Saturday, October 31, 2015

Seniors Stewart, Vann deliver for UConn

It hasn't been the easiest of senior seasons for linebackers Graham Stewart and Marquise Vann.

They found themselves losing playing time to younger players but more than anything, they have been unable to prevent UConn from dropping five of its last six games heading into last night's game against East Carolina. With the hopes of ending their UConn careers by playing in a bowl game fading with each passing week, it was pretty much make or break time for UConn and its senior leaders.

Vann came up with his first collegiate interception while Stewart made a team-high nine tackles including a couple that sent his enthusiastic teammates to an entirely different emotional level.

Coming off the Cincinnati game when the duo combined for two solo tackles in a humbling 37-13 loss, last night's performance must have felt good for two of the most vocal leaders on the UConn squad.

"It has been disappointing but that kind of fuels you, when you are starving and we were hungry today for a win," Stewart said. "I am proud of be a part of something right now that is going to be the foundation and backbone of the program going forward, they can look back to these days smile and be happy.

"Our overall record might not be what some people want it to be but there have been drastic strides and improvement and that is going to continue to happen."

Stewart had one eye-opening play when he not only wrapped up East Carolina quarterback James Summers for no gain on a 3rd and 3 play early in the second quarter but emphatically threw Summers to the ground.

The two would meet again later in the game with Summers trying to make something happen on a fourth down play. What he got for his troubles was a vicious (but clean) hit by Stewart on the UConn sideline.

"I guess it sounds cliche but you don't even feel it, when you get a good one like that it feels like nothing," Stewart said. "I know it juices up the sideline, I was juiced up and I was happy about it.
It gets the next guy going, the next guy wants to make the big play and the next guy wants to get the sideline more momentum so it is an awesome thing."

The series of plays leading up to that hit was almost as impressive. On second down Obi Melifonwu, who I thought had a spectacular game, came up with an interception as a pass to Brandon Bishop bounced a few inches off the ground and Melifonwu made an athletic catch. After replay it was ruled that the ball hit the ground as Bishop attempted to make the initial catch. On third down safety Ellis Marder reached in and knock the ball away from Travon Brown to prevent a touchdown.

So in a span of three plays the Huskies had a near interception, a pass breakup and emphatic sack. By game's end the Huskies had three sacks and four interceptions. It is just the fourth time in the last seven seasons that UConn had at least three sacks and interceptions in the same game (2010 vs. Texas Southern, 2011 vs. Rutgers and last year against Central Florida are the others).

"It is expected, it is what we are capable of and it is great to finally great to see the team put it together, get that great W," Vann said.

Vann was excited to get into the act with an interception of his own.

"It was the first one of my career so I definitely enjoyed it," Vann said.

A couple of other notes, Melifonwu recorded the 200th tackle of his career

UConn's 14 interceptions are the most since the Huskies had 18 during the 2011 season. It should be noted that of the nine players who had interceptions, four are currently playing in the NFL (Dwayne Gratz, Byron Jones, Sio Moore and Blidi Wreh-Wilson) while Yawin Smallwood and Jerome Junior got into NFL training camps.

UConn coach Bob Diaco vowed to get Trey Rutherford into the game and he was true to his word but it was not as an offensive lineman when he first appeared in last night's contest but as a fullback.

"He has to play, you have to do something, he has been standing next to me for too long," Diaco said.

Friday, October 30, 2015

UConn posts a much-needed win

The last couple of weeks were not easy ones at UConn.

The Huskies were riding an emotional high after returning from Orlando with a win over Central Florida. There was talk of bowl games in the Huskies not too distant future but the conversation began to change after losses to South Florida and Cincinnati.

When the Huskies got back to campus after being dominated by Cincinnati, there was a now or never feeling among the team's players and coaches.

Following what UConn coach Bob Diaco termed a great week of practice the Huskies put together an impressive effort in a 31-13 win over East Carolina.

"It is representative of the investment that they are making, the energy and the care, the toughness they are putting out to validate that is so incredible important," Diaco said.

Diaco came into the post-game press conference much quicker than is normally his custom and he joked that after UConn lost five of its last six games, he was out of speeches to give after a spirit-sapping defeats. He made his remarks short and sweet with the emphasis on sweet.

There were plenty of stars.

Arkeel Newsome had a 90-yard scoring run, tied for the third longest in program history and finished with 179 rushing yards and 244 all-purpose yards.

Alec Bloom had a 23-yard touchdown reception and had another score called back due to a penalty.

Bryant Shirreffs bounced back from an early interception which was returned for a touchdown to finish 12 of 21 yards for 184 yards and a 3-yard TD run as well.

Graham Stewart had a team-high nine tackles including two of the hardest hits of the season. He also had a sack as did sophomores Luke Carrezola and Cam Stapleton. Jamar Summers had a pair of interceptions while Obi Melifonwu might have played his best game as a Husky.

"We have had a few tough losses and it feels good to be back on the winning side," Bloom said. "It will be good momentum going into next week."

Carrezola, who finished with six tackles, continued to make his presence felt.

"We had to step our game up and that is what we did in practice," Carrezola said. "We had all 105 guys or how many we have on our team to buy in.

"It was everything, it was such a big game, a big stage and we need to continue the path that we are on."

"We have work hard all season, so hard in the offseason and finally see the results that everybody has been waiting for, fans and everybody and just to see that happen is an unbelievable feeling."

Sustaining offense after strong starts a priority for UConn

There's no question that UConn's offense in the first quarters of games is clearly light years ahead of where it was a season ago.

Case in point, through eight games in the 2014 season the Huskies were outscored 70-16 in the first quarter of games while this season the total is 36-34 in favor of the opponents. Ironically, the first touchdown scored by the Huskies in the first quarter of games came in the East Carolina game.

The issue last season was turnovers on the opening possessions. That issue (for the most part) has been solved and as a result the Huskies have three touchdowns and a field goal on the opening possessions this season. However, there have been problems following up that strong beginning.

UConn is averaging 6.7 yards per play on opening drives but the number drops to 4.7 yards in other first-quarter drives.

That was clearly the case against Cincinnati when UConn had 58 yards on its opening drive and 51 yards on its other three drives.

The live blog for tonight's East Carolina game is up and running. Feel free to check it out.

Monday, October 26, 2015

UConn in pursuit of a much-needed win

There are times when covering both the UConn football and women's basketball teams causes scheduling conflicts.

Today was such a day as I was in Orlando covering the American Athletic Conference's women's basketball media day so Register columnist (and former UConn football beat writer Chip Malafronte) filled in for me and he wrote about UConn coach Bob Diaco's quest to get the Huskies back on the winning track.

The biggest news to come out of today's press conference is that sophomore defensive end Cole Ormsby could miss the rest of the season due to what Diaco called a lower-body extremity. It is unfortunate because Ormsby was really starting to come on for the Huskies and he got the start against Cincinnati.

I spoke to Ormsby after a recent practice and was considering doing my advance this week on the duo of Ormsby and Kenton Adeyemi but obviously that is not happening. Here's some of what he had to say.

"I am listening to all the coaches the best that I can, they give me good advice," Ormsby said. "It feels good knowing that our work pays off."

Ormsby has been gradually adding weight to his frame which could be seen in his play and how well he held up at the line of scrimmage compared to a season ago.

"I am weighing about 260 now, I am feeling better. I have to get used to it," Ormsby said.

Adeyemi did not make the trip to Cincinnati for "just football family stuff, he is not hurt he is fine. He will be back rolling soon."

Soon is this week as Diaco said Adeyemi has been cleared to return for the Huskies.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Diaco's answers, UConn's performance not up to par

Somehow any recollections of last year's 41-0 shellacking at the hands of Cincinnati have been erased from my memory banks. I do, however, remember what transpired the last time UConn made its way to Nippert Stadium and what I witnessed yesterday was worse.

At least when the Huskies were being dominated in a 41-16 loss back in 2013 you had to figure that better days were ahead with a new coach set to arrive in the not too distant future. However, going into his 20th game as UConn's head coach I think it is fair to expect more than what we saw from Bob Diaco's team on Saturday.

After an impressive opening drive when Bryant Shirreffs used his legs to engineer a 9-play, 58-yard scoring drive, the offense barely made the Bearcats sweat. UConn scored six points the rest of the way. Three of them came after a bad snap on a Cincinnati punt gave the Huskies a first down at the Cincinnati 10 but a holding penalty pretty much the hopes of turning the Bearcats' miscue into seven points.

UConn had to settle for three points after driving inside the Cincinnati 10 in the fourth quarter and that was it.

Injuries in the secondary and a mediocre pass rush allowed the last three opponents to pass for more than 900 yards and complete nearly 65 percent of their passes. Yet, UConn didn't move past the 100 yard mark until midway through the fourth quarter. I only spoke to one UConn offensive player after the game and to his credit junior receiver Noel Thomas didn't use the driving rain as an excuse.

Diaco didn't have many answers after the game.

"We had some dropped balls, Bryant (Shirreffs) ran with it a lot, I'll have to look to see whether the reads were open," Diaco said.

If the offense failed to get going, what do you say about the defense? That impressive start to the season seems like a distant memory these days. In the last two games the Huskies have allowed 560 rushing yards. More than once a Cincinnati back burst through gaping holes and receivers had little trouble getting open. I realize that the offensive line and receiver positions are two areas where the Bearcats have plenty of experience.

Four Cincinnati wide receivers have more than 1,000 career receiving yards with another one closing fast on that milestone. As a point of reference, dating back to the 2008 season the Huskies have had five players go over the 1,000-yard mark in receiving yards. Cincinnati's combination of an experienced line and game-tested players on the outside made life miserable.

By game's end the Bearcats had 612 yards of total offense and that includes two bad snaps resulting in 54 negative rushing yards. The Huskies should be better than that. Diaco turned to some old standbys calling UConn "a developing program" and "we are new." They are neither. A year ago I gave him a pass as he began the process of getting the program to where it needs to go but not any longer. I think the team has improved but it's hard to say that just how much after what I witnessed on Saturday.

Earlier in the season he said he does not believe in moral victories yet there he was spending most of his post-game interview session crowing about moral victories. Holding Cincinnati to just two field goals before a late touchdown in the second half is a nice accomplishment but the Bearcats were already in the milk the clock mode in the third quarter. There's no telling how many yards Cincinnati could have finished with if the played the second half with the same sense of urgency that they competed with in the first half. Even with that, Cincinnati headed into the fourth quarter with 493 yards of total offense so the attempt at spin control simply isn't cutting it. He spoke about the intangible improvements he saw from his team.  I am sure true leaders can emerge when a team gets dominated like the Huskies were so that has to be a positive. Sure, there were no silly pre-snap or post-possession penalties and the pass protection seemed to be decent with no obvious missed assignments.but I would hope that he can get the program to the point where this is more of the rule and not the exception. Speaking of exceptions, he didn't much care for my follow-up question of when there are going to be tangible improvements. Oh well, that is my job. I think it is great that the culture has improved, I really do but not sure that should be what you are hanging your hat on after a performance like that.

Cincinnati is a tough team to beat on the road so for UConn to return home on the losing end of things, that is understandable. However, the program should be at the point where the Huskies can go toe to toe with any team in its conference and that was simply not the case against the Bearcats.

Normally I would roll my sleeves up and really lay it out there but since I am en route to Orlando for the American Athletic Conference women's basketball media day so I won't be at Monday's football press conference. I don't have much respect for what I consider "hit and run" journalism which is when somebody lays the hammer down and then doesn't show up to deal with any backlash so I will keep many of my thoughts to myself - for the time being.

My hope is that these last two games will serve as a turning point for the program. It should be noted that UConn had nine defensive players who would play in the NFL on the 2009 squad that gave up 711 yards in a loss at Cincinnati. The following year the Huskies earned a share of the Big East title and played in the Fiesta Bowl. Perhaps by the time UConn returns to Cincinnati in two years many of the freshmen and sophomores who struggled to make plays will be the ones leading their team to victory and even a conference title. Five sophomores and two freshmen started on offense and five sophomores were starters on defense so there is a foundation here.

On Friday night the Huskies will be back home to host a pretty solid East Carolina team. I'm as anxious as anybody to see what it is going to look like on both sides of the ball. Yes, I am looking for tangible signs of improvement and something tells me that I am not the only one.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Could be time for UConn's young receivers to grow up quickly

The biggest thing to jump out at me when I looked at Cincinnati's receivers came when I looked at the career numbers.

Take a look at some of these stats:
Shaq Washington 42 games, 189 catches, 2,076 yards, 7 TDs
Max Morrison      43 games  182 catches, 1,287 yards, 9 TDs
Alex Chisum        44 games   71 catches,   952 yards, 5 TDs
Chris Moore         43 games   94 catches,  1,746 yards, 21 TDs
Mekale McKay    31 games   70 catches, 1,466 yards, 17 TDs

With the status of Brian Lemelle up for grabs and Thomas Lucas seemingly behind true freshmen Tyraiq Beals, Hergy Mayala and Aaron McLean, here's a look at the career catch totals of the UConn receivers expected to figure to more into the game plan today.

Noel Thomas         24 games, 62 catches, 792 yards, 5 TDs
Tyraiq Beals          7 games    18 catches, 200 yards, 2 TDs
Hergy Mayala        5 games     3 catches,   21 yards, 0 TDs
Aaron McLean       6 games    2 catches, 39 yards, 0 TDs

"They have the best group of wide receivers that we have played up to this point, maybe arguably all season," UConn coach Bob Diaco said. "They have impact players at all (receiving positions). All four of them are weapons and you have matchup issues in every single spot."

The live blog which includes plenty of Twitter feeds (including mine) is up and running so feel free to check it out.

Friday, October 23, 2015

UConn's Puyol's heart goes out to Michigan punter

As a soccer player growing up, Bobby Puyol had the skills necessary to be a standout kicker long before he arrived at UConn. However, the pressure attached to the role is truly what drew Puyol to the football field.
Puyol loved the staredowns between batters when he was a pitcher for various baseball teams he was a member of growing up and few things excite him more than being called upon in a clutch situation.
Need any proof? Well, here's Puyol's take on kicking away from the friendly confines of Rentschler Field.
"I think the away games are the most fun, they are yelling at you and they want you to miss so when you make it and there is a hush from the crowd," Puyol said. I think that is the most exciting part of away games."
Being placed in pressure-packed situations, however, can have a down side.
The aftermath of the Michigan State/Michigan game is something no college player should have to
Basically, short of a punt return being brought for a touchdown, the Michigan squad was guaranteed victory if punter Blake O'Neill merely got the punt off in the final 10 seconds. What happened has been played over and over again. O'Neill struggled to handle the snap and rather than falling on the ball and forcing the Spartans to have to throw the ball to the end zone, he attempted to make a play resulting in the ball landing in the hands of Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson who ran the final 38 yards for a touchdown to give the Spartans a stunning win. O'Neill ended up with the most talked about ball-handling miscue by a kicking specialist since Garo Yepremian handed the Washington Redskins a touchdown in Super Bowl VII.

A vocal minority took to social media to express their disgust and it was not pretty. Some Michigan fans went as far as wishing that O'Neill life would come to an end or as it was put by one individual "jump into a pool of spikes and cyanide."
A situation like that struck close to Puyol's heart.  There was criticism when a couple of his extra points were blocked earlier in the season but nothing close to what O'Neill had to endure.
"My heart goes out to that dude," Puyol said. "I saw the thing on SportsCenter, I don't know the guy personally but one of the anchors was saying that he is from Australia, he came into the states, got an undergrad (degree), got a Masters and came to Michigan and got another Masters. People can say whatever they want but a guy like that, at the end of the day he has accomplished so much that it helps him and won't define his life, he'll be able to do whatever he wants to do in life."
What would Puyol do if he made a mistake that drew a frighteningly hostile reaction from the UConn fan base?
"It would be hard but I am blessed to have a great foundation, just my faith, my family, all my friends, all my teammates to have my back," Puyol said. "The beauty of being here is that the team has your back and whatever people on the outside say, it doesn't matter."
Puyol's competitive fire has never been more evident than during this season.
UConn brought in Canadian Michael Tarbutt, who starred for undefeated Canisius High School in Buffalo as a senior highlighted by his 60-yard field goal in the state final. Tarbutt has taken over the kickoff duties and is listed as the long-distance field goal kicker although he has not been utilized in that capacity yet this year. Rather than be offended by the recruitment and arrival of Tarbutt, he welcomed him the same way that Chad Christen supported Puyol a couple years back.

"Coach (Diaco) always talks about competitive greatness, being good when your best is needed and so I feel like Mike came in and it has been fun because being a young guy when Chad was here, it has flipped and it is cool for me and him," Puyol said. "We hang out to really connect and say I can help him out here and he helps me out, it has been a good time."
Diaco said that if a long-distance field goal (likely in the 50-yard range) were needed to win a game that Tarbutt could get the call but otherwise Puyol would be the one taking the kicks or the Huskies would opt to go for it on fourth down.
"I feel comfortable," Puyol said. "In the beginning of the season I wouldn't have said that but I am really just being smooth right now  and any place 50 and in, I feel all right."


Thursday, October 22, 2015

UConn, Cincinnati on opposite ends of ball security spectrum

In recent years when it came time to mention ball security in this blog, usually it was a case of trying to make sense of another non-offensive touchdown scored by a UConn opponent.

In the "how things have changed" department, I am about to throw some positive ball security numbers at you.

Anybody who looked at the latest NCAA stats can tell you that the Huskies are in the top 20 in that department (actually tied for 17th with a turnover margin ratio of .86) while Cincinnati is 126th out of 127 FBS programs in the same department.

Obviously the improvement is a two-step process as the offense is doing a much better job of holding onto the ball and although he had some risky throws in the early stages of the USF game, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs doesn't usually put the ball up for grabs. Also, the secondary is really turning into a ball-hawking unit.

"I believe that the players are taking more accountable leadership of when they have it and that is on a day to day basis," UConn coach Bob Diaco said. "They really do a nice job in practice of working on any time they have the ball in their hands being very careful with it.

"We are not a pressure, up the field operation (on defense) but that doesn't mean we aren't a turnover operation. When you have that deeper level of understanding of the plays, where to position yourself in relation to guy next to you is where you will get turnovers. The players that are getting the ball, they have a higher level of understanding of how they fit into the coverage so how they can position and bait a throw and pre-snap how they can bait a throw and dictate a little what they want, that is definitely a piece of why we are getting more turnovers."
However, I wanted to take it another step so I did a little number crunching. If my math is correct (and anybody who reads this blog knows that can be a pretty large if), UConn is tied for the largest jump in turnover margin from the first seven weeks of the 2014 season to the current time as we prepare for week eight of the college football season. Cincinnati happens to be tied for next to last in the same category. Bear in mind, these are raw numbers in teams of turnovers gained and lost because teams have played a different amount of games up to this point during the 2014 and 2015 seasons for me to do it any other way.

Here's the list

Miami (FL)     Plus 15
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014                   7      7-7                   7-9             -2
2015                   6     4-11                  1-11          13
Ohio                  Plus 15
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014                 7          1-5                  9-3          -6
2015                 7          6-9                  2-4           9
UConn             Plus 15
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014                6          4-1                  8-6             -9
2015                7          4-10                3-5              6
Texas Tech       Plus 14
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014               6           4-2                  2-12           -8
2015               7           8-15                6-9              6
West  Virginia    Plus  12
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014            6             0-4                    8-4              -8
2015            6             3-13                  6-6               4

Washington    Minus -16 
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014             6            10-5                1-0                14
2015             6             3-7                 6-6                 -2 
Cincinnati         Minus 13  
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014             6             7-3                 1-6                3
2015             6             2-3                 5-10             -10
Virginia               Minus -13
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014            6             10-9                5-9                 5
2015            6              4-0                 3-9                -8
Troy               Minus 12 
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014            6             3-6                  4-2                 3
2015            6             2-1                  5-7                -9
UTEP            Minus -11
                    Games F-Int Gained/F-Int lost   TO Margin
2014           6              5-4                  2-4                  3
2015           6              2-3                  6-7                 -8

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Madison's Vitale worked his way into special teams role at UConn

Here's the story I filed yesterday about Nick Vitale, a walk-on from Madison, who figures to handle the punt return duties on Saturday with Brian Lemelle likely not to play for the Huskies. Not exactly sure when it is going to appear on the Register's site so here it is

There might have been some raised eyebrows even in his football-crazy hometown of Madison when Nick Vitale bid adieu to Stony Brook and headed to UConn with no scholarship, no guarantee that he would ever play a meaningful snap of football for his home-state Huskies.

Vitale, undeterred by the naysayers, showed up every day with the same will to succeed that made his father one of the most productive linebackers in Connecticut high school history and enabled his older brother to play 47 career games at Stony Brook.

There are walk-ons who drew praise from their coaches for what they brought to the table and never came close to being thrown into the fray regardless of how hard they worked. Yet, when the Huskies play at Cincinnati on Saturday, the former Hand High star will not only be on the kickoff coverage unit as he has been in every game this season but it is rather likely he will be the Huskies' primary punt returner.

"When I left Stony Brook, I knew what I was walking into," Vitale said after Tuesday's practice.

Vitale came to UConn following an impressive run as a receiver at Hand highlighted by catching 11 touchdown passes as a senior. When Bob Diaco arrived on the scene stating his preference for tall, rangy receivers it seemed unlikely that the 5-foot-8, 176-pound Vitale would be hauling in passes any time in his time at UConn. When he was moved over to cornerback, there were no complaints. If moving to defense would give him a better chance to see the field, Vitale was fine with that.

"It is not about the money, it is about the love of the spot," Vitale said. "For me, I am an undersized guy so I come out every day and if you work hard, it pays off. I am playing."

Vitale made two solo tackles late in UConn's 40-13 win at Central Florida earlier this month. He even had his first punt return even if his two-yard return wasn't exactly what the coaches were expecting to see from him.

"I said to him 'you know we are in punt safe so nobody is actually blocking for you, right? You need to fair catch it," UConn coach Bob Diaco said. "But he just got so excited.

"He's a Connecticut guy, tough, hard-nosed young man, constantly straining and everything is a strain. He has to pay his own way, his family fights the fight and they are great people, they all kind of circled the wagons to help Nick create his personal goals, he is just a great teammate - I love being on a team with Nick. I have every confidence with him in there at corner, I have every confidence with him in there at punt returner."

With starting punt returner Brian Lemelle dealing with a lower-body issue that Diaco said going "is to prevent him from participating for an undisclosed period of time" Vitale could have a chance to add to his punt return yardage total.

"It is Brian's spot and I am just filling in, doing what I can to make it work and just helping my team," Vitale said.

"I was an offensive player and I really haven't touched the ball since high school so it is going to be exciting to see what I can do when I get the ball."

Vitale certainly has the backing of his teammates if he is called upon to field punts.

"It's been a long road and a hard road for Nick but it really is all paying off now," said UConn junior linebacker Matt Walsh, who was Vitale's teammate at Hand High. "He is able to field some punts and play on the kickoff return team and he is really becoming a reliable special teams player for us. I believe in him and so does everybody else on the team.

"He's earned everybody's respect on the team, keeping his head down and working hard every day. He doesn't say much, he just works hard. He really shows his character in his actions and not really his words because everything he does every day resembles who he is."

Just who is Vitale? Part of a football-playing family is certainly a major part of his makeup.

"It is just following in the footsteps of my family. We are all natural football players so we come out to do what we do and just play," Vitale said.

Fielding punts has not been a strength of the 2015 UConn team. Lemelle let one of the punts bounce and roll an additional 29 yards in last year's loss to South Florida. His teammates are fairly certain that Vitale will do everything in his power to prevent that from happening against the Bearcats.

"Nick Vitale, I love him back there," UConn junior kicker Bobby Puyol said. "He is very aggressive, he wants it really bad and he wants the ball. I am excited, he will do very well.

"I have become good friends with Nick since he has been here. The whole kick squad loves to see Nick out there. He transferred in, he came in as a walk-on and to have that as your punt returner, I feel like that is awesome."


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

One change to UConn's depth chart, another one is coming

The move to get more snaps for true freshman receivers Tyraiq Beals, Hergy Mayala and Aaron McLean ahead of veterans Thomas Lucas and Brian Lemelle has been rather noticeable in the last couple of weeks.

Mayala started each of the last two games and while I did not break down the snap counts for the receivers in the USF game as I had the week before, if Lucas (a former starter) got onto the field on offense it couldn't have been for more than a play or two.

The shift in playing time was finally reflected on the depth chart as Beals and Mayala are listed as the co-starters opposite of Noel Thomas at receiver.

"They are impact players, they are young so we deal with that," Diaco said. "Right now we have some limitations with certain formations, alignments or tempos that we can either do or not do based on their aptitude so that is an issue too but they are talented players, better than the rest and that is why they are playing and will continue to play if they continue to maintain that same performance level."

Brian Lemelle is still listed as Noel Thomas' backup but Diaco said that Lemelle "has a lower extremity issue that is going to prevent him from participating for an undisclosed period of time."

Lemelle's likely absence could result in Madison's Nick Vitale moving into the starting punt returner role.

Few things tend to annoy Diaco more than some of the undisciplined penalties the Huskies have committed this season.

As frustrating as the seven pre-snap penalties were in the win at Central Florida, it's quite possible the 15-yard taunting penalty called on Jazzmar Clax on a 45-yard kickoff return by Arkeel Newsome late in the third quarter. Instead of starting the drive at the USF 40, it began at the UConn 45. While it is a reach to say the drive would have proceeded the same with the different starting point, it should be noted that drive ended when Bobby Puyol's 44-yard field goal hit an upright and was no good.

"To get another flag for taunting or a blatant block in the back, that is just stupid, that is just bad," Diaco said. "As a program, we have moved on from that. No we haven't, we still are right there. How do you take care of that? Well, you need identify the guys you really aren't reaching and don't let them play anymore so that is easy."

Monday, October 19, 2015

4 UConn grads on Pro Bowl ballot

The NFL posted its Pro Bowl ballot and taking a quick look through the positions, there are four former UConn standouts on the ballot

WR Marcus Easley, Buffalo Bills
LB Danny Lansanah, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DL Kendall Reyes, San Diego Chargers
FB Anthony Sherman, Kansas City Chiefs

Balloting is open until Dec. 15 and the Pro Bowl teams will be announced on Dec. 22 on NFL Network. The Pro Bowl will be played on Jan. 31 in Honolulu

Sunday, October 18, 2015

UConn lets one get away

There were some signs of trouble ahead even as UConn was putting up 40 points in a win at Central Florida.

The Huskies ran nine plays in UCF territory on consecutive drives in the second quarter but were unable to add to a 9-3 lead as failure to pick up a first down on 4th and 1 ended one drive while a sack and holding penalty brought an end to the next one. It took a pair of interceptions by the UConn secondary to allow the Huskies to put up a pair of touchdowns late in the second quarter.

Fast forward to Saturday and the same issues reappeared only this time it was too much for the Huskies to overcome.

UConn converted only four out of eight times on 3rd and 4 or shorter and were twice stopped on fourth down. Before Rodney Adams' third touchdown reception gave the Bulls a 28-13 lead more than 60 percent of UConn's offensive plays were run in USF territory yet all the Huskies had to show for it was a 36-yard touchdown run by Bryant Shirreffs (set up by another UConn interception) and two field goals.

UConn finished with 528 yards of total offense, just the second time in the last 74 games that the Huskies broke the 500-yard mark. I did some checking and UConn was one of 24 FBS teams to put up at least 500 yards of offense but the only team failing to score at least 30 points with 12 teams scoring at least 50 points.

Team                       Pass-Rus-Yrds TD  FG  Score Opponent
Baylor                     389-304-693 8TDs 2FGs 62-38 West Virginia
Western Kentucky  400-283-683 7TDs 2FGs 55-28 North Texas
Appalachian State   275-379-654 8TDs 1FG  59-14 Louisiana-Monroe
Indiana                    464-163-627 7TDs 1FG  52-55 Rutgers
TCU                        444-177-621 6TDs 1FG  45-21 Iowa State
Arizona                   325-291-616 5TDs 1FG  38-31 Colorado
Toledo                    373-238-611 8TDs 0FGs 63-20 Eastern Michigan
Rutgers                   386-210-596 7TDs 1FG  55-52 Indiana
Georgia Southern     85-507-592 8TDs 0FGs 56-26 New Mexico State
USC                       440-150-590 4TDs 1FG   31-41 Notre Dame
Texas Tech            359-217-576 2TDs 3FGs 30-20 Kansas
Oklahoma              336-232-568 6TDs 2FGs 55-0  Kansas State
Western Michigan 137-430-567 7TDs 0FGs 49-14 Ohio
So. Mississippi       343-213-556 3TDs 4FGs 32-10 Texas San Antonio
North Carolina       326-212-538 7TDs 0FGs 50-14 Wake Forest
Charlotte                227-309-536 4TDs 2FGs 34-37 Old Dominion
Bowling Green      412-120-532 8TDs 1FG  59-10 Akron
Clemson                420-112-532 4TDs 2FGs  34-17 Boston College
UConn                   365-163-528 2TDs 2FGs 20-28 South Florida
Washington State  409-111-520 6TDs 1FGs  52-31 Oregon State
Northern Illinois    203-311-514 6TDs 1FG   45-12 Miami (OH)
Florida State          377-133-510 5TDs 2FGs  41-21 Louisville
UCLA                    325-181-506 4TDs 2FGs  35-56 Stanford
Marshall                174-326-500 4TDs 1FG    33-17 Florida Atlantic

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Missed opportunities prove costly for UConn

Bob Diaco walked into the media room and wasn't too interested in bragging about the gaudy statistics put up by his perpetually struggling offensive team.

A year ago the Huskies, playing at a rain-soaked Raymond James Stadium, managed a meager 145 yards in a 17-14 loss. The Huskies approached that yardage number by the end of the first quarter and finished with 528 yards of offense but the result was another loss - this one by a 28-20 count.

It would not be a stretch to say that this loss hit Diaco harder than any other since he has been at UConn. A season ago it was more about the development process so while he wasn't doing cartwheels after defeats, he knew the lessons learned would pay dividends. However, this one was different. This was a game that he believed the Huskies could and would win. The team had a great week of practice and yet all that was left for Diaco was to accept the full responsibility for what transpired whether it was surrendering 312 yards of offense in the second half, managing three first-half points despite running nearly 30 plays in USF territory.

"I take full responsibility, I take full accountability," Diaco said. "It is a sad, hard loss. I saw that student section packed, they all came out. I just feel terrible that I let them down, I really do.

"Credit to South Florida to playing well enough to win today, we did not. I don't need to watch the tape to see that we were not the defense that we are that has force, that is ready to force and keep the ball inside, one that tackles, one that doesn't give up explosive plays, all things that happened today. We were a force liability, the ball was thrown over our heads and we were poor tackling. I need to be sure that I have these guys ready to play better than we did today.

"It's 14-10, unsportsmanlike conduct (on a return), forget about the fact that you let a punt drop and roll for 30 yards so at the end that drive you are kicking a field goal instead of punting, a huge deal, that is small little nuance stuff. we need to do a better job as a staff finding ways to be successful in critical situations.

"I take fully responsibility and accountability for what you saw today for four quarters. Guys were focused and locked in, a strong week, healthy, disciplined, intense, good functional meetings in practice, not really any distractions. I felt really good going into the game, confident."

"We will peel it apart and get it fixed. We didn't spend a whole lot of time punting from deep in our territory, we had a tough time finishing today."

There will be more on the offense, which is showing signs of growth but still struggling to finish off drives in the next day or two.

Newsome moving up the UConn charts

Since making the move to the FBS level it is safe to say the running back position has never been featured in the passing game like it has been this year.

Case in point, Arkeel Newsome has 234 receiving yards which is not only the third highest total for a UConn running back during the FBS era but just 46 shy of the No. 1 spot held by Andre Dixon since 2007.

Here is the list
280 Andre Dixon 2007
270 Anthony Sherman 2008
234 Arkeel Newsome 2015
231 Cornell Brockington 2004
230 Lyle McCombs 2012
205 Terry Caulley 2002
185 Jordan Todman 2009
176 Terry Caulley 2005
172 Lyle McCombs 2011
155 Arkeel Newsome 2014

Also, Newsome and fellow tailback Ron Johnson have combined for nine touchdowns in the first six games which is more than UConn running backs scored in the 2012 and 2014 season. The last time two UConn RBs had more TDs than that through six games came in 2010 when Jordan Todman scored eight times and Robbie Frey got into the end zone three times.

USF/UConn getting ready for crucial contest

When the votes were cast, UConn and South Florida were picked to finish at the bottom of the American Athletic Conference East Division and if the voting were to include all AAC teams, likely the Huskies and Bulls would have been near the bottom in that balloting as well.

However, they enter today's game with realistic hopes of attaining bowl eligibility.

UConn is 3-3 and coming off a dominating effort in a win at Central Florida. USF stands at 2-3 following a convincing win over Syracuse.

If recent history counts for anything, this will be a low-scoring, one-possession affair. The last time the annual game was decided by more than seven points came in 2006 when South Florida rolled to a 38-16 victory.

UConn won back to back games in the series without scoring an offensive touchdown and in the last five meetings, the only player to score multiple touchdowns for UConn is former defensive back Byron Jones.

It should be an interesting day.

The live blog for today's game has been started so feel free to check it out

Friday, October 16, 2015

USF games seem to bring the best, worst out of UConn

There may not be a team on UConn's schedule with more history than the South Florida team visiting Rentschler Field on Saturday afternoon.

Ansonia's Arkeel Newsome is in the midst of an
impressive three-game run as a rusher, receiver
and kickoff return specialist for the Huskies
Who could forget the pure elation when Dave Teggart's 52-yard field goal with 17 seconds left was dead, solid perfect to give the Huskies the 19-16 victory, a share of the 2010 Big East title and a most improbable spot in the Fiesta Bowl. It was a day when UConn players, coaches and most of all fans could scream from the roof tops that they had arrived. The journey from solid I-AA team to BCS bowl participant was anything but an overnight one but the feeling was that this was just the start of something great.

Instead, a series of events transpired after the 48-20 loss to Oklahoma that sent the program reeling. Randy Edsall exited stage left to take the job at Maryland and the even though many of the decision makers were on the way out as well, the move was made to bring Paul Pasqualoni in to take the program to the next level. In retrospect it was the wrong man at the wrong time. Pasqualoni is one class act but also a decade removed from his last winning season as a collegiate head coach.

Fans and boosters scratched their heads at the hire and some did significantly more than that. The Huskies were actually in contention for bowl eligibility going into the 2011 season finale thanks to another win over USF but a loss to Cincinnati doomed the Huskies to a 5-7 record.

A 13-6 loss at USF in the 2012 season was the final nail in a four-game losing streak as the Huskies would once again finish with a losing season despite having five seniors taken between the third and sixth rounds in the 2013 NFL draft.

Foley Fatukasi is one of the rising stars on defense for UConn
It seems hard to fathom that USF's most recent trip to East Hartford came just two years ago and the Bulls took the field against a program in the state of disarray. UConn AD Warde Manuel had seen enough when a 41-12 loss at Buffalo, a school he used to work at, dropped the Huskies to 0-4. With an extra week to prepare for the start of the conference season, Manuel fired Pasqualoni and veteran assistant coach George DeLeone. Although the Huskies didn't give up an offensive touchdown in a 13-10 loss to USF, the feeling was UConn's program was years away from being relevant again even with the efforts of the energetic interim head coach T.J. Weist and a group of players who despite the chaos around them continued to fight the good fight. The Huskies would lose five more in a row to fall to 0-9 before ending the season with three wins a row.

Manuel aimed high and landed highly-respected Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.

It took a while but Diaco's impact on the program is hard to miss. The Huskies are sitting at 3-3 after a convincing 40-13 win over Central Florida. UConn lost by three at Missouri and was within four points of Navy late in the second quarter, something that would likely never have occurred a season or even two seasons ago. Then the Huskies went on the road and was tied with BYU 10-10 heading into the fourth quarter before falling by 17. Suddenly there is a sense that this team has a chance to play in a bowl - not in five years but in December.

Quirky might be the most accurate word to describe Diaco, a man who perpetually acts like he is on his 12th cup of coffee. One of the most bizarre scenes in his brief tenure with the Huskies came in last year's 17-14 loss at USF. UConn attempted to pass the ball four times in the first quarter and the results were a holding call, an intentional grounding penalty and another call for an illegal block. The other attempted pass resulted in Chandler Whitmer being sacked. USF recovered to set up the game's first touchdown.

A few months earlier Diaco was surrounded by local media at American Athletic Conference media day and said he it gave him the best chance to win he would run the ball on every single play. Everybody within ear shot laughed except Diaco. Sure enough, playing in horrendous weather and not believing his team could drop back and pass without disastrous results, he had the Huskies run the ball on every single play in the second quarter. UConn ran the ball 13 straight times. Six of the 10 passes came in the final two drives as the Huskies' valiant rally fell short.
Luke Carrezola is one of four sophomores to start on defense for UConn
Last year Diaco pressed so many young players into action and this season there have been seven sophomore starting on offense, another four on defense. The true freshman receivers are coming on and so are so many of the second-year players. First-year starter Tommy Hopkins looks like a keeper at guard, cornerback Jamar Summer is one of the team's most talented players. Linebacker Junior Joseph and pass rushers Luke Carrezola and Cole Ormsby have tremendous potential while Foley Fatukasi has a chance to become an unblockable force on the defensive line. Arkeel Newsome has emerged into an impactful player as a runner, receiver and kickoff return and tight ends Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom don't get a ton of balls thrown their way but the ones that do come usually result in a big play. NC State transfer Bryant Shirreffs has the looks of being a difference maker at quarterback, something the Huskies have lacked in recent years.

Another bizarre move by Diaco was the creation of a trophy for the self-proclaimed "rivalry" with Central Florida, which had no clue about this so-called rivalry. Diaco was the butt of plenty of one-liners on social media and in various papers around the country. However, I have to admit that after seeing the UConn team celebrating with the trophy after the victory over UCF and posing for photos with it before leaving the field that there was a method to Diaco's madness. Say what you want about this trophy and rivalry but the players bought 100 percent in and really they are the only ones who really matter.

Is this team ready to come away with the three more victories needed to receive a bowl invitation? It's hard to say but this is not a question that was even being posed either last season or two years ago.

Stay tuned because there's a chance that this young head coach has a plan that has the program moving in the right direction. A win on Saturday would be a major step in Diaco's master plan.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

For starters, UConn's offense is improving

There are plenty of numbers that can be crunching as UConn reached the midway point of the regular-season with a 3-3 record. However, none jump out at me more than the improved ball security at the beginning of games.

Last season the Huskies turned the ball over on its opening drive in four of the first six games including two resulting in defensive touchdowns while opponents scored touchdowns on its first offensive drives three times. The result was that UConn was outscored 35-6 on opening drives in the first six games of the season.

Fast forward to this season and the opening drives resulted in one turnover for UConn and the Huskies' opponents as well as two offensive touchdowns and a field goal.

Going a step further, UConn led for just 7:51 and trailed for 45:14 in the first quarter in last year's opening six games. This season the Huskies have led 23:27 in the first quarter and trailed for 22:26.

No matter how you look at it, the first-quarter numbers in the first six games during the 2014 season were downright frightening and really gave the Huskies no chance for success.

UConn was outscored by 50, was minus seven in turnover margin and opponents outscored the Huskies 38-0 off turnovers.

                                   2014      2015
1st quarter points       9-59      27-22
Defensive TDs              3            0
Turnovers                     0-7        3-1
Points Off TOs             0-38      6-3
Total yards               96-358    86-483
Total yards allowed   80-449   88-410
UConn led                   7:51     23:27
UConn trailed            45:14    22:26

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Young receivers coming of age for UConn

One of the biggest differences in Saturday's game at Central Florida was that when given a chance, the UConn receivers, running backs and tight ends caught the catchable passes while the UCF skill position players struggled to come up with even the most routine of catches.

True freshman receiver Hergy Mayala's first official catch (he had one negated due to penalty) was a tremendous grab of a low throw. Sophomore tight end Alec Bloom had a couple of difficult grabs including one when he took a major hit and Arkeel Newsome showed off his hands on the dazzling 58-yard catch and run.

"There is no better feeling that seeing a receiver make a catch on a bad ball and catch every good ball," UConn sophomore quarterback Bryant Shirreffs said. "I don't know how many drops that we've had this year but it has been really minimal, that is very encouraging as well."

UConn has 19 catches from its three true freshmen receivers (16 by Tyraiq Beals, two by Aaron McLean and the one by Mayala. That number figures to grow with each passing week.

"Those four freshmen wide receivers, Hergy, Tyraiq, Aaron and Frank Battle (who is redshirting) that is a special group," UConn coach Bob Diaco said.

Diaco was encouraged by what he saw from players who typically don't see time in games as the Huskies emptied their bench playing most of the players who are not redshirting.

"I think the best thing about games like that for us is we like to play the players who prepare so you get a game like that and Chris Lee plays almost 20 plays, Trey Rutherford plays almost 20 plays, Danny Oak plays, Vontae Diggs played a ton of plays, you've got all the corners, Brice (McAllister) played, Ellis Marder played almost as much as Andrew (Adams) and Obi (Melifonwu). To think that we got James Atkins and Sheriden Lawley plays in the game, that is how you get better. On defense we played a lot of guys anyway. We are still a young team, when you think about it, if you think about it on offense we lose one player (guard Tyler Samra), everybody back on offense is back again and some of them for two more years.

"I was very impressed watching that next man in offensive line come in and specifically study (Trey) Rutherford, (Steve) Hashemi, (Dan) Oak in particular and you can get real excited. The other guys performed well also but those three in particular had some real nice strain plays and (against) their top defensive line."

According to the game by game participation chart in the UConn notes, Atkins, Lawley, Oak and Jalen Stevens saw their first action of the season but so many other players who have been on the field for special teams saw their first time on either offense or defense.

A lot of players were brought up during today's press conference and the player who drew the most praise from Diaco was reserve cornerback Javon Hadley.

"I feel like Javon Hadley, when you look at the total picture, it is spectacular the work that he has done," Diaco said. "No negative conversations on any level from anyone in academics, in strength and conditioning, in the community, on campus, just zero so I have been so impressed with him growing up and working to really move forward to achieving the personal goals that he has. There is probably not a more improved person and player on the team than him over the course of the last year and a half."

On the negative side of the ledger, I had to ask Diaco about the seven pre-snap penalties.

"Each one has some kind of explanation but they all stink and that is why third down looks like third down looks," Diaco said. "You look at the stats and say 'they are having trouble on third downs.' We aren't having trouble on third down, nobody converts third down and 12, who converts third down and 12? Anybody have a percentage on third down and 8 and more? What is it, 13 percent? It might even be less than 16 percent, you are not going to make it so you start your drive at first down and 15, or 1st and 20, you can't do that because you are not going to win on third down. That happened way too much which was a direct impact on the third down success percentage."

Diaco chose his words carefully when asked about the four-game series between UConn and BC since the Huskies have not officially announced the games with BC which begin next year.

"All I can say on that, we as employees can't speak about contract that aren't executed so I don't believe that one is," Diaco said. "To play regional teams is awesome so as many times as we can play a Syracuse, a Boston College, Pitt, West Virginia, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland, these are great games for our fans, our team and for our university to play in."

I asked him for his reaction to the news of Steve Spurrier stepping down at South Carolina, effective immediately.

"He is a Hall of Fame coach, somebody who has led programs that don't read (about off the field issues)," Diaco said. "Basically everybody's got something here or there, there are a lot of guys and a lot of moving parts but you don't read about his teams doing the wrong things, you very rarely read about his players doing the wrong things. I never felt what it would have been like to be coached by him but I would anticipate it would be a pretty good feeling, a pretty high class operation just based n the production and lack of problems. The proof is in the pudding, he is a Hall of Famer and somebody that as young coaches, we all try to emulate."

Monday, October 12, 2015

Looks like a UConn/BC game could happen next year

According to reports coming from the UMass football media, changes to the series between UMass and UConn have been made leaving a spot in UConn's 2016 schedule which seems likely to be filled by Boston College.

According to a tweet by Matt Vantour of the Daily Hampshire Gazette who spoke to UMass AD Ryan Bamford, the 2016 game between UConn and UMass has been dropped from the schedule but the teams are slated to play every season between 2018-21 with the games in '18 and '20 at Gillette Stadium and the contests in '19 and '21 at Rentschler Field.

Bamford: UMass-BC '16 now at Gillette. UConn '16 dropped but teams will play in 18, 20 at Storrs and 19, 21-Gillette,

Talks between UConn and Boston College have intensified in recent weeks and according to Mark Blaudschun, all parties have signed off on the deal to set up a non-conference series. His report stated that the teams will play at BC in November of 2016 with the return game in East Hartford in 2017.

Boston College leads the series between the teams 10-0-2 with the ties coming in 1908 and 1910. More recently, the teams played each season from 2002-04 with BC winning 24-16 in 2002, 24-14 in 2003 and 27-7 in 2004 in the most recent meeting.

New looks and faces starting to emerge for UConn offense

When I checked out UConn football practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, I saw some different things that caught my eye including all true freshmen receivers Tyraiq Beals, Hergy Mayala and to a lesser extent Aaron McLean seeing time with the first team offense. I also saw formations with both Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson lined up in the backfield. I've been doing this long enough to know that posting observations like that will not endear me to the coaching staff but usually I will wait until I see in a game what I witnessed on the practice field before posting about it.

Well, I think most of what I saw last week on the practice field is fair game for discussion.

First, I charted the snap counts for the running backs, receivers and tight ends and Mayala joins Noel Thomas, Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom as the only players at the aforementioned positions to take part in more than 40 plays. Mayala not only got the start ahead of Thomas Lucas, but my VERY UNOFFICIAL numbers had Mayala with 41 snaps and Lucas with 12. I should mention that I only did the snap count through three quarters because the fourth quarter was empty the bench time. I also noticed that the majority of the time, the h-back position was filled by a tight end (Bloom, Myers or Dallas Parker). Josh Marriner was on the field for a couple of plays, I did not see Max DeLorenzo take an offensive snap until the fourth quarter and Jazzmar Clax got a couple of snaps.

I saw Beals (who had a surprisingly low 16 snaps through three quarters), Mayala and McLean on the field together for three plays. I also saw eight plays when both Johnson and Newsome were on the field. All of this got me thinking so I broke it down. Again, this is very unofficial since there are times when it is close to impossible to identify all the players before a snap especially when the television broadcast pans into the crowd until just before the snap but I broke down how UConn fared with different personnel groupings on the field together.

TWO TIGHT END SETS:  31 plays for 227 yards and 3 touchdowns
JOHNSON AND NEWSOME TOGETHER: 8 plays for 56 yards
AT LEAST TWO TRUE FRESHMEN TOGETHER: 16 plays for 132 yards and two touchdowns

What does all of this mean? Other than Mayala seemingly primed to take a larger role in the offense moving forward, I'm not really sure because as those numbers above illustrate, the Huskies were able to move the ball whether they went with two tight ends or two tailbacks.

UConn's Newsome honored by AAC

UConn sophomore running back Arkeel Newsome has been named the American Athletic Conference's special teams player of the week on the strength of his 71-yard kickoff return in the 40-13 win over UCF.

Newsome finished with 257 all-purpose yards which is the most for a UConn player since Jordan Todman's 317 against Cincinnati on Nov. 7, 2009.

The timing for the naming of the award is perfect because I did some research on Newsome and especially how his performance over the last three weeks matches up on a national level.

His 586 all-purpose yards rank eighth among FBS players and his 181 receiving yards is fifth among running backs over that span.

Jalin Marshall Ohio State    12-236-2
Taquan Mizzell, Virginia    13-230-2
Alex Gardner FIU               24-224-0
Ito Smith, S. Mississippi     16-189-0
Arkeel Newsome               11-181-1
Player            Team                 Yards  Rus-Rec-PR-KO
Tyler Ervin San Jose State       824   (533-130-2-159)
Christian McCaffrey Stanford 812   (477-86--2-251)
Leonard Fournette LSU           667   (635-32-0-0)
Royce Freeman Oregon           610   (486-124-0-0)
Ddevontae Booker Utah          600   (476-124-0-0)
Christian Kirk Texas A&M     600   (22-370-41-167)
Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State        592   (504-88-0-0)
Arkeel Newsome                     586   (221-181-0-184)

Also, the 586 all-purpose yards are the most for any UConn player since Jordan Todman's 764 against Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Syracuse back in 2009.

Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs was named to the AAC's weekly honor roll after throwing for 256 yards and a touchdown and adding 42 rushing yards and another TD.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

A trip to remember for UConn's Sunshine State contingent

Making my way to the press box, I walked by plenty of folks heading to yesterday's UConn/Central Florida game but it seemed like I couldn't walk more than 10 feet without seeing friends or family members of the 11 Florida-born players for the Huskies.

Whether it was a couple of people wearing the No. 17 Puyol jerseys or even a couple of family members of injured offensive lineman Ryan Crozier proudly wearing his number 63, it figured to be a day those Sunshine State natives won't soon forget. If that was the mood before the game just imagine what it must have been like when the Huskies, behind stellar play from so many of the hometown products, raced off to a 40-3 lead en route to a 27-point victory.

Whether it was Jhavon Williams coming up with a crucial interception, Ron Johnson scoring a touchdown, Ellis Marder returning a muffed punt or Puyol going 5 for 5 on extra points and booting a 21-yard field goal, this had to feel like a walk into paradise for the former Florida high school football stars who made the difficult decision to head all the way up to Connecticut for college.

"They had a lot of fans down here," UConn junior safety Obi Melifonwu said. "I know Jhavon Williams' family came down, Bobby Puyol's family came down, Ellis Marder's family came down so it was great to see a lot of fans out here that support UConn football and will continue to support UConn football."

Williams, who intercepted a pass for the second game in a row and third straight road game, said he had 47 family members or friends in attendance.

"That was phenomenal to come here and be able to make a play in front of my parents, my godparents, my grandmother, it just feels so good, so surreal," said Williams, whose four career interceptions have come against Michigan, Missouri, BYU and now UCF. "It is a great feeling to know that something you worked so hard for all season came true tonight. They were running around with the trophy, celebrating, doing a song and dance in the locker room. It is so surreal feeling to be successful on the road."

If Williams was giddy about Saturday's festivities, imagine the emotions Johnson was feeling as his family had a chance to be reunited.

"I got to play in front of my brother who never got to see me play before," Johnson said. "It was a special moment for my mother having all of her kids together (for the first time) in almost 10 years, it was an amazing feeling.

"We wanted to come home in front of our family an put on a show and that is what we did."

Puyol said he felt as much joy seeing Williams or Marder make a game-changing play as he did when all six of his kicks went through the uprights.

"Today was for our team, our brothers and it was cool to see guys, especially Jhavon," Puyol said. "Jhavon lives 10 miles down the road from me so it was awesome seeing him do well, it was awesome seeing Ellis grab a fumble, he's my roommate. Ron, (Javon) Hadley it was great to see all of these guys perform because that is the greatest thing.

"In the beginning Coach Diaco said the swirl of game day but when we are going home, it is the swirl of game day. My mom telling me 'I've got this (number of) people coming' and she is saying 'oh, they are putting this on Facebook' and I said 'well, I might not get enough tickets' but I think the coolest thing about it is that we get to play in front of our families and our friends.

"We have been through a lot of ups and downs and to beat UCF, one of the top teams in our conference every single year, it was special and everybody sees you on ESPN. These are my guys, we are a brotherhood so it was cool to do."

Eight of the 11 Florida natives got into the game. Here is the breakdown

John Green, cornerback from Miami: One tackle and one pass breakup
Javon Hadley, cornerback from Miami: One tackle and one pass breakup
Ellis Marder, safety from Windermere: Had two tackles and a fumble recovery
Ron Johnson, running back from Naples: Ran for 21 yards including 12-yard TD and had two catches
Dan Oak, center from Fort Myers: Saw first action of career in the fourth quarter
Dallas Parker, tight end/h-back from Ponta Vedra Beach: Saw perhaps his most extended duty of the season
Bobby Puyol, kicker from North Palm Beach: Was 5 for 5 on extra points and had a 21-yard field goal
Jhavon Williams, cornerback from Delray Beach: Had three tackles and an interception

Plenty has been written about the early success enjoyed by in-state UConn commits Keyion Dixon and Jasen Rose but other future Huskies are also having impactful senior seasons.

Donovan Williams was 11 of 13 passing for 190 yards and four touchdowns in less than two quarters as Hylton High defeated Gar-Field 61-20.

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Saturday, October 10, 2015

UConn posts an emphatic win and a road win at that

The numbers were simply not to be believed. But looking at them again, I see 40 points, 409 yards of total offense, two actual punt returns and 5 for 11 on third downs for the UConn offense and that was with a quarter left to play.

I realize that this Central Florida team bears little resemblance to the veteran squad which put up 527 yards and 62 points the last time the Huskies played in Orlando back in 2013 but still, seeing the Huskies up 40-3 after three quarters en route to a 40-13 victory was something to behold.

There were signs that things were beginning to turn around. I can't even imagine what the composite score would have been had last year's UConn squad or the team from 2013 played at Missouri, at home against a senior-laden Navy squad and then at BYU in a three-game stretch. I think it is safe to assume it would not have been anywhere near as competitive as those three games were. Still, seeing the Huskies come on the road and do what they did today was quite impressive.

Whether it was Arkeel Newsome accounting for 257 all-purpose yards, UConn scoring four rushing touchdowns, interceptions by Jhavon Williams and Obi Melifonwu being turned into 14 crucial points late in the first half or Bryant Shirreffs connecting for huge third-down gains instead of running for his life, there's plenty to be optimistic about moving forward.

"It was a big confidence boost for everybody and now we are onto USF who I heard had a great game," Shirreffs said. "That is why it is vital to have such a tough schedule. You have to take those hard games and learn from them. I think we did that. A couple of them I know we wish we could have had but they were lessons that were important as losses. We did a good job this week of turning it around and we need to continue doing what we are doing."

The scary thing is that before those two touchdowns late in the second quarter, it felt like the Huskies were squandering opportunities that could come back to haunt them. UConn ran eight plays in UCF territory and another on the 50 in three straight drives and came up with no points.

"We played some tough opponents and now we are going into conference play and it is important," Williams said. "It would have been nice to win those games but this is important, we have to win in the conference so we can go to a bowl game."

The thing about this game is that is nowhere close to the best the Huskies could play. There were too many pre-snap penalties and some pass protection issues. Defensively, I have to wonder how things would have played out if not for all the drops by the UCF receivers. But as Bob Diaco has said in the past, it is much easier to correct the mistakes coming off a win. With no disrespect to either Villanova or Army, I would have to think this is going to be one of the more enjoyable film study sessions for the team this season.

During Tuesday's practice I saw UConn playing both Newsome and Ron Johnson in the backfield together and I will go more into detail on this subject in the coming days but that is a nice look for the Huskies. It was also good to see the Huskies get the tight ends involved as Alec Bloom had 67 yards on four catches and Tommy Myers a key 11-yard reception. Williams continues to emerge as a standout cornerback while I thought Kenton Adeyemi and Cole Ormsby had strong games.

There will be much more to come from today's game so stay tuned.

True freshman receivers making an impact for UConn

The production of Tyraiq Beals has been well documented but one day soon, perhaps it will even be today, fellow true freshmen receivers Hergy Mayala and Aaron McLean will make their presence felt.

McLean does have one catch this season. Mayala's lone catch was wiped out due to a penalty but with each passing week all three of the first-year receivers (Frank Battle is being redshirted) are getting more comfortable with things.

None of the true freshmen have been made available to the media this season but I did catch up with receivers coach David Corley and offensive coordinator Frank Verducci about the first-year receivers.

"Those guys are very conscious about paying attention, being coachable," Corley said. "Definitely early on in camp they showed a lot of flashes and we were excited about them just based on what they did before they got here. They quickly stepped in here and showed that they can make some contributions."

So what does it take for a kid fresh out of high school to make an immediate impact like Beals, who has 16 catches for 165 yards in the first five games of the season.

"Just to have that maturity about yourself and have the self confidence that you do belong and be consistent," Corley said. "A lot of times young guys will flash. They have the attributes but they are not able to have the consistency. These guys are mature enough to come in and work hard every day. Maybe it is a physical thing where physically they aren't capable of carrying the load but these guys have been impressive and our strength staff has done a great job of getting them prepared and they have done a great job themselves of with the mental aspect.

"I think with what we do here as a program, we are always looking for guys to come in and contribute and they are always going to have an opportunity to be evaluated so if somebody is going to be able to help us succeed, we are going to give them that opportunity as long as they show us that they can so that is what they are all about."

There was a sense that at least one of the true freshmen could work their way into the receiver rotation. With the uncertainty surrounding Dhameer Bradley, there have been even more opportunities.

"It is a hard thing because you have some more experienced receivers who understand the game a little better," Verducci said. "You've got younger players with such high ceilings and exceptional natural talent so as they matured, as they polish off those rough edges they become very competitive and it is a real battle for playing time.

"It is very impressive. You have to look at them all individually because they all have unique skill sets. All of them have improved, even Frank Battle who is going to redshirt this year, we see continued improvement from him and it is a real positive for us that he continues to work with the varsity even though he is redshirting. They are going to be a great group moving forward, no doubt."

The good thing is that all of the first-year receivers bring different thing to the table.

"They all have different body types, different things like that but they all do a pretty good job of just extending and catching the ball, soft hands, strong hands and those are things they have in common," Corley said.

Beals already is tied for fifth among true freshmen (during the FBS era) with 16 catches and he needs 35 yards to join Terry Caulley, Jason Williams, Brandon Young, Terence Jeffers and Brad Kanuch as the only true freshmen with 200 receiving yards.

"He has really strong hands for somebody when you look at him and he doesn't look like the biggest, strongest guy out there but his hands are strong," Corley said of Beals. "When you get the ball around him, he does a terrific job of pulling it in, a really good catch radius. If you put it in his general area, he does a pretty good job of coming up with the ball."

The live blog for today's game (3:45 p.m. on ESPNews) is now up and running so feel free to check it out

Friday, October 09, 2015

Florida well represented in the UConn secondary

Something tells me that the race to get to teammates with no family members coming to tomorrow's game could have been rather interesting this week.

Perhaps nowhere are the need for tickets more pronounced for the Central Florida game than from UConn's defensive backs as four of the eight players on the two-deep chart hail from the Sunshine State.

Starting cornerback Jhavon Williams, a Delray Beach resident, estimated that he needed 40 tickets.

"I don't think I am going to get them all but my parents, they understand and will do their best," Williams said.

Reserve safety Ellis Marder from nearby Windermere couldn't even come up with a number.

"No counting" is how Marder responded when I asked him after Tuesday's practice how many tickets he was hoping to secure for friends and family.

Marder played at Lake Highland Prep in Orlando, just about two miles from the UCF campus.

Lake Highland Prep receiver Hayden Jones is a member of the UCF team and Marder remains in touch with him. Defensive back Drico Johnson, who is considered doubtful to play, is another UCF player that he knows very well.

"Drico played on my 7 on 7 team in high school so we have been close," Marder said. "I haven't talked to him in a little while. I talked to Hayden Jones a little bit, he played on my high school team and he is a great receiver."

The focus of my advance for tomorrow's game is on the quartet of Florid-raised defensive backs expected to see time for the Huskies (reserve cornerbacks Javon Hadley and John Green are both from Miami).

Maybe it's a coincidence that four defensive backs from Florida were not only recruited to UConn but play key roles for the Huskies or maybe not.

"You are going to go up against quick receivers, there is a lot of passing down there and it all about football down there," Hadley said. "Coming up here, we are going against faster receivers at the next level, it is top-level guys I have been playing since I was little."

There are 11 Florida natives on the UConn roster but only seven have made it onto the field this season with kicker Bobby Puyol, tailback Ron Johnson and tight end/h-back Dallas Parker joining the four aforementioned defensive backs. Ryan Crozier, who would have been the starting center had he not been sidelined for the season with a knee injury, reserve offensive linemen Dan Oak and Kyle Schafenacker and freshman receiver Frank Battle (who is redshirting) are the other Sunshine State products on the roster.

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Thursday, October 08, 2015

Ansonia's Newsome displaying the gift of grab at UConn

During his record-breaking run at Ansonia, High School there was little need to throw the ball to Arkeel Newsome because he was doing such damage in the run game. However. things are a little different at the college level.

In his final two seasons at Ansonia, Newsome did not have a game with more than one reception. Last season he led all UConn running backs with 11 catches and 155 receiving yards, 74 coming on one dazzling catch and run.

That was simply a prelude to what Newsome is doing now.

Newsome has caught nine passes for 114 yards over the last two games. I did some research on this and it is the most catches for a UConn running back in consecutive games since Andre Dixon had six against Cincinnati and four against Syracuse back in 2007. Finding the last Husky RB with more receiving yards in consecutive games proved to be more challenging. Actually, I went all the way back to 1981 and couldn't find a time when that happened.

It was a subject I have raised with Newsome before. He said he spent every time this summer catching passes from the JUGs machine to get him ready for his expanding role as a receiver out of the backfield.

"I am just ready for whatever they throw at me, giving it 100 percent with whatever I do," Newsome said.

I spoke with quarterback Bryant Shirreffs and offensive coordinator Frank Verducci about Newsome's gift for grab.

"We try to give him the ball behind the line of scrimmage or really anywhere on the field and he can make some big plays," Shirreffs said. :You may think it will only go five yards and he will turn it into a first down and even more. He is a fun player to play with."

It's been an interesting situation at tailback as it has turned into an "either/or" situation. Ron Johnson had 55 carries in the first three games but just one rushing attempt in the last two games. After carrying the ball just two times against Missouri, Newsome has 27 carries to go with his nine receptions.
Both Verducci and head coach Bob Diaco said that both sophomores are key players in the running game. Newsome is clearly the better receiver and has been utilized more in the last couple of contests.

"The participation pattern, there is a little bit of a shift there but I wouldn't read into it because I feel like right now we are coming back to what I think is appropriate and that is both players getting the ball, running the ball, getting their opportunities to run the ball, let the game come to the guy that is starts to come to," Diaco said. "They both do different jobs well so as the game tilts and one of the jobs becomes more important than the other, a rep pattern could tilt. All things being equal, I believe they will both participate and the game will tilt from there."

Newsome has shown enough when given the chance that he figures to continue to be featured in the passing game as the season moves on.
"He has so many dimensions to his game," Verducci said. "He is deceptively strong besides all the obvious talent or being quick and having exceptional hands and he just loves to play football, he is very fun to coach.

"He gives you the ability sometimes to just forego protection, just throw the ball hot to him and see what he can do with it. He has long ball ability, he has screen game ability, he's got underneath ability so he lets you be as imaginative as you want."

What's interesting is that dating back to 2008 when running backs snared 52 passes, the number of catches dropped each season

2008: 52
2009: 43
2010: 38
2011: 35
2012: 33
2013: 28

Last year there was a slight increase as the backs caught 30 passes. They could make a run at the 2008 total with the way things are going.

It is not all positive, however, with the use of the running backs in the passing game. There have been issues with the running backs missing blocks or heading out on patterns instead of staying in to deal with a blitzer.

"That is an area that has really been a liability," Diaco said. "I am not trying to place blame, I blame ourselves as coaches more than anything else but that position has created a lot more of a pocket stress than the offensive line."

It is an area that has been addressed in practice on a weekly basis. With three of the four running backs being sophomores, Verducci is hoping that there will be fewer missed assignments as the backs get deeper into the season.

"It is a continual work in progress," Verducci said. "You get most running backs, most big-time backs in high school aren't really asked to do pass protection (in high school). Many of them, due to their high school training, are fairly one dimensional, they are really good with the football under their arm. The things that you traditionally have to work on are pass receiving skills and the separator as I call it is their ability to pass protect - not only to pass protect but to identify their protection. We do ask a lot of them in that area and they have had some rough spots along the way in the first half. You've like to think with the experience and the continued development, that will sort itself out as we go through.

"You see it in practice but when you get out on the field and everything is moving 10 times faster so for me I think it is more of an experience factor and I look for us to get better with it as the season moves forward."

Verducci is also determined to get the tight ends the ball more as Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom have just 12 catches between them in the first five games. Verducci said the pass blocking issues of the offensive line and running backs is not a reason for the limited number of times Myers and Bloom are being targeted in the offensive game plan.

"They are really not involved in pass protection to tell you the truth," Verducci said. "We have very few protections that require them to stay in. They are not inactive by design, I will put it that way, there have been some opportunities that we have missed when they have been open in games and I think as the season goes on, they will continue to pop up as they did the first couple of games."

Getting back to Newsome's pass catching prowess, here are some numbers to chew on. His 167 receiving yards are the ninth most for a UConn RB during the FBS era and his is only 113 behind the first-place mark of 280 set by Andre Dixon in 2007. Newsome has the two highest receiving yardage totals for a UConn RB since the Huskies began playing at the FBS level.

Here are the lists of top receiving performances by a UConn running back since the Huskies became an FBS program

Newsome 2-77 vs. Temple 9-27-2014
Newsome 4-63 vs. Brigham Young 10-2-2015
Todman 3-59 vs. Rutgers 10-31-2009
Brown 4-58 vs. Cincinnati 10-25-2008
Dixon 3-55 vs. Louisville 10-19-2007
Dixon 4-52 vs. Akron 9-29-2007
McCombs 3-52 vs. Western Michigan 10-1-2011
Sherman 7-51 vs. West Virginia 11-1-2008
Dixon 6-51 vs. Cincinnati 11-10-2007
Newsome 5-51 vs. Navy 9-26-2015Sherman 3-51 vs. Rutgers 10-18-2008
McCombs 2-51 vs. North Carolina State 9-8-2012

10 Andre Dixon Cincinnati (6), Syracuse (4) 2007
9 Arkeel Newsome Navy (5), BYU (4) 20158 Lyle McCombs Towson (5), Maryland (3) 2014
8 Anthony Sherman West Virginia (7), Syracuse (1) 2008
8 Terry Caulley Temple (3), Vanderbilt (5)

270 Anthony Sherman 2008
231 Cornell Brockington 2004
230 Lyle McCombs 2012
205 Terry Caulley 2002
185 Jordan Todman 2009
176 Terry Caulley 2005
172 Lyle McCombs 2011
167 Arkeel Newsome 2015
155 Arkeel Newsome 2014

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