and I lost it, it popped right out. That was the biggest play of the game. I guess I have to work on (falling) on the ball better

"That play is not something I want to experience ever again, having the ball to where we could at least punt the ball, at least we would have had the ball to punt it if I had gotten it, it did a whole 180 and for them to put points on the board it was kind of heartbreaking."

Friend's consistent presence on the right side has been sorely missed. Xavier Hemingway and Dalton Gifford both had chances to fill in for him but they are both still very raw.

"I thought it was great he was able to get the full game under his belt, it was kind of like a preseason game for him in a sense," UConn offensive line coach Mike Foley said. "He got a concussion during camp, came back during camp finally for the Maryland game. He played eight plays and he is out again with the high-ankle (sprain). He came back, I thought he played a real solid game. There are some things that he is going to continue to work on but he is physical, he is starting to move better. He is a tough kid, he is physically tough and mentally tough. He doesn’t say a heck of a lot, he is a quiet guy but he has really worked hard to make himself a better player.

"He is a guy I remember when he was a redshirt freshman, we had a tackle go down and he had to go in the game against Rutgers. On the road you don't have a lot of guys, he gets hurt and he sprains an ankle and basically the trainer said he is going to be out and he said ‘I am ready to go.’ He went back out there and that just shows you the toughness, he was back on the field when we won the (Big East) championship down at South Florida Mike Ryan was hurt and he couldn’t go, a redshirt freshman and they have some very good people on the defensive line and he didn’t flinch. I have great faith in Kevin and I am happy for him. Hopefully he has gotten over the injury thing and he can move forward because it is a big plus to our offensive line."

It felt just like old times for Friend and the veteran members of the offensive line as Foley was back coaching the line following the firing of offensive line coach George DeLeone. UConn, which came into the game ranking last in the country in rushing yards per game, ran for a season-high 207 yards which is 42 more net rushing yards than the team had in the first four games of the season.

"I think Coach Foley is really emphasizing just being physical," Friend said. "We have schemes where we have a person but if he is not there, just hit somebody, be physical and if you make a mistake do it 100 miles an hour. A lot of times plays are not going to be perfect and if you hit someone, maybe the other guy overran the ball where Lyle can cut it back and make a big play like he did. I really like how we can play physical even if it is the wrong person, you can still turn that play into a positive."

Foley was an incredibly successful offensive line coach under Randy Edsall as the Huskies annually had one of the best rushing offenses in the country every season. However, when Paul Pasqualoni was hired he brought in George DeLeone to run the offense and take over the offensive line coaching duties. Foley moved to work with the tight ends.

In his first game back working with the offensive line Foley said there wasn't too much that he changed. He said there was only a couple of new plays which was brought out because he thought they would be successful against USF.

"There is one new play that we ran that we didn’t run before, a second play in our book that we didn’t run much," Foley said. "It is really an emphasis on what we did because those plays would be good against South Florida and you try to match up the run game.

"I liked the way they responded. I think they all have great respect for Coach DeLeone, it was a tough situation and it probably did help, particularly the older guys I have worked with them before so they had a feel for what I was like as a position coach so it is just the way it is, unfortunately it happened but I think they responded well."

Of course the strip sack is the one play most casual observers will recall from that game. At first glance it looked simply like left tackle was beaten off the edge and was responsible for giving up a defensive touchdown for the second week in a row. Foley said that is not the case.

"We gave up three sacks, I thought we had pretty good protection," Foley said. "The big run, Lyle’s run the receivers did a real good job, the offensive line did a good job and got him to the second level and the receivers did a great job blocking down the field. Protection is the same thing, it takes all 11 guys, the quarterback has to get the ball out of his hands, receivers have to get open, you can’t cut guys free out front, the back if he has a pickup has to make it. To me we gave up three sacks but two real sacks, the one that people wouldn’t think that was a big play and a couple of people had their hands in that one. Jimmy got his depth, turned his shoulders a little bit early, then you look at it and you have a young quarterback he is supposed to be at nine yards and he is at 12 and Jimmy pushes the guy by, that happens but you can’t let that one play take you down. We responded on the next series and Lyle has a big run. It is unfortunate but we have to recover that fumble, we have to chase that guy down and make them line up again."

Finally, Foley did answer a question I had about the offensive line and that is where Paul Nwokeji was when Friend was unable to play. I remember during preseason camp Nwokeji getting some first team reps at right tackle but DeLeone went to Hemingway and Gifford when Friend was unable to play.

"He hurt his elbow and some of that (time with the first and second-team offense) had to do with our depth, he was in the rotation, he is developing as a player right now some of those guys are back," Foley said.

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