Sunday, August 16, 2015

Shirreffs and Thomas forming bond on and off field during UConn camp

It's already been well documented that yesterday's scrimmage was not the best of days for the UConn offense. However, it wasn't all doom and gloom,

There were a couple of connections from quarterback Bryant Shirreffs to Noel Thomas that were something to behold. While the jury is still out whether the offensive line will enable UConn's running game to take off, after watching one practice and yesterday's combination of practice/scrimmage, it is looking like UConn has found its starting quarterback in Shirreffs and No. 1 receiver in Thomas.

The first time the two hooked up was a thing of beauty as Shirreffs threw a sideline out to Thomas who not only made the catch but showed off his athleticism by getting a foot down.

"It was a well placed ball and he placed it only where I could have it," Thomas said. "I just made sure I got the foot down and got the catch. I actually remember the last practice the receivers working on sideline catches, Coach (David) Corley making sure we get a foot down."

Based on the reaction by UConn head coach Bob Diaco and offensive coordinator Frank Verducci, yesterday was not the first time Thomas came up with a key catch.

When I asked Diaco about the lift that early catch by Thomas gave a struggling offense he thanked me multiple times for asking about Thomas.

"This guy has kind of reinvented himself," Diaco said. "He has always been a special talent and now this guy comes with a purpose to work  every day. He is putting the preparation to have a special year, a breakout year I would say. If he continues to work the way he has been working, he will have a special year."

Verducci has also been impressed not only with Thomas' emergence but the amount of work Shirreffs and Thomas have put in together.

"We are looking for Noel to be that kind of player, a guy that when the chips are down, whenever we need to get a jump start 'let's find a way to get the ball to Noel and see what he can do,'" Verducci said. "He has the kind of potential. He has had a great camp. Tremendous. The hard work that they have put in this summer is extremely evident and it shows up the most in the timing aspect where Bryant will hit that third step, boom get the ball out and Noel is out of his break. It is a credit to them, all the work they have done in the offseason to get to that point. Thank goodness it is showing in their productivity."

According to Neill Ostrout of the Manchester Journal Inquirer Shirreffs finished 10 of 18 for 108 yards while the other four quarterbacks were 7 of 17 for 111 yards.

The two completions to Thomas were among the highlights for Shirreffs.

"Noel and I have gotten really close lately, we are together all the time but with Noel I have learned he can make plays," Shirreffs said. "You saw it today, we have been working on that play for a while and it finally paid off."

If you factor in a drop on a perfectly thrown third down pass Shirreffs would have completed more than 60 percent of his passes working against the No. 1 defense, a unit that could very well be a top 25 or 30 ranked squad this season. Still, only managing one offensive touchdown left Shirreffs feeling like there's plenty of work yet to be done.

"We just need to learn from today, see what we didn't do as well and improve on it,' Shirreffs said. "It is the first time we got out here with referees and simulated a game so you are going to have some mistakes. I had some mistakes so you have to go to the film, see what I did wrong and not do it again. It is good to look forward and now that positive things are going to come the more you worry about what is going wrong and looking back, the more you are going to be stagnant.

"What I liked about today is in my group, I don't know about the other groups, but my group nobody really panicked. We had a couple of slow drives in the beginning but then we got things going there at the end."

While some of the freshmen are already making an impact led by Tyraiq Beals, some of the busiest receivers on Saturday were the most experienced ones as junior Brian Lemelle continues to work with the starters and classmate Dhameer Bradley was the most targeted receiver.

With the graduation of Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx, leadership at the receiver position is falling to Thomas, Bradley and Lemelle.

"I feel like me, Dhameer Bradley, Brian Lemelle, we have the most experience at receiver on the team and we are definitely taking ownership and trying to get everybody up to speed," Thomas said. "We have talented young guys so we want them to play so we try to help them out as much as we can because we definitely learned a lot from Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx."

Lemelle showed plenty of promise as a true freshman but seemed to be a little bit of a forgotten guy a season ago. Now he is set to make an impact as a receiver and on special teams as he could see time returning both kickoffs and punts.

"He certainly has a swagger, he plays like it too," Thomas said of Lemelle. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder and he is going to be good."

It is hard not to notice what Beals has been doing in camp.

While much has been made of Diaco targeting tall receivers, in the two practices I have been to it has been the 6-foot Beals, the shortest of the four true freshman scholarship receivers who has been seeing to most time with the first or second teams. He also had a nice catch near the sideline.

"He is a really a special freshman," Verducci said. "He has come in and acclimated really well, great personality, a very smart young man and I am confident he will put himself in the mix to be a contributor."

Beals had one game as a senior at East Orange (N.J.) Campus HS with 16 catches for 218 yards and another with 13 catches for 259 yards and six TDs so he knows something about catching the ball.

"I know Beals made a great play on the sideline today but every single freshman receiver has really thoroughly impressed me," Shirreffs said. "They came in during the summer and worked their tails off with us in the weight room, Coach Balis really gets after up in the weight room and with conditioning. They all handled it like true champions so to have them on the field and involved in the offense is definitely an honor."

Speaking of youth, I find it interesting that four of the five players on the second-team offensive line are guys either in their first or second year with the program as sophomore Steve Hashemi is at one guard, sophomore Trey Rutherford is at a tackle, redshirt freshman Dan Oak is the center and true freshman Matthew Peart is at tackle. The lone veteran is redshirt junior Kyle Bockeloh.

I was surprised not to see Ron Johnson out there more at tailback but perhaps it was just a chance to see how the other three guys look since it looks like Johnson has put himself in position to have a key role this season . Also, I thought the tight ends would be featured more. They were targeted early and often in the 7 on 7 drill right before the start of the scrimmage but not very busy in the passing game once the scrimmage started.

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