Thursday, September 10, 2015

Could Oak, Walsh join Myers as new starters for UConn vs. Army?

We already knew they were would be least one different starter in Saturday's Army game as defensive lineman Folorunso Fatukasi has been suspended for the first half after being ejected for fighting late in the season-opening win over Villanova. As expected, Mikal Myers worked with the starters for most of Tuesday's and Wednesday's practices.

However, there are a couple of other positions where we could see a change as Dan Oak was in there at center with the first team for the second half of Tuesday's practice and all of Wednesday's practice and Matt Walsh saw the majority of the first-team snaps at the weak-side linebacker spot ahead of two-time captain and last year's leading tackler Marquise Vann at yesterday's practice after seeing lots of time ahead of Vann on Tuesday as well. That was pretty much the reason why I headed up to practice yesterday because I didn't want to overreact from what I saw on Tuesday. But with Oak and Walsh also working as starters on Wednesday, I'd have to think there is a decent chance that is how it will shake out on Saturday.

The situations are different as starting center Brendan Vechery did not practice. Vann was out there and I thought it was interesting that when linebackers coach Vincent Brown summoned the MIKE or middle linebackers, Vann came over along with starter Junior Joseph and Jon Hicks, listed as the second-string MLB on the depth chart. Maybe I am reading too much into it, but if Vann were going to start at WLB, I don't know why he'd be getting time as a reserve middle linebacker unless he was being prepared to serve as an option at the MLB and WLB positions. Vann saw the majority of the snaps at WLB against Villanova but Walsh was usually in there for a snap or two every series. It is obviously a situation which bears watching but not one coming out of nowhere. When UConn coach Bob Diaco was asked about UConn's most competitive positional battles at American Athletic Conference media day, he dropped a bombshell that Walsh is pushing Vann for the starting WLB spot.

"It is going to be great competition for the WILL linebacker between Marquise Vann and Matt Walsh," Diaco said at the time. "Matt Walsh has been a guy to be in the conversation. The best guys are going to play for as long as they can be the best guy, if we are at the same position and the game is 75 plays and you only better than me for 45 of them the art form is identifying that as a coach and bringing you in on the 46th play."

I would have liked to ask head coach Bob Diaco about these developments but I was told he was unavailable. However, Wednesday's practice is the one where the assistant coaches are available so I did speak to offensive coordinator Frank Verducci and defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter.

When I spoke with Poindexter, I addressed the challenge of defending Army's triple-option offense, the advantage of having most of the players back from last year's Army game and what he expects to see out of Myers and the other defensive linemen who will fill in for Fatukasi. Then came time for the question about Walsh. The wording was "Is Walsh the starter now?" just so there would be no room for interpretation. This is not Poindexter's first rodeo and he deftly sidestepped the question.

"We are taking him in and out, Matt is doing a nice job but we have a lot of starters, 14/15 guys that we think we can play in knowing we can only play with 11 but we plug different guys in at different times," Poindexter said.

When Walsh was getting so much time with the starters on Tuesday I thought it might be a case of the converted fullback needing more time against the triple-option offense (run by UConn's "look" team) than a veteran like Vann. Here's what Poindexter had to say about that.

"Obviously this is going to be different being on this side of the ball but he did a great job this week preparing so we have to see what he is going to get done," Poindexter said. "He has done everything we have asked for and probably exceeded our expectations. We had heard he was a great high school linebacker and I think that is his natural position and he is doing a great job."

Poindexter is not the only one impressed by Walsh's rapid development.

"He is getting better week," UConn senior safety Andrew Adams said. "You can tell he is becoming more football savvy and more football intelligent so I just look forward to see him make plays this year. There is no drop off when Matt comes into the game and everybody knows that."

Vechery was in full pads but Oak saw the time not only with the first team but also the second team at yesterday's practice. While Verducci wasn't going to blurt out the reason why Vechery (who drew rave reviews for his play against Villanova from Diaco at Tuesday's press conference) was on the sidelines for the last practice and a half, he did address the issue as much as he could.

"You are going to have guys get a bug or the flu or whatever or bust a chin strap and the philosophy here is literally next man up," Verducci said. "For Danny to come in, it isn't really surprising, it is a credit to him but I am not surprised that he did as well as he did. You would really never have noticed that was the next-man center unless somebody had told you. We functioned very well, we had one bad snap and that was it.

"He is a career center but he hasn't really played here yet at this level. I would be excited for him, if he got a chance to play I would be very happy for him. His strengths are more intangible than tangible. He loves football, he understands the position extremely well, he is completely invested in the program so guys like that, you hope to see him have some success."

I tweeted yesterday that I thought the offense looked as sharp as I have seen it since the record-breaking showing in the 2013 season finale against Memphis, Of course, I saw no practices during the 2014 season, one full practice during spring practice and then this was my sixth practice/scrimmage I attended since the start of preseason camp. With all of that being said, the offense was really clicking. It is not a shocking revelation to report that junior receiver Noel Thomas was in the middle of much of it. He had one catch down the sideline where he thought he got one foot in while the defensive back signaled that he was out of bounds. He asked me if it was a good catch but I was looking at the work being done on the other field at the time. Then he had the play of the day. Bryant Shirreffs groaned when he threw a pass to the left corner of the end zone figuring he overthrew it but Thomas reached up, grabbed the ball and looked like he got both feet in bounds despite very tight coverage. Freshmen receivers Tyraiq Beals and Aaron McLean had strong practices with McLean getting praise from coaches for a block he threw which is rare for any true freshman receiver to block well enough this early in the season to get called out for that in a positive manner.

I thought the offense looked significantly better than it did on Tuesday and I am not alone.

"If you had come yesterday, you wouldn't have felt that way," Verducci said with a laugh, "but today they responded and that was encouraging."

Verducci also had an interesting comment when I mentioned how calm Shirreffs looks in the pocket since that was not what I saw in what little amount of spring practice I was able to see.

"That is part of his growth process," Verducci said. "If you remember back to the spring game, he was super excitable in the spring game. I saw him have two cups of coffee (Thursday) morning and I said 'hey, that's the last thing you need.' But he had control of himself, he was poised and it was great progress on his part."

As for the defense, the first drill I saw was a wrap-up tackling drill which is understandable considering how many tackles UConn missed against Villanova. These days you can't just come in and level your teammates in practice so this was a time for the players to get reminded of the proper form and it seemed to go pretty well. It was fascinating seeing how much more comfortable the defensive players seem when UConn's "look" team did its best to run Army's offense. There was tremendous progress even since Tuesday. There were plenty of tackles behind the line of scrimmage and safety Obi Melifonwu had an interception. Andrew Adams seemingly was everywhere during the practice and I liked what I saw from defensive ends Luke Carrezola, Kenton Adeymi and Cole Ormsby. It looked to me like this was one rather productive practice.

UConn announced that the 1965 team will be recognized at Saturday's game. It is the first UConn team to beat Yale (the Huskies were 0-16 against the Bulldogs before a season-opening 13-6 win.

UConn finished 3-6 during that season, The players and coaches who make it back will be on field during the first media timeout of the game. Head coach Rick Forzano and assistant coach Dan Sekanovich are among those expected to be in attendance.

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