Friday, February 20, 2015

Cummings hopes UConn's offensive line continues to mature

Tyler Samra is one of two returning offensive linemen to start
all 12 games at UConn during 2014 season
The exact timeline is a little fuzzy to Mike Cummings.

At some point during his first season on the UConn football coaching staff all the weeks felt like all the other ones. So just when Cummings, who was hired to be the offensive coordinator and work with the tight ends, began taking on more of a hands' on approach with the struggling offensive line escapes him.

"Some of it is a blur for me but I would say it was around week four," Cummings said.
The timing would make sense. The fourth game of the season was the nightmare at South Florida when the Huskies abandoned the passing game for a significant portion of the game because the coaching staff didn't want to risk more costly turnovers.

Once the season began the practices were not open to the media which is nothing new as it was the same way when Paul Pasqualoni was the Huskies' head coach. The result is I didn't fully understand how involved Cummings was in the improved play of the offensive line until the season was over.
UConn coach Bob Diaco did want to use the fact that Cummings was being pulled in a few different ways as an excuse. But when the season came to an end, it was clear he was going to make some changes on the offensive side of the ball. Mike Foley, who coached the offensive line from 2006-10 when future NFL running backs Jordan Todman and Donald Brown were among the nation's most productive tailbacks. When Pasqualoni was hired, he brought in George DeLeone to work with the offensive line and Foley moved over to work with the tight ends during the 2011 and 2012 seasons and started the 2013 season in the same capacity. When Pasqualoni and DeLeone were fired after an 0-4 start, Foley returned to work with the offensive line. He was the only coach retained by Diaco before deciding that something had to be done.

When the dust settled none of the remaining offensive assistants had the same responsibilities. Nobody was more impacted than Cummings who returned to his speciality of coaching the offensive line. While he is still listed as co-offensive coordinator, veteran NFL assistant coach Frank Verducci was brought in to be the offensive coordinator and call the plays.

In retrospect Cummings admitted the time be devoted on fixing the leaky offensive line probably hurt his performance as a play caller.

"I spent all the individual time with the line," Cummings said. "The division was doing position, individual (work) with the offensive line and then I spent time with the team in the other (practice periods).

"It is difficult when you spend so much time coaching five guys that it feels like it is a different world. It if difficult because you are focused and locked in on a particular portion of the offense that when you step out into the big picture, you kind of go back to that part of the offense which is a huge part of the offense."

The results were hard to overlook.

UConn did not allow a sack in three of the last four games and the running game was more productive as well. 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.

"That was huge," Cummings said. "That does mean a lot. If you coach the position, you are motivated by players getting better. You are not motivated by notoriety, obviously you want to win the games and that is primary but seeing players get better and develop skill wise, emotionally, socially those are big deals."

Cummings said he is 100 percent all in with his new role. I'm sure seeing somebody else call the plays must have stung Cummings a little but he certainly said all the right things about Verducci's arrival and his changing role.

"Frank is very detailed," Cummings said. "I think he has a very good vision and plan and I think it is a shared vision. I enjoy working with him, he really likes collaborative efforts with the staff which is big. He lets the position coaches have ownership."

As for the players he will be working with, Richard Levy and Tyler Samra started every game at left tackle and right guard respectively. Andreas Knappe likely would have started every game at right tackle if not for a leg injury he suffered late in preseason camp. He started the last seven games while true freshman Ryan Crozier was the starting left guard for the final three games. UConn did lose Alex Mateas, the starter at center in all 12 games, and Gus Cruz, who got the start at left guard for the first nine games. Those were the only losses on the offensive line. Trey Rutherford, Thomas Hopkins, Kyle Bockeloh and Gifford lead the list of the other linemen who got game experience a season ago. Obviously the biggest question facing the offensive line is who is going to earn the starting center job. Daniel Oak, who redshirted last season, drew plenty of praise for his work in practice. He figures to push Bockeloh for the job. Cummings couldn't say enough good things about Oak, who added 13 pounds since the end of last season and is now listed at 278.

"Dan Oak made a lot of progress," Cummings said. "He is a smart player, he is very tough. While he didn't get the game experience, we felt it was best to redshirt him because we could. He is a player that we are expecting a lot from him. We were able to put him in (practice) and he was able to battle with our defense as a next man in, not as a scout team or look team (center) and he was very aggressive. He did a good job, not a great job but a good job against our nose men which in our league are very difficult to block."

Another player of interest is Shelton's Steve Hashemi, who was moved to tight end and saw time on special teams as a true freshman. With so many tight ends as part of the incoming freshman class, Hashemi can move back to the offensive line which is what he was recruited to play.

"He has a lot of upside and he is going to develop," Cummings said. "He is only 270 pounds. I say only 270 but he's going to weight 300 and some pounds. He is a good big athlete who could step in and be able to do the job we asked him to do. Now we've got somebody for that job so we will bring him back and put him in the position we really wanted him in."

Obviously true freshmen Crozier and Rutherford were seeing time throughout the season and the Huskies had inexperienced starters at the tackle position. It is only natural that there were some growing pains.

"There is a frustration part of it that you know they are going to be really good but they are not there yet so you had to pull it back and make sure what you teach them is to the smallest common denominator so they can successful," said Cummings, who helped turn Eric Fisher from lightly-regarded prospect to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft during his four years coaching the offensive line at Central Michigan. "As they get older it is really fun because they have the building blocks and experience. It is not a guy who is in his third year and hasn't played, it is a little different."

It also helps that the offensive linemen continue to bulk up led by the tackle duo of Levy and Knappe.
"They are pushers, shovers, mushers were everybody else is a runner," Cummings said. "They are totally trained for that, that has been a big improvement for Andreas, he has been through the battles."

NEWSOME, JOHNSON READY FOR AN ENCORESpeaking of young players getting a baptism under fire, there wasn't much time for tailbacks Ron Johnson and Arkeel Newsome to act like the true freshmen that they were a season ago. With Max DeLorenzo the only experienced tailback on last year's team, Johnson, Newsome and redshirt freshman Josh Marriner were thrown right into the mix from the opening game.
That experience should serve the young running backs well this season.

"He is a guy that is obviously very explosive so we tried to find ways to get him the ball," said UConn assistant coach David Corley, who coached the running backs last season. "We got the ball in his hands and a couple of times he was able to make some big plays happen. It is a natural maturation process. In your first year of college there are so many distractions that are happening, things are moving faster on the field then they were in high school. I think he was able to settle himself. I think he is better prepared now  what is expected from him, what is necessary and I think he is looking forward to these 15 days of spring practice and find a way to get better every day.

"They had no choice but to grow up. You come out high school, you are used to a certain speed of the game, a certain size of the opponents. Now you are in college and you are playing against grown me who are 21/22 years old. I think those guys definitely, it was a process and it didn't happen overnight but I think they learned and they grew up quite a bit in those 12 games last year."

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