Thursday, December 19, 2013

Early look ahead to Bob Diaco's first UConn team

A week ago all the rumor mill finally went quiet and all the speculation surrounding who the next UConn football coach was going to be ended when Bob Diaco was hired as the Huskies new coach. Diaco is going his part to generate interest for the program with an entertaining press conference and a series of interviews including one on the Jim Rome Show.

There's no questioning that the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator has passion, energy and charisma. Now for the really important question, can he win at UConn?

Well, when the players who will be redshirt seniors were true freshmen the Huskies earned a spot in a BCS bowl for the only time in program history so it's not like he is venturing into unchartered waters.

While attrition is almost certainly to change the look of the roster between now and the season opener against Brigham Young on Aug. 28, here’s an early look at the Huskies position by position


QUARTERBACK: With the way Casey Cochran played in the wins over Rutgers and Memphis, you would have to think it is his job to lose. Of course, if Diaco shakes up the look of the offensive staff, the new group of coaches could have a different take on things. There is not a position where transfers tend to happen with more frequency than at quarterback (look no further than Mike Nebrich lighting things up when he left UConn after Chandler Whitmer was named the starter shortly before the 2012 season began). Whitmer’s situation bears watching. Does he want to stick around for another year or maybe be sitting behind Cochran and Tim Boyle? As for Boyle, I know he was incredibly disappointed when he was replaced as the starter but I spoke to his high school coach (Xavier’s Sean Marinan) last week and he said he believes Boyle is solid in his commitment to UConn. Kivon Taylor is an intriguing prospect who redshirted this past season while Scott McCummings missed all of the 2013 season after tearing his Achilles tendon. He could be in a similar boat as Whitmer as both are good students who could graduate and play elsewhere or make a run at earning playing time. As of right now St. Paul’s Logan Marchi is the only incoming freshman at that position.

TAILBACK: Lyle McCombs, who led UConn in rushing for the third straight season, and Max DeLorenzo were the top two rushers and both are coming back. They could prove to be a solid 1-2 combination as McCombs has outstanding speed and DeLorenzo is a bruising runner. However, the running game has struggled to produce regularly over the last two seasons. Josh Marriner was a highly-productive runner in high school who redshirted as a freshman and the situation of Joe Williams needs to be monitored as he was suspended after being arrested for illegal use of a credit card. If he is reinstated, he has the combination of size and speed than could earn him playing time. Ansonia High’s Arkeel Newsome rewrote the Connecticut high school record book while leading the Chargers to three state titles in a row and is another speedy, but undersized back and Suffield Academy’s Brice McAllister is also committed to the Huskies.

FULLBACK: When T.J. Weist was calling the plays the fullback was an under utilized position. I am not sure what the offense will look like under Diaco but if the fullback is not featured prominently, you’d have to wonder if they rethink the use of former state player of the year Matt Walsh as a fullback. Walsh showed great potential catching the ball out of the backfield during fall camp and is a tough competitor so he could be an asset at fullback. Jazzmar Clax is in a similar situation as perhaps he could see time at tailback because with UConn often going with three or four receiver sets, the fullbacks rarely saw the field.

RECEIVERS: Everybody who caught a pass during the 2013 season is slated to return. Geremy Davis had one of the best seasons for a Connecticut receiver during UConn’s time playing at the FBS level and when Shakim Phillips was healthy, it was a pretty dynamic receiving tandem. Deshon Foxx made tremendous strides as a slot receiver while true freshmen Brian Lemelle, Dhameer Bradey and Noel Thomas saw more and more time as the season wore on. Kamal Abrams and John Green are among the other receivers returning.

TIGHT ENDS: Sean McQuillan, when healthy, displayed plenty of potential as a pass-catching tight end. Converted defensive end E.J. Norris should be in better position with a full year to prepare to play offense. Freshmen Michael Boland, Tommy Myers and Quinn Thompson all redshirted and it will be interesting to see how they develop. Alec Bloom is a commit who bears watching assuming he comes to Storrs.

OFFENSIVE LINE: UConn loses four senior starters in tackles Jimmy Bennett and Kevin Friend and guards Steve Greene and Tyler Bullock. The rock-solid consistency of Greene figures to be the hardest to replace. Guards Tyler Samra and Kyle Schafenacker were highly-touted prospects from premier high school programs. Samra got one start while Schafenacker was redshirted. Gus Cruz began the season as the starter at right guard but his season ended prematurely due to a cardiac issue. If he can be cleared, that would be a huge bonus for an otherwise young offensive line. Zach Rugg saw some time at guard as a redshirt freshman. Rising senior Alex Mateas heads into the 2014 season as the returning starter while Dalton Gifford showed signs of improvement late in the season filling in for an injured Friend and he figures to be a full-time starter at tackle. The other tackle spot will be interesting. Xavier Hemingway, Paul Nwokeji and Richard Levy pushed for playing time during the ’13 season while Tommy Hopkins was redshirted. Chasz Wright, who spent last season at Milford Academy, Lamont Bradford and Trey Rutherford are all committed to UConn (although Rutherford did take a visit to Minnesota last weekend) with Wright having the added bonus of being able to take part in spring drills as a January enrollee.

DEFENSIVE END: Change was already coming with the graduation of Jesse Joseph and Tim Willman but when you factor in that Diaco ran a 3-4 defense at Notre Dame and it will be intriguing to see what he does at the defensive end and outside linebacker positions. Angelo Pruitt figures to be a key contributor at DE regardless of the scheme as he has the size and physicality to play end in a 3-4 alignment and has proven productive playing either DE or DT in a 4-3. Reuben Frank, a converted fullback who has pass-rush potential, would seem better suited to being an rush outside linebacker in a 3-4 than playing end in that scheme. Kenton Adeyemi would seem capable of playing defensive end in a 3-4 but the freshmen who redshirted (Cole Ormsby, Cameron Stapleton and Jalen Stevens) seem like better fits at linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: The statistics don’t indicate how much the graduating Shamar Stephen meant to the UConn defense. He was able to occupy multiple blockers and when he was disrupting things at the line of scrimmage, the defense offered some resistance. Assuming Diaco runs a 3-4, rising junior Julian Campenni who started all 12 games alongside Stephen as well reserves B.J. McBryde and Mikal Myers are options to man the nose tackle position and it’s possible one of them could be shifted to defensive end. Foley Fatukasi is a player who bears watching as he did some good things in preseason camp before being redshirted. Andreas Knappe, a 6-foot-9 native of Denmark, is a fascinating prospect who is still looking to find a home and there are some who think he would be a natural to be shifted to play offensive tackle given his huge frame and long arms. Barring any more decommitments among those who pledged to join the Huskies, there will likely be about 8-10 scholarships left to Diaco to fill and I would not be surprised if bringing in multiple DT/DE types would be at the top of his recruiting wish list.

LINEBACKER: Yawin Smallwood did it all during his three seasons at UConn and he will be dearly missed when he heads to the NFL a year early and Ryan Donohue also departs. Due to the injury-plagued seasons of starters Donohue and Graham Stewart, plenty of players received valuable playing experience this season. Jefferson Ashiru and Marquise Vann lead that list  Omaine Stephens looked very good during camp but didn't get on the field very much so keep an eye on him while Brandon Steg and Jon Hicks are other returnees with plenty of potential. Junior Joseph was one of the most highly-touted recruits in the final class signed during the Paul Pasqualoni era and it will be interesting to see if he pushes for playing time after redshirting.

CORNERBACKS: The true measure of Taylor Mack's importance in the secondary came when he was forced to miss five games due to a shoulder injury. It was hardly a coincidence that when he came back, the Huskies won the final three games of the season. The good news is that Jhavon Williams saw plenty of time in place of Mack so he could step right in at one cornerback spot and Byron Jones will return to the other starting spot. David Stevenson, Tyree Clark and Javon Hadley all saw playing time with varying degrees of success. Commit Jamar Summers had an outstanding season as a post grad at Milford Academy and assuming he enrolls in January, he could push for time as well. Thomas Lucas saw time in the secondary and at receiver during camp but I would not be the least bit surprised for him to find a home at corner considering the overflow of returnees at receiver.

SAFETIES: So much hinges on the health of Ty-Meer Brown, a big hitter who is also outstanding in coverage. Brown missed the last five games of the season with shoulder/neck issues. Andrew Adams, who started the final six games and Obi Melifonwu, who started all 12 games, would make a solid starting tandem without Brown and if Brown is able to play, this could be the Huskies' deepest position on defense. When given a chance to play, Wilbert Lee has shown the ability to make plays while Jordan Floyd saw action in every game in 2013, mostly on special teams.Ellis Marder, who could also play cornerback, could also compete for time.

RETURNERS: UConn missed Nick Williams in a major way last season as McCombs and Lemelle failed to provide the big plays as punt returners (UConn did not have a punt return of longer than 19 yards) and the Huskies didn't strike fear into teams in the kickoff return game either. McCombs, Foxx, Phillips and Green all returned kickoffs last season.

KICKER/PUNTER: Kicker Chad Christen and punter Cole Wagner had up and down senior seasons but they will still be missed. Bobby Puyol, who filled in for an injured Christen in the 2012 finale, and former Valley Regional kicker Rick Harrison are the only kickers on the roster while Justin Wain will go into camp as the guy to watch at punter although Blake Feagles, the son of former NFL punter Jeff Feagles, certainly has the blood lines to be a punter.


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