Friday, August 08, 2014

Some thoughts a week into UConn preseason camp

When UConn hits the practice field this morning it will mark day seven of preseason camp so what better time to take a look at the team position by position?

Quarterback: Head coach Bob Diaco is in no hurry to divulge the pecking order as the trio of Tim Boyle, Casey Cochran and Chandler Whitmer. Unfortunately, we don't get to see any 11 on 11 or 7 on 7 drills so all I can do is base what I see off the order of repetitions. The only thing I can report in that department is the other quarterbacks were down one end of the field at Wednesday's practice while Cochran waited for the first-team offensive line to finish with extra point and field goal duties. Do that make Cochran the No. 1 guy? I'm not sure I'd go that far but with the limited access the media is getting during camp, that's the best I've got.

Here's what Diaco said on the matter.

"A handful (of reps) tilts either way of reps but they are all working with all groups, they are all rotating, they are all in competition with each other, the competition is wide open, they are all performing appropriately. I am pleased with the performance of them, there are some that have higher errors on other days and some not only mental errors but errors with the ball, forced error or missed opportunities. We are tallying those and we are comunicatiing with those players every day and you all will know soon enough. I am going to make that decision with enough time to train the offense and create continuity with that group with a starter but multiple quarterbacks are going to play in the games."

Tailback Max DeLorenzo returns after rushing for 349 yards and five touchdowns during 2014 season
Running back: Redshirt freshman Josh Marriner's star is most certainly on the rise and it would not shock me at all if he were to be UConn's leading rusher this season. There hasn't been much chatter about Max DeLorenzo, the top returning ground gainer, but that's more of an indication of the no frills manner in which DeLorenzo goes about his business. True freshmen Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson look pretty good so far and it will be interesting to see if they are worked into the rotation this season. At fullback I'm not sure what to make of things. It is pretty clear that Diaco prefers tight ends to fullback, actually he might prefer tight ends to any other position on the offense so if he goes with more two tight end sets that would cut into the playing time at fullback for either Jazzmar Clax or Matt Walsh.

Receiver: Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx are known commodities as both finished the 2013 season in impressive fashion. The guy who seems to moving up the ladder is redshirt freshman Thomas Lucas who was a defensive back at the start of 2013 summer/fall camp. There's plenty of youth behind Davis and Foxx with Lucas, Dhameer Bradley, Noel Thomas and Brian Lemelle all  coming into program last year.

Tight end: If Diaco has a complaint with this group it is that he doesn't have enough guys. Sean McQuillan is a returning starter and it is a good sign that he was among the first players Diaco mentioned in having a strong showing in the "rodeo" blocking drill because Diaco wants the offense to have a big of an edge to it and that is going to mean that a tight end who struggles to block will also struggle to play. Redshirt freshman Tommy Myers is already seeing first-team reps while true freshmen Alec Bloom and Steve Hashemi could play immediately.

Offensive line: In recent years this is the position generating the most attention simply because of the struggles to  open holes in the running game and keep pass rushers away from the quarterback. The good news is that the starting five was the same in day 1 as it was on the fifth day of camp. The return of guard Gus Cruz is not only a feel-good story after cardiac issues threatened to end his career but he brings some much-needed experience to the interior of the line. Cruz and center Alex Mateas will be the leaders of the line. Tyler Samra is the other guard while there is plenty of potential but not a heck of a lot of experience at tackle with Richard Levy and Andreas Knappe looking like the No. 1 guys. Diaco has had positive things to say about true freshmen Ryan Crozier, Daniel Oak and Trey Rutherford but it is highly unusual that a true freshman is advanced enough physically to be ready to play up front right away.

Jefferson Ashiru leads all UConn returnees
with eight tackles for a loss a season ago
Defensive line: The guy making the biggest push in the first week of camp seems to be Kenton Adeyemi and with the way he is progressing it wouldn't shock me if he was starting in the season opener against BYU. Julian Campenni and Angelo Pruitt are the most game-tested of the position group while B.J. McBryde will also be a factor. The key here is developing some depth because history has shown that injuries tend to happen at this position.

Linebackers: Jefferson Ashiru could thrive in the Diaco/Anthony Poindexter system while Graham Stewart and Reuben Frank could see time as not only 3-4 outside linebackers but 4-3 defensive ends as well. They are among the players being asked to step it up in the pass rush department. Marquise Vann is another linebacker who received plenty of playing time a season ago. Sophomores Omaine Stephens and Jon Hicks were listed on the two-deep chart but they could be pushed by players in the classes behind them as Diaco has been praising redshirt freshmen Cole Ormsby and Jalen Stevens and true freshman Luke Carrezola.

Cornerback Byron Jones will be one of leaders
of UConn's new-look defense during 2014 season
Defensive backs: It seems likely that the starters are set with cornerbacks Byron Jones and Jhavon Williams joined by safeties Obi Melifonwu and Andrew Adams. Diaco can't say enough positive things about Jones and Melifonwu but he wasn't happy with what he saw from Adams in the first couple of days.

"He recently has had a couple of better days," Diaco said of Adams. "He started in a very nondescript way."

The guy to watch is true freshman Jamar Summers who came out with the starting 11 when the defensive drills started on Wednesday. When I asked about the development of Summers and his stint with the starters Diaco cautioned me not to read too much into who is with the starters this early in camp but considering how little of the practices I get to see, about all I am able to do is note who is working with the first, second and third teams.

"Summers is a very gifted, physically gifted player. he has a lot of work to do to learn how to play corner at this level but he has some physical gifts. We are managing the position for a myriad of different reasons so I wouldn't read too much in who you saw first, who you saw second, who you saw third."

Summers and Javon Hadley figure to push for the important position of nickel corner especially with the departure of Tyree Clark, who saw plenty of time as an extra defensive back a season ago, no longer with the team. Ellis Marder is a versatile player who has lined up as a safety and corner in the past and Wilbert Lee is another player who could provide depth at safety.

Special teams: It's kind of flown under the radar but four-year starting punter Cole Wagner and No. 1 kicker Chad Christen need to be replaced. Justin Wain is the top punter while Bobby Puyol, who made two extra points and a 40-yard field goal in the 2012 season finale in place of an injured Christen, is not only the top kicker but he is also pushing Wain at punter. I haven't seen any special teams drills except the aforementioned PAT and FG drills but Foxx is the first guy listed on the depth chart as the kickoff and punt returner. Bradley and Nick Vitale appear to be in the mix on punt returns while Marriner and Williams are listed behind Foxx as KO return guys.


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