Tuesday, March 03, 2015

UConn spring preview: Wide receivers

As I navigate my way position by position towards the start of spring practice it is hard not to be struck by how the Huskies seemingly return the bulk of their top performers from a season ago - with one very notable exception.

It is impossible to look ahead to the future at receiver without making note of the loss of two very substantial players.

Geremy Davis was not nearly as productive as a senior as he was during his junior season due to injury, a lack of consistent play from the quarterback and offensive line positions. I always found it bizarre to see Davis, who NFL insiders claim was one of the two receivers at the NFL Combine not to drop a catchable pass during the 2014 season, on the sidelines on so many third down plays. He willingness to work the middle of the field was one of the many traits I admired about the way Davis played.

While Davis was the master of one role for the Huskies, Deshon Foxx did everything short of opening and closing the gates at Rentschler Field on game days. He had the longest running play, reception and special teams return. When UConn was down to two scholarship quarterbacks, Foxx saw time at quarterback and added a big-play threat to the running game.

It will be no easy chore replacing what Davis and Foxx brought to the field. The good news is that Noel Thomas, Dhameer Bradley, Thomas Lucas and Brian Lemelle got plenty of work a season ago and all of them except Lucas got onto the field during the 2013 season.

Lucas and Thomas are rangy and athletic players who added a few pounds of muscle in the offseason. Bradley and Lemelle are on the smaller end of the spectrum. Bradley is built similar to Foxx and in fact he is listed at 5-10 and 173 pounds on the spring roster which happens to be what Foxx was listed at a season ago. Lemelle was the most highly touted of the strong group of receivers brought into the program two seasons ago thanks to breaking Pennsylvania high school records for career catches and receiving yards. He was featured prominently in the passing game in the second half of his true freshman season but lost snaps to some of the other younger receivers last season.

Thomas was best known for his ability to down punts into the 5 during his freshman season. He continued to shine on special teams but had just 40 yards on five catches in the first six games of the 2014 campaign. Then when Davis was forced to the sideline, no receiver saw his role increase more than Thomas. He caught at least three passes in five straight games and had four touchdown catches in a three-game span. Lucas didn't receive as many chances as Thomas but he had some big plays. In a game at nationally-ranked East Carolina Lucas had catches of 37 and 43 yards.

Over the last couple of years Davis blazed the path for all the younger receivers to follow. This is a much younger group so it will be important for a pretty inexperienced group to show up with the proper mindset during the 15 spring practices.

"They are still young players themselves so we have been talking about taking advantage of every day, spring practice is not long just 15 days so not wasting a day, not wasting a second," UConn receivers coach David Corley said. "I think these guys are up to the task and they are going to have success.

"We have been talking about leadership as a team and we have been encouraging everybody to take accountability as far as leadership is concerned understanding that everybody's leadership style is going to be different. You want everybody to be able to lead by example, we have a few guys here and there who are able to be vocal and motivate your teammates that way. I am just encouraging all of those guys to lead by example first and be vocal. As time as time moves on all that stuff will shake out and those guys get comfortable with who they are and what their new roles are."
So of this group of receiver who does Corley think is most capable of emerging as a vocal presence?

"I think Noel Thomas is a guy who doesn't mind being vocal," Corley said. "A lot of times with younger players, guys have to transition from being focused on themselves, because when you are a young player it is 'who do I need to be, what do I need to do in order to make this play and make sure I am doing my job.' You transition that to bringing other people around. 'I know what I have to do and now let me help this guy get him situated so he is confident in what he has to do.'"
UConn is bringing in four scholarship freshmen receivers but they won't be suiting up until August. This spring will be a perfect time for the returning receivers to take ownership of the position so that the freshmen has plenty of catching up to do in order to see the field during the upcoming season.
"There are looking forward to that for sure," Corley said. "There is new opportunities and a fresh start."


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