Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Is UConn's offense getting better? We're about to find out

Guard Tyler Samra could be UConn's only senior starter on offense

A new season, a new offensive coordinator and plenty of optimism that this is the season when not turning the ball over can be considered a successful possession.

As I begin my fourth season on the beat, the story lines surrounding the UConn football team haven't really changed. Frank Verducci is the fourth offensive coordinator in the last four seasons (five if you count the time when Shane Day called the plays after T.J. Weist became the interim head coach).

Bryant Shirreffs will be the third different quarterback to start a UConn season opener in the last three seasons and there are people, myself included, curious to see how he is going to perform. For the record, I liked what I saw in the two scrimmages and two practices I attended in preseason camp more than what I witnessed during spring practice. He can make all the throws, has looked pretty good throwing the deep sideline out which is the one throw I always look for in judging a quarterback's arm strength. He doesn't seem to be as much of a riverboat gambler as Chandler Whitmer. Whitmer's aggressive mindset resulted in some tough throws into tight windows but also costly interceptions. I don't think Shirreffs will make as many risky throws as Whitmer did. He also gives UConn a true pass-run threat at the quarterback position which is something that has been lacking.

That is not the only question I have regarding the offense. I think UConn is in pretty good shape at offensive tackle with Richard Levy and Andreas Knappe returning for their second season as starters. However, the interior offensive line positions, that is a different story. UConn fans have to hope that the season-ending injury suffered by Ryan Crozier doesn't become a popular story angle because that would mean that first-year starters Brendan Vechery and Tommy Hopkins were struggling. It was hard to get an accurate read on how they are playing because going up against UConn's defensive line is going to be a tough task for anybody this season.

Noel Thomas enters his junior season as UConn's top receiver
My other major concern is who emerges as a secondary receiving option. Noel Thomas is primed for a special season. In my opinion he's been UConn's best player in camp. He has caught everything and I do mean everything thrown in his direction. He had enough highlight variety catches in the last scrimmage I was at as some players get in an entire season. However, teams are going to make it a point of taking Thomas away so it will be imperative that somebody else steps up. It would not surprise me in the least if true freshman Tyraiq Beals ends up being that guy. I also anticipate tailback Arkeel Newsome and the tight end position (likely Alec Bloom and Chris Lee)  to be targeted often.

While their offensive philosophies are different, I see a lot of T.J. Weist in new offensive coordinator Frank Verducci. He's an energetic, tell it like it is kind of guy and when the assistant coaches are made available to the media, he is usually either the first or last guy I seek out. He was the last person I spoke to during UConn's media day and he gave me some great stuff about the growth of the offense since a less than stellar showing in the first scrimmage of preseason camp.

Here's what he had to say.

"I like how we have progressed in the last week," Verducci said. "(The second scrimmage) was a giant step for us, it was more situation specific, red zone and stuff like that. We were pleased with the progress. Even since then I think we have made another jump.

Arkeel Newsome led UConn in all-purpose yardage as a freshman
"One of the things that is hard to develop is a sense of self expectation standards. I think our standards have risen, our expectation of how we practice, how efficient we are and all that kind of thing and that has jumped up. The greatest thing is that we have kept the players healthy and in doing so, they have had a chance to improve and I think they have done that."

Every indication is that sophomores Ron Johnson and Newsome will handle the bulk of the carries although I expect to see senior Max DeLorenzo seeing time as well likely at a variety of positions.

"What we have to be careful with Ron is we have to understand that he is still a young player," Verducci said. "In a lot of programs he would have been a redshirt and he would just be playing, he would be getting his first exposure right. A lot of times he would be getting exposure behind an upperclassmen where he shot to the front of the line here for whatever reason. The thing as a coach that I have to be aware of is that he is a young player, he does lack experience in certain areas. Just because he is the No. 1 guy, we still think his ceiling is still very high and we are trying to continue to develop him as he is contributing which is a bit of a challenge.

"Arkeel is very deceiving. For a guy as slight in stature as he is, he is as physical of a player that we have pound for pound he really is a physical player."

About the offensive line ...

"I think the greatest asset we have there is Mike Cummings because he's doing a tremendous job of building them as a group, developing them individually so I have all the confidence in the world there," Verducci said. "As a former line coach myself, I sit there and watch what Mike does and he does a sensational job. The players absolutely respond to him and I am confident with where we are headed even with the lack of experience there, we are just going to continue to get better."

Some of his quotes on Shirreffs made the story I filed on Sunday when Shirreffs was named the starting quarterback but in case you missed it, here you go.

"I love Bryant Shirreffs," Verducci said. I think his teammates will say that he is one of if not the hardest working guy on the team,

"Bryant Shirreffs is a guy that every minute you invest with him, you get a return, he is a joy to work with."

Finally, depending on what happens with DeLorenzo, guard Tyler Samra could be the only senior starter on offense so I was curious if Verducci was concerned about a lack of veteran leadership.

"The team is led irregardless of class," Verducci said. "Some of our best leaders are sophomores and juniors on the offensive side of the ball and I think you will always see that in a program is geared towards developing leadership at all levels regardless of seniority."

Verducci mentioned tackles Levy and Knappe and guard Samra among the players taking leadership roles on offense.

Tomorrow night we'll get the first look at how this offense is going to look and get the answers to some of the questions posted above.

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