Friday, August 28, 2015

Time for some UConn offensive line chatter

Bob Diaco had a lot to say in the 30 or so minutes he was available to the media at Wednesday's media day.

However, the one comment that really surprised me was when he spoke about the freshmen and had this to say:

"The offensive line, the defensive line, the tight end position, in the linebacker corps and that group there, that could become a mess. So where are they participating? They are participating, potentially, in the skill positions. I am fairly certain that is going to be the hallmark of this year. I can't imagine in the two deep there being a true freshman that is going to be a guy that the team is counting on (at those positions). The only one would be Matt Peart at left tackle and he is by no means ready to go in the game and play. We'll see if we can get him ready to go into the game in a week."

Peart was consistently working as an offensive tackle with the second team during all the three practices/scrimmages we were able to check out during preseason camp which made Diaco's comments all the more noteworthy to me.

When you look at the fact that UConn has been forced, mostly due to injury, to start four different players at right tackle during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, having quality backups at tackle is no small matter.

I followed up with offensive line coach Mike Cummings on which players would join sophomore Trey Rutherford as options as tackle behind starters Richard Levy and Andreas Knappe.

I assumed that former starting tackle Dalton Gifford would be at the top of the list of contenders and Cummings had plenty to say about Gifford.

"Dalton has played every position on the offensive line," Cummings said. "There are four tackles in there for sure who have played tackle. Tommy Hopkins have played tackle, there are a lot of guys who can play at that position."

One of the more intriguing situations in camp centered around Dalton, who began the 2014 season starting at right tackle while Knappe got healthy. Yet, there he was working with the third string as he was behind a true freshman (Peart) and true sophomore (Rutherford) and at the first practice I was at true sophomore Steve Hashemi was also seeing time at tackle ahead of Gifford.

"Dalton is doing a good job, he is working hard, he is a good teammate," Cummings said. "If he is taking anything personally, it is probably on the positive end. He has a great attitude and is a great senior. Anytime we ask Dalton to go in, he is ready to go. He isn't day dreaming through camp, he is ready to go."

Hashemi, a former St. Joseph of Trumbull star, has had an interesting camp. He moved to tight end as a freshman and after moving back to his natural offensive line position, he has worked in at both guard and tackle.

"We have him at both right now, we have him playing guard," Cummings said. "He has the skill to play either of them and he is a tough guy. We are trying to get the right people on the field at the right spots. He could play guard for us, he could play tackle. he is doing a great job. The biggest thing is he athletic, he is tough, he loves the school, he loves the state and that goes a long way."

Of course who is going to be the second string offensive tackles isn't as pressing of an issue as how the interior offensive line is going to perform. They seem to have had their struggles when I was there but Cummings and offensive coordinator Frank Verducci said they are encouraged by what they have seen from center Brendan Vechery and guards Tommy Hopkins and Tyler Samra.

Cummings believes Vechery will benefit from going head to head with defensive tackle/nose guard Julian Campenni every day in practice.

"I don't know if there is a better guy you could practice with at that position, I don't know if there could be," Cummings said. "He is getting a lot of work.

"Hopkins and Vechery are doing well, they learn every day. It is not like they are new to the position, they are working very hard."

Samra, who could be the only senior starter on offense depending on what happens with running back Max DeLorenzo, has plenty on his plate as he needs to take care of his duties but also add leadership with first-time starters Vechery and Hopkins next to him.
"We came a long way just coming from spring ball," Samra said. "Losing Ryan Crozier (to a season-ending leg injury) was pretty hard on us but Vechery is stepping up. You can see we are working together as a unit which was something that was kind of hard for us last year because we had a lot of newcomers, a lot of new starters so this year, this camp we have come a long way.

"They all know the game, it is not getting them used to (playing). We are getting better as a unit. It is more fluid in everything we do on the line."

UConn coach Bob Diaco also weighed in on Vechery's growth as the Huskies starting center.
"I am very interested what that play is going to look like (at center)," Diaco said. "I can't wait for the game to watch these guys play. I can't wait to watch Vech and see what he's going to be in the game after all this preparation and work that he's put in. He looks good, every day he gets better and better, learns something new about the spot so it is exciting."

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