Monday, December 08, 2014

After disappointing 2014 season at UConn, time to look ahead

Coming off back to back seasons when a team loses 19 games and suffered some of the most infuriating losses in program history, perhaps the best thing is to try to take a peek into the future.
First-year coach Bob Diaco is claiming that better times are coming. I guess time will tell if that is actually the case of if it is more of his glass is half full personality attempting to put a pretty bow on an ugly picture.
The fact is that most of the players who have impact roles down the stretch figure to be part of the 2015 squad. Here's a look at the team position by position

QUARTERBACK: It's hard not to wonder how things would have looked had Casey Cochran not been forced into retirement after suffering one too many concussions. Chandler Whitmer gave it the old college try as he leaves ranking fourth in program history in passing completions and yards but he also threw too many costly interceptions and took as much punishment as any quarterback in the country. Tim Boyle has been called the quarterback of the future by Diaco but Boyle had his struggles when he was inserted as the starter late in the season. There have been rumblings that Diaco would prefer a dual-threat option at quarterback which if that is the case could open the door for North Carolina State transfer Bryant Shirreffs or incoming freshman Tyler Davis to ascend to the No. 1 job since both have reputations of being able to make things happen with their legs.

TAILBACK: Ron Johnson began the season as the No. 3 or 4 option in the running game but ended it as the featured back . Johnson was the Huskies' leading rusher in the last three games and posted his first career 100-yard game in the season finale against SMU. Fellow true freshman Arkeel Newsome showed big-play ability especially in the screen game and on special teams but struggles with pass protection and holding onto the ball cut into his playing time. Junior Max DeLorenzo began the season as the No. 1 back only to become a forgotten piece of the equation for several weeks. He finished the season making his presence felt so perhaps he will be a factor as a senior. There might not be a bigger surprise than the dwindling role of Josh Marriner. The way Diaco was talking him up in the preseason I was expecting him to be the Huskies' top back. Instead he failed to get a carry in four of the last eight games.

FULLBACK: While we're on the subject of surprises, the fullbacks were more prominently involved in the offense than I thought they would be. Jazzmar Clax and Matt Walsh will again look to add physicality to the running game and would expect more of the same moving forward.

RECEIVERS: The one position hit hardest by graduation with Geremy Davis, the Huskies' career leader for catches and receiving yards during the FBS era and Deshon Foxx, who had the team's longest run, reception and special teams return, combined for 74 of the 134 catches by receivers during the 2014 season. Noel Thomas (team-high four TD catches), Dhameer Bradley, Thomas Lucas and Brian Lemelle all came in during last year's recruiting class and each have had their moments. The Huskies addressed the need for reinforcements at receiver during the current recruiting cycle.

TIGHT ENDS: Sean McQuillan, one of six players with at least 10 catches, will be the active leader in career catches on next year's team with 41 over the last two seasons. Redshirt freshman Tommy Myers made strides as the top blocking tight end and got the start against SMU while true freshman Alec Bloom has star power written all over him. It will be interesting to see whether former St. Joseph High star Steve Hashemi, who saw time on special teams, will move to the offensive line considering how many tight ends the Huskies will be bringing in for the 2015 season.

OFFENSIVE LINE: If a checklist of the positives coming out of the season where to be compiled the development of the line would obviously be at the top of the list. Not only did UConn not allow a sack in three of the last four games but there was noticeable improvement in the running game.After the East Carolina game UConn had one game with at least 160 rushing yards in the last 31 contests. The Huskies accomplished the feat three times in the last five games with the 249 yards against SMU is the most since a Nov. 11, 2010 game against Pittsburgh. Center Alex Mateas is the only senior to start late in the season. The improvement of tackles Richard Levy and Andreas Knappe was truly impressive, true freshman Ryan Crozier started the last three games at left guard while Tyler Samra had a solid junior season. Former starter Dalton Gifford could push for time at tackle, Trey Rutherford saw plenty of time as a true freshman and although he redshirted as a true freshman, center Dan Oak drew rave reviews for his work in practice.

DEFENSIVE LINE: The interior positions appear to be in great shape with the return of Julian Campenni, who led all defensive linemen with 35 tackles, Mikal Myers (6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks) and Foley Fatukasi. Cole Ormsby (a team-leading 3.5 sacks) and Luke Carrezola had moments of brilliance as freshmen while Kenton Adeyemi started the final 11 games on the other side. The lack of a consistent pass rush is a concern but with the only losses being Reuben Frank and B.J. McBryde, this is a group that got to learn on the job and that should pay dividends next season.

LINEBACKERS: Marquise Vann (a team-leading 105 tackles), Graham Stewart (team-high 10.5 tackles for loss) were two of the most impactful players on the defense while freshman Junior Joseph had 22 of his 41 tackles in the last four games of the season. Fellow freshmen Cameron Stapleton and Vontae Diggs received valuable playing time.

SECONDARY: An injury to a player like Byron Jones was a huge blow but it did give Jhavon Williams, Jamar Summers, John Green and Brice McAllister a baptism under fire. Williams was the only one who had played a defensive snap at the college level coming into the season. At times that lack of experience was exposed but the quartet did have their moments as well. At safety the combination of Andrew Adams, who led the Huskies with 65 solo tackles, four interceptions and eight pass breakups, and Obi Melifonwu finished two of the Huskies' top four tacklers. Melifonwu had some issues in pass defense but that duo will be among the best safety duos in the AAC next season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Justin Wain and kicker Bobby Puyol had inconsistent seasons. UConn ended the season by averaging less than 40 yards per punt in the last eight games while Puyol had four field goals of more than 40 yards, he was just 3 of 6 on kicks between 30-39 yards. Although the Huskies were second to last nationally in touchbacks on kickoffs, the Huskies led the nation in kickoff return coverage and ranked 26th in punt return coverage. Arkeel Newsome showed explosiveness on kickoff returns but the Huskies will need to find a new punt returner with the graduation of Foxx.

COACHING: It was an interesting debut season for Diaco. He certainly showed the ability to find the silver lining during even the toughest of times. But, as they say, talk is cheap. You can already feel the grumbling coming from the fan base with the way the season came to an end and especially with his weekly "we are getting better" comments when that improvement wasn't usually being translated to game-day performance.

Obviously Diaco knows how to coach defense and there were promising signs on that side of the ball. However, the offense was a different story. He admitted to having a shorter leash on offense because of all the early season turnovers and that will need to change. Completing five passes against a team like SMU is inexcusable and with the offensive line seemingly in the best shape coming into a season for the last few years, it is time for the offensive coaches to show a little more imagination and aggressive mindset than they did this season. Diaco's substitution pattern is also beyond baffling especially at the offensive skill positions. Max DeLorenzo was under utilized during the middle of the season and trying to figure out how the young receivers and tight ends were worked into the passing game is enough to make your head spin.

The good news is that after two seasons when the offensive systems underwent a complete overhaul, UConn should have some continuity going into next season. Also don't underestimate how difficult it is to run your system without players recruited for that style of play. Ron Johnson, Ryan Crozier and Vontae Diggs were among the freshmen recruited by the new staff and now Diaco's staff has an entire year to add his type of players to the mix. Ultimately the success of this regime will be determined over next couple of seasons as Diaco overhauls everything within the program.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great analysis and coverage. This is by far THE BEST UConn Football coverage out there. Appreciate it.

December 10, 2014 1:08 PM 

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