Sunday, December 27, 2015

An early look at 2016 UConn squad

It wasn't the ending that the UConn players, especially the seniors, would have scripted with a rather meek offensive effort and the defense allowing Marshall to run off five drives of at least 10 players. Still, in a year's time things certainly appear to have changed for the better.

Just think about the way Bob Diaco's first season ended. A loss to previously winless SMU was the final blow in a 2-10 season. There was no bowl game to prepare for, no extra month of practice to aid in the development of young and experienced players alike.

So much of what was right and wrong with the 2015 UConn team was on display in the 16-10 loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Bryant Shirreffs was back to bring a physicality to the quarterback position but also was a little off on a couple of his throws as one pass was intercepted and another one should have been. Arkeel Newsome grabbed five more passes giving his 45 during his sophomore season but 14 touches produced just 65 yards. Defensively, Jamar Summers had a brilliant interception to finish his sophomore season with eight but there were missed tackles and poor coverage resulted in the lone Marshall touchdown. On special teams, Bobby Puyol booted a UConn bowl record 52-yard field goal and had two touchbacks on three kickoffs while Justin Wain averaged 43 yards on five punts including a 53-yard effort but a short punt by Wain combined with poor coverage resulted in Marshall starting its only TD scoring drive at the UConn 20.

A total of 13 seniors including leading tackler Andrew Adams, fellow defensive starters Kenton Adeyemi, Julian Campenni, Graham Stewart and Marquise Vann will be graduating. Underrated long snapper Dom Manco is also moving on and if there was an errant snap from him this season, I don't recall it. On offense, Tyler Samra and Max DeLorenzo were the main contributors although their roles were minimal ones in the bowl game. Here's a position by position look at next year's team

QUARTERBACK: Bryant Shirreffs joins Matt DeGennaro and Dan Orlovsky as the only UConn quarterbacks to throw for at least 2,000 yards, complete 60 percent of his passes with more touchdown passes than interceptions. He added 503 rushing yards and grew into a leadership role as the season wore on. Considering that he hadn't starting a collegiate game coming into the season, I thought he did a pretty solid job but I expect him to take the next step in decision making and not be so quick to take off and run on designed pass plays. The battle for second-string QB could be interesting. In the three practices I saw in Florida, Garrett Anderson was seeing more time with a second-team offense than Tim Boyle so I am curious to see how that shakes out. Anderson is a closer fit to the dual-threat quarterback that Shirreffs is. I didn't really get to see much from Tyler Davis during his redshirt season so we'll see how he looks when spring practice rolls around.
RUNNING BACK: Arkeel Newsome's team-leading 792 rushing yards might not jump out at anybody but factor in his 4.3 yard per carry, 45 receptions and 429 yards on kickoff returns and it was a pretty strong sophomore showing for the former Ansonia High star. It was a strange season for sophomore Ron Johnson who had 54 carries in the first three games of the season but 24 the rest of the game. Johnson had 62 carries in UConn's wins and 26 in losses. UConn needs to find a way to get both Newsome and Johnson involved next season. I don't know what to make of the usage of Josh Marriner. When last season began I believed he was going to be UConn's featured back yet he had a total of 31 rushing yards and another 71 on eight catches. I would expect more tight ends to fill the fullback/h-back roles next year so I'm not sure where that leaves Marriner.
Tyraiq Beals finished with  24 catches, the most for a
 UConn freshman since Kashif Moore in 2008
WIDE RECEIVER: Being held without a catch was a difficult end to a brilliant junior season for Noel Thomas. Not only did Thomas have 54 catches but he did it for most of the season when the other receivers were barely involved in the passing game which is no easy feat. With 16 catches in his first five games and 21 in the first eight games, Tyraiq Beals appeared headed to a special freshman season. Yet, he managed a total of three receptions in the last five games. I hope the UConn coaches take a look at how Marshall moved Deandre Reaves around to get him to open areas and increases Beals' role in the offense because he can make an impact. After watching three practices in Florida I was convinced that Aaron McLean was going to have a huge game but he didn't even catch a pass. Hergy Mayala did catch one and his 15-yard reception with 1:37 left to play was the first by a UConn receiver in the game and you just can't expect to win games ignoring your wide receivers especially against a Marshall defense that allowed opponents to throw for 300 yards on three occasions. A pair of redshirts (Frank Battle and Bryan Coney) could figure into the mix as well. I'm not really sure where Brian Lemelle or Thomas Lucas will fit with so many younger receivers getting the opportunity to play. There's talent at the receiving position and now it is time for the coaching staff to better utilize it.
TIGHT END: The 16 catches by sophomore Tommy Myers might not seem like much but when you consider how many players the Huskies rolled out there to try to fill in for Myers is an indication of how valuable he was. Alec Bloom had some issues with drops but he did not have any trouble getting open so if he can become a more sure-handed target, UConn could have quite the dynamic 1-2 punch at the position. Chris Lee, Zordan Holman and Dallas Parker as well as transfer (and UConn Look Team Player of the Year) Billy Williams gives UConn plenty of options at tight end/h-back/fullback. Ian Campbell spent the season redshirting so he is another possibility.
OFFENSIVE LINE: This was my fourth season as a primary beat writer for UConn and it is the fourth year in a row that improvement on the offensive line is a point of emphasis heading into the offseason. The good news is that there are some young players who appear ready to make a push for time and/or starting roles. Ryan Crozier might have been UConn's best offensive lineman in the last few games of the 2014 season when he was a true freshman. He missed the entire season due to injury and he was certainly missed. Whether it is at guard or center, Crozier's return will bolster the interior of the offensive line. I was incredibly impressed with the role Crozier took in helping first-time starters Brendan Vechery and Tommy Hopkins (who may have outplayed the three returning starters). With that trio of Trey Rutherford, who started against Marshall, there are four solid candidates for three starting positions in the interior while players like Steve Hashemi and Dan Oak drew plenty of praise from their coaches as well while Kyle Bockeloh was also a regular member of the second team offensive line. The play of tackles Richard Levy and Andreas Knappe needs to get better, much, much better. I've heard great things about Matt Peart, who redshirted this season and if he is as good as advertised I would say that he should start next season unless Levy and Knappe get significantly better. I'll take it a step further and say that Rutherford, who played some tackle as well as guard, should also be allowed to compete for a starting tackle spot. UConn has difference makers at the skill positions and it is time for the line to take things to the next level. Levy and Knappe would be third year starters in '16 and they need to play like that. The time for silly pre-snap penalties or letting defenders come unblocked to light up Shirreffs or Newsome is over. If UConn is to make that next step as a program, this is the unit that needs to get it there.
Luke Carrezola, Mikal Myers and  Cole Ormsby figure to play
pivotal roles on a UConn defense losing five starters to graduation
DEFENSIVE LINE: Certainly UConn will miss the physical presence that Campenni and Adeyemi brought but Mikal Myers should be able to step into Campenni's spot and Cole Ormsby seems ready to be a starter at defensive end.  Foley Fatukasi will be one of the cornerstones of UConn's defense after leading the team in sacks as a sophomore. I'm anxious to see what David Ryslik can do. Like Peart, he was already working with the second team at the first practice the media was allowed to watch during preseason camp but the coaching staff wisely redshirted him. James Atkins and Sheriden Lawley got some playing time this season especially after Ormsby was lost for the season. UConn likes to rotate six or seven defensive linemen so they could see increased time next season along with Sean Marinan. This was a position where the staff allowed for a season of development so we'll see how Kevin Murphy, Felton Blackwell and Philippe Okounam figure into the rotation.
LINEBACKERS: Junior Joseph has already proven to be a productive player in the middle of UConn's defense and he should only get better and Luke Carrezola is another rising star. That's a pretty good duo to build around. The Huskies will miss Vann and Stewart. Stewart led the team in tackles for loss and in the last four or five games really took things to a different level. Matt Walsh saw a ton of work when he came into games for Vann and I don't anticipate any dip in production. You would think that Florida State transfer E.J. Levenberry would be a natural to plug into Stewart's spot but Vontae Diggs, Cam Stapleton and Jon Hicks could also compete for a starting spot. It seemed to me like Omaine Stephens saw more snaps in the bowl game than any game I can remember. Maybe Connor Freeborn, William Richardson and Nazir Williams will push for time after redshirting while Chris Britton and Jalen Stevens have been with the program for a couple of years so we'll see what sort of roles they have in '16.
SECONDARY: I'm not sure there are too many cornerback tandems around who will be much better than Jhavon Williams and Jamar Summers and at safety Obi Melifonwu made tremendous strides in pass coverage after being targeted early and often in the latter stages of the 2014 season with less than stellar results. The loss of Adams, however, is going to leave a huge hole in the defense especially since the top reserve safety is also graduating in Junior Lee. Perhaps they look to reserves Ellis Marder or Anthony Watkins to move into a starting role but maybe Marche' Terry is ready after a redshirt season. It would be something else to see the 6-3 Melifonwu and 6-4 Terry lining up side by side. UConn has plenty of depth at cornerback so could a Javon Hadley, John Green or Brice McAllister move to safety? Aaron Garland and John Robinson were noticeable during practices as they redshirted. This is just me talking as I've never even heard of this as a possibility, but if Lucas is going to be buried on the depth chart at receiver, perhaps a move to safety would benefit him and the team.

SPECIAL TEAMS: The biggest loss will be long snapper Dom Manco. The best thing you can say about him is you never noticed him. There were few if any errant snaps that I can recall so we'll see who handles that job. Bobby Puyol capped a brilliant season with a 52-yard field goal and Justin Wain began the season strong as he averaged more than 40 yards per punt in four of the first five games. There's more to punting than the yard per kick number and opponents had just 71 return yards so he has done a solid job of directional punting. It is one area that hasn't gotten much attention since Diaco's arrival but from 2011-13 opponents had 625 punt return yards in 36 games and over the last two seasons it has dropped to 177 yards in 25 games. Newsome and Marriner, the primary kickoff returners, are back as are punt returners Lemelle and Nick Vitale. UConn ranked last nationally in punt return yards but that falls on Diaco's shoulders as he instructed either Lemelle or Vitale to fair catch everything. I hope he rethinks that philsophy. One of the biggest plays in the bowl game was the Marshall punt return to set up a TD and one of Diaco's eight wins at UConn probably doesn't happen if not for Deshon Foxx's punt return for a touchdown against Stony Brook in 2014.


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