Wednesday, August 31, 2016

TV info for tomorrow's UConn game; Game Day improvements

With tomorrow's UConn/Maine game being televised on the American Digital Network, there may be some of you out there who may be wondering which stations are included in the American Digital Network.

In Connecticut the game will air live on WCCT and be shown on a tape delay basis on SNY on Saturday at 3 p.m.

Here's the rest of the stations slated to carry the game courtesy of the UConn official site
NESN Plus-Boston, Mass.
WBMA-3, Birmingham, Ala.
WABM-MyTV, Birmingham, Ala.
CSN California, Chico-Redding, Calif.
CSN California, Fresno, Calif.
FOTV (Los Angeles – Dish #6), Los Angeles, Calif.
CSN California, Monterey-Salinas, Calif.
CSN California, Sacramento, Calif.
CSN California, San Francisco, Calif.
KXKW, Lafayette, La.
WUTB-3, Baltimore, Md.
WABI-Bangor, Maine
WGME-3, Portland, Maine
WXLV-2, Greensboro, N.C.
WLFL-2, Raleigh/Durham, N.C.
CSN California, Reno, Nevada
WNYO-2, Buffalo, N.Y.
WRNN-2, New York, N.Y.
WKRC-3, Cincinnati, Ohio
WTTE-3, Columbus, Ohio
WKEF-2, Dayton, Ohio
WNWO-2, Toledo, Ohio
TCN Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Pa.
TCN Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pa.
WPNT-2, Pittsburgh, Pa.
WSWB-4, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
TCN Philadelphia, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
WACH-2, Columbia, S.C.
WWMB-3, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
WNAB-2, Nashville, Tenn.
KDBC-2, El Paso, Texas
KMYS-2, San Antonio, Texas
WTVZ-2, Norfolk/Portsmouth, Va.
WSET-2, Roanoke, Va.
WYCI, Burlington, Vt.
WVAH-2, Charleston, W.Va. 

Also, new UConn AD David Benedict and his staff have been working diligently to get more students to the games.

In an attempt to make that happen, there will be free bus service to and from Rentschler Field from campus with tickets available for students to pick up in the information desk inside the Student Union. Also, tickets for the Maine game are available free of cost to any freshmen, there is a prorated season ticket package available to students, discounted parking rates and a new student tailgating lot.

Not all the changes are limited to the students as some of the food prices at the concession stands have been lowered, there will be a new Fan Fest are including the UConn Dairy Bar Ice Cream truck.

Check out the changes that have been made at this link

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

UConn's Tyler Davis adjusting quickly at new position

When Tyler Davis was working out with the tight ends at the first preseason practice the media was allowed to watch I wasn't quite sure what to expect. However, it is safe to say that seeing Davis making the two-deep chart in time for the Maine game was a bit of a surprise.

After Wednesday's practice Davis reflected on the position switch and adjustment that came along with it.

The first thing I wanted to ask him was how the relationship between him and starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs has changed now that he isn't in quarterback meetings with him.

"It has been an awesome transition," Davis said. "Just knowing Bryant from old quarterback stuff. we were close back then, very close now so it is awesome that we get to spread the wealth now with him throwing me the ball."

The athletic Davis ran for more than 2,500 yards and 43 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Mepham (N.Y.) High School so it doesn't surprise me that he has shown the ability to get open when asked to run routes but playing mostly quarterback in his football career, he didn't have much experience with the blocking side of things.

"I have come a long way in a week but I still have a long way to go," Davis said. "There is a bunch of stuff I need to get better at. It is an honor that I can work with that group right now.

"There is more that goes into blocking than I originally thought. There is a lot of footwork, head placement. When I first moved over to tight end, I thought it was just hitting people but once I have been here for a couple of weeks, I realize it is so much more than that."

Davis has taken part in two spring games as a quarterback but Thursday will mark his first official game at UConn after he redshirted last season.

"It is so exciting to be able to help this team right now to win, that is my main objective right now as long as I can be on the field to help out, I am more than happy to do it," Davis said.

For those wondering if Davis views the position switch as a temporary one, he said that is not the case and he now views himself as a tight end.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Tough day for former UConn products

Dreams of playing in the NFL this year will be dashed for plenty of standouts as teams have to get down to 75 players by tomorrow and 53 players by Saturday.

The cuts began being announced yesterday and two former UConn stars got their walking papers.

Receiver Kashif Moore was let go by the Kansas City Chiefs while cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson was among those waived by Tennessee. Wreh-Wilson as a third-round pick of the Titans in the 2013 NFl draft but was seeing time at safety during camp to see if he'd be a better fit there. Previously running back Donald Brown was released by the New England Patriots and after a brief stay in Miami's camp, Danny Lansanah was also let go. Also, Andrew Opoku (who began his collegiate career at UConn before finishing up at Delaware) was among the recent cuts by the Colts and going back a while, Shakim Phillips was waived by Pittsburgh.

There's also been bad news on the injury front as Darius Butler (Colts), Geremy Davis (Giants), Marcus Easley (Bills) and Sio Moore (Colts) have all missed time due to injury.

It's not all doom and gloom.

Andrew Adams had a strong game, highlighted by an interception to set up the game-winning touchdown in the Giants' win over the Jets. Pro Football Focus, a site which grades every player on every snap gave Adams the third highest grade (84.1) among Giants defensive players. Shamar Stephen has been earning rave raviews during Minnesota's camp and preseason games while Kenton Adeyemi and B.J. McBryde, both late additions to the Browns and 49ers respectively, have made it through the early cuts.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Connecticut well represented on Maine's starting offense

When I started doing some research on the 2016 Maine football team with the season opener quickly approaching, a couple of things immediately caught my eye.

First, three Connecticut products are listed as starters on offense and former Temple running back Zaire Williams (who had a touchdown in a 2013 loss to UConn) is now a part of the Black Bears.

I addressed both subjects with Maine coach Joe Harasymiak on a phone hookup shortly before UConn coach Bob Diaco met with the media today.

Bloomfield's Isaiah Brooks is the starting right guard, Bridgeport's Nigel Beckford is the top tailback and South Windsor's Jared Osumah is a starting receiver.

"When I first got here, Connecticut was my recruiting area so obviously it has been great for us," Harasymiak said. "Those guys are looking forward to coming home. The Connecticut area is huge for us, it is where we get as lot of our kids from and it is better to do that. those guys will obviously be really excited. We went down to play Boston College a couple years in a row now but going to their home state will mean a lot to them and their families."

Williams was Temple's second-leading rusher as a freshman in 2013 and one of his three touchdowns came against UConn.

"He is doing well," Harasymiak said. "He came in as a mid-year transfer from Temple, we were able to get him here in January, get him acclimated to the system. Obviously he is give us the offense that we needed. Besides Nigel Bradford last year, we really struggled with having our own piece there, so having him and Beckford back there, kind of that two-headed monster we should be able to run the ball effectively. We have to break some tackles, I don't think we did that enough in the last couple of years. Those 5/6 yard runs potentially turn into 20-yard runs and a score. Zaire will also help us with our pass game out of the backfield, that is something that he has great hands and he has a great sense for it."

Another thing that came out of Maine's preseason camp is that senior Dan Collins was named the starting quarterback even though both he and Drew Belcher saw time there last year.

"His decision making has been great since the new offense has been installed," Harasymiak said. "His decision making, I think he has turned the ball over legitimately twice since spring ball, one was on a tipped ball at the D-line in our second scrimmage. He is commanding the huddle, doing those kind of things."

Since we spoke to Diaco on Wednesday for quite a while, there weren't many subjects left to be addressed today.

He did say that senior linebacker Jon Hicks has been cleared to practice so he could see time against Maine. Diaco said that other than linebacker Connor Freeborn, who is out for the season with a lower-leg injury, UConn should have the services of everybody for the game.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

No real surprises on UConn's depth chart

UConn has posted its notes for Thursday's season opener against Maine which also means an updated depth chart is available.

There's nothing too stunning on the two-deep chart. The biggest news may be the Tyler Davis is listed as a second-string tight end ahead of Zordan Holman even though he started preseason camp as a quarterback.

Kyle Schafenacker wasn't on the post-spring practice two-deep but was the No. 2 guy at left guard as every practice open to the media and his is listed as Tommy Hopkins' primary backup at that position.

With Jon Hicks' status for the Maine game up in the air, Chris Britton is now on the two-deep chart at linebacker.

The previous depth chart had John Green as the backup at both cornerback slots but now redshirt freshman John Robinson is listed as the backup to Jamar Summers.

On special teams, true freshman Nick Zecchino is the No. 1 long snapper and Brice McAllister (also a backup safety) is listed along with Arkeel Newsome as the top two kickoff returners.

Also, Thursday's season opener will air on the American Digital Network. For those in Connecticut, what that means is that the game is available on WCCT and will be shown on a tape delay basis on SNY on Saturday at 3 p.m.

It should also be noted that the weekly radio show featuring UConn coach Bob Diaco and a pair of players will be held at Geno's Grille in Storrs. With the Maine game being played on Thursday this week, the show will take place on Tuesday from 6-7 p.m. On a normal game week the show was take place on Thursdays.

Friday, August 26, 2016

UConn's Jamar Summers top AAC draft prospect per considers UConn junior cornerback Jamar Summers
as top NFL draft prospect in the American Athletic Conference
The listed the top draft prospects from the American Athletic Conference and unlike many of lists of this, it is not limited to just seniors.

UConn junior cornerback Jamar Summers is the top-ranked player in the conference among the 28 players given draftable grades and UConn has the most players listed.

Summers is rated as a third-round pick, tight end Alec Bloom (4th round), linebacker Junior Joseph (4th/5th round), safety Obi Melifonwu (5th round), defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi (5th/6th round) and tight end Tommy Myers (7th round) are also on the list as are offensive linemen Andreas Knappe and Richard Levy, running back Arkeel Newsome, WR Noel Thomas, DL Mikal Myers and QB Bryant Shirreffs and CB Jhavon Williams are among those given grades as free agents. Jazzmar Clax, who isn't even with the program any longer, also is listed as a free agent.

I'm kind of surprised not to see Ryan Crozier, Tommy Hopkins or Luke Carrezola (among others) on the list. Obviously it is very early in the process so it isn't much more than something interesting to talk about. It does show the potential for members of the talented junior class to consider leaving for the NFL at the end of the season since six of the seven players to receive draftable grades are juniors. Also, if my math is correct, UConn has the most players on the list with 14 (13 if you take Clax off) followed by Cincinnati (11, including the most draftable prospects with seven), East Carolina (8), Temple (7), UCF (7). I did notice that one of the three USF players to be rated as a draftable player is Derrick Calloway, who isn't on the team so I'm not sure if other players on the list are also gone from their respective programs.

UConn's punt return game could remain stuck in neutral

It's taking me a little longer to follow up on my promise to address the punt return situation but better late than never.

There's been some buzz surrounding true freshman Quayvon Skanes and there's a possibility he could be in the mix as a punt returner. So at one point in UConn coach Bob Diaco's time answering questions from the media during Wednesday's media day festivities, I asked him if UConn would be more likely to return punts this season.

What followed was an answer lasting almost four minutes and at the three-minute mark came the most telling part of his answer.

"We have a little different mentality here and it is being sure we get the ball," Diaco said. "They are going to have to execute and we are going to get it. If Brian (Lemelle) or Q (Skanes) can return it for a touchdown, fantastic,  if the protection is a liability and we can attack it, fantastic  but risk/reward there for blocking punts as it relates to roughing the punter, I am really not for that."

Diaco also said "I think an emphasis on getting it caught is a big deal."

What that is likely to mean is another season of fair catches by UConn's punt returners.

Diaco mentioned the changes in rules that has allowed more players on the punt coverage team to release and get down the field. That is certainly a valid point. However, it should be noted that even with the rules in place that a total of 55 teams returned at least one punt for a touchdown led by Alabama's five. UConn ranked last among 128 FBS programs with five returned punts and 2 yards of punt return yardage. The Huskies are the only team not to have at least one punt return of 10 yards. UConn's last double-digit yardage punt return was Deshon Foxx's 72-yard touchdown against Stony Brook in the second game of the 2014 season. If you take that return away, UConn has a total of 11 yards in punt returns in 25 games over the last two seasons.

Going back to Larry Taylor and more recently with current NFL receivers Nick Williams and Foxx, UConn has had dangerous players returning punts. Skanes and Lemelle may be capable of delivering what Diaco refers to as explosive plays in the punt return game but if last year is any indication, they may not get the chance. As scary as last year's punt return numbers may be, you may recall that at least one of Nick Vitale's returns was not supposed to happen.

Diaco did make a good point about the importance of catching the ball in the air.

"How many punts do you see not caught that roll for 10-12 yards?" Diaco said. "That is if you caught every punt. If you just design it to catch every punt, now you don't have to get that run. That is one run you wouldn't otherwise have to get or one pass, if you catch it on the 40 instead of it rolling to the 28, that is an explosive play that you don't need because you got the ball caught. We have a little different mentality there and it is being sure we get the ball, they are going to have to execute (the punt) and we are going to get it."

What Diaco said is try and his comments on having players ready to make a tackle when a punt return catches the ball is also a valid point. I'm not suggesting that Lemelle, Skanes, Tyraiq Beals or whoever else is back fielding punts risks taking a nasty shot as they field a punt or risk turning it over but I do think that a team can put an emphasis on not having punts hit the turf and rolling for 10-15 yards and still return a punt when the opportunity presented itself. My hope is that there isn't a preconceived desire to merely fair catch every punt because when you have an offensively-challenged team like UConn, a positive punt return every now and then could help the Huskies put points on the board.

I still have plenty of stuff to get to from media day and I also headed down to Staples and St. Luke's yesterday to catch up with UConn commits Ryan Fitton and Omar Fortt so there will be plenty of stories and blogs to come.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Madison's Walsh honored to be a captain at UConn

The last Connecticut native to be named a captain of the UConn football team is current Dallas Cowboys safety Byron Jones. Scott Lutrus, who made seven tackles with the Indianapolis Colts during the 2011 NFL season, is among the recent state products to earn that honor. Oh, and the last player from the New Haven area to earn that distinction is Shelton's Dan Orlovsky who has been in the NFL since 2005.

Yes, former Hand High star Matt Walsh joined some pretty select company when the senior linebacker joined senior offensive tackle Andreas Knappe, junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs and senior defensive lineman Mikal Myers as the captains of the 2016 UConn football team.

"I feel like I have been a leader already, now I have the 'C" on my chest," Walsh said. "I just want to be able to guide guys and be a coach on the field, make sure everybody is making the right decisions on the off the field."

Diaco couldn't be happier that Walsh was named as one of the four captains as he has witnessed Walsh's growth both on and off the field in the last three years.

"It's one of the great stories," Diaco said. "Without some of major life-altering event that happens to young people from the ages of 15-22, to see him grow and mature and become a worker, become a servant, become a classmate, become a teammate and become a productive football player and the growth that he has made. People have guided him. I am sure when you ask him, he will mention the people in his life but he had to do it. I am so proud of him for that and he is not going to look back. It is in his DNA, he is who is meant to be and he's a defender of our mission specifically as it relates to football. He is going to be a great defender on a mission he is on."

Fellow linebacker Cam Stapleton said "ask the guards, ask them how they feel when he is coming down on them."

It is that ferocious approach to the game that allowed Walsh to be named the Register's State Player of the Year after recording 182 tackles as a senior, 15 coming in the 2012 Class L title game.

"How he was on offense, I don't even know but you move him to defense and it was like night and day," UConn defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter said. "This kid was made to play defensive football. Lucky for us, (due to) the vision of the head coach of seeing this kid and moving him to defense. He is just an awesome kid to be around. He will work hard, he really practices hard, a great teammate and great leader. Obviously being voted team captain, your teammates think a lot about you and your leadership ability. It is awesome to see it. He has come a long way, we are looking forward to him having a great year."

Former NFL linebacker Vincent Brown was his position coach a season ago before shifting over to coach the defensive linemen this year. He witnessed Walsh transform himself physically so he could move from sideline to sideline to make tackles as well as drop into coverage if need be.

"Matt epitomizes the Bleed Blue mentality that we have that we are trying to grow in the program," Brown said. "He is one of the kids who has transformed not only his life but his dedication as a football player and it represents what our program is about, developing the players. He went from a young man who kind of partially involved to being a vocal and active leader on the team. He embraced the role. He has transformed his body so he is leaner, he is quicker, he is stronger and he is a student of the game. He is very instinctive and intuitive so he sees things and he helps make all the guys around him better players also."

Growing up watching UConn play only made Walsh appreciate the honor of being voted as a team
captain even more.

"It is giving me goose bumps right now," Walsh said. "Going to the games, I was dreaming about getting on the field and now to be a leader and a captain on the team walking about to the center of the field to do the coin toss  when all eyes are on you, it is an experience that I am thankful I am going to get the opportunity to do it.

"It has been a wild ride, everybody has their ups and downs in their career and kind of seeing at one point of my college career and where I am now, it kind of gives me more motivation that if I did that, what else can I do? That is one reason why I will never set my limits and will always strive to be the best that I can."

Freshman Jasen Rose, who has been absent from UConn preseason practice due to what Diaco said was a result of the former Southington High star not feeling well, released a statement announcing that he is leaving UConn.

"At this time in my life, attending school at UConn is not what is best for me. I will instead enroll at a different school this fall, one closer to home and to my family. As much as I love the game of football, I will step away from it and not participate this season or in the foreseeable future."

Rose was a highly-decorated quarterback at Southington High who was expected to play the "F" position, a hybrid tight end/h-back position.

"I wish him the best," Diaco said. "I wish his family the best, I will be rooting for him and hoping for him. I enjoyed the recruiting process, getting to know his family and getting to know him. When he came to campus, I thoroughly enjoyed being with him and around him. he is a special young man. He is working on him, different seasons in your life pop up and you go down different paths. Jay has to live Jay's life and I am supportive of that whether I like it, love it is irrelevant. I care about him and I want him to do well."

Rose was one of the biggest names in this current true freshman class. I spoke to him at the Walter Camp Foundation All-State team announcement a few months back and here's what he had to say.

"It is definitely starting to sink in," Rose said. "It is a weird feeling, football season is over and now it is on to the next chapter at UConn. We have a group message with all the commits to UConn so it is good, it will be good to see them and talk to them a little more. There is just one big group message and we just talk throughout the day. We are all taking our official visits next weekend so we talk about that. We talk about next year and getting ready for it and how excited we are.

"I think getting to a bowl game this year is a big step. I think Coach Diaco is doing a great job and I think he is turning it in the right direction. They are great players, I am looking forward  to playing with them for the next four years. I can't wait to have them as my teammates.

"It definitely felt right to stay home in Connecticut. We are all trying to change our program around so we have to keep the best players in the state at UConn. That was when I knew I wanted to go to UConn. I did, it is pretty cool to see them playing on a bowl game on national television. It definitely makes you more excited for next year and definitely makes me want to work harder.
It has all slowed down, it is all coming to an end and I glad it is all over with."

There was a rumor out there last week that Rose had left UConn, had enrolled at Central Connecticut State and would be eligible to play for the Blue Devils this season. I checked into that and he was not enrolled at CCSU at the time but that school would certainly qualify as being closer to his Southington home than UConn so we'll see if that is where he ends up.

Diaco announced that redshirt freshman linebacker Connor Freeborn, who has been working with the second team, suffered a season-ending lower-body injury. Also, he is hopeful that senior linebacker Jon Hicks will be cleared to participate in the season opener against Maine on Sept. 1.

There's plenty of more to get through in the next few days but I can pass on that Diaco said that among the true freshmen, long snapper Nick Zecchino (who punter Justin Wain and kicker Bobby Puyol affectionately said is like Diaco's son) and receiver/return specialist Quayvon Skanes will see action this season.

"He is like Diaco's son, he rubs off the same way as Coach," Puyol said with a laugh. "It's a really fun time being around him."

Running backs coach David Corley was noncommittal about freshmen Ja'Kevious Vickers (who has been outstanding at every practice I've been at) and/or Nate Hopkins seeing time as true freshmen although offensive coordinator Frank Verducci believes that true freshman fullback Teddy Allmendinger could play in the season opener.

At some point I will get around to transcribing Diaco's response when I asked him if the Huskies would be more aggressive when it came to returning punts this season after basically telling his players to fair catch nearly every punt during the 2015 season. It's one of the longest quote files I had from today and basically I wouldn't expect to see UConn suddenly returning punts as a fast and furious pace moving forward.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

4 UConn players on Senior Bowl watch list

It the take it for what it is worth department since 400 players have been named to the watch list for the Senior Bowl but four UConn players are on the list.

Offensive linemen Andreas Knappe and Richard Levy, safety Obi Melifonwu and cornerback Jhavon Williams all made the list.

Eventually 110 players will be selected to play in the Senior Bowl on Jan. 26. A player doesn't need to be on the watch list to get the invitation for play in the all-star game.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

27 UConn football players earn AAC All-Academic honors

The American Athletic Conference announced its all-academic honorees for the 2015-16 year and 27 members of last year's UConn football team made the cut.

Starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, starting offensive linemen Tommy Hopkins and Andreas Knappe, defensive starters Luke Carrezola and Obi Melifonwu as well as No. 1 kicker (Bobby Puyol) and punter (Justin Wain) were among those honored.

I found it interesting that six of the top 10 offensive linemen on this year's UConn team were among those to make the grade as Hopkins and Knappe were joined by Steve Hashemi, Dan Oak, Kyle Schafenacker and Brendan Vechery.

Also, three of the four captains from the 2015 team (Knappe, Andrew Adams, Marquise Vann) were recognized for their work in the classroom.

Here are the football players who made the list with players on this year's team in bold
Andrew Adams
Frank Battle
JJ Bivona
Brandon Bisack
Kyle Bockeloh
John-Luke Bogue
Luke Carrezola
Jeremy Claflin
Steve Hashemi
Tommy Hopkins
Andreas Knappe
Nick Lensander
Sean Marinan

Josh Marriner
Aaron McLean
Obi Melifonwu
Dan Oak

Andrew Paluch
Bobby Puyol
Will Rishell

Dave Ryslik
Kyle Schafenacker
Bryant Shirreffs

Marquise Vann
Brendan Vechery
Justin Wain
Tahj-Anthony Wilson

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

UConn's Parker is suspended indefinitely

After this morning's practice UConn football coach Bob Diaco said that sophomore defensive lineman Dallas Parker has been "indefinitely suspended due to athletic department policy violation."

Parker has been removed from the roster.

He came into the program as a tight end/h-back and appeared in six games as a true freshman.

Also, true freshman tight end/h-back Jasen Rose from Southington continues to be missing from practice. It is the third straight practice open to the media that Rose has not been at and Diaco once again said that Rose wasn't feeling well.

"I don't really know anything else," Diaco said. "I don't know anything else."

As for the practice, converted quarterback Tyler Davis earned praise from Diaco and offensive coordinator Frank Verducci. Davis, who only recently made the move to tight end, saw some time with the starters in today's morning practice.

"He acts like a 1 (a starter)," Diaco said. "He conducts his business like a 1. He is a try--hard guy. He is tough and smart, energetic, great passion, communicator, leader, how are you going to have a bad play with a guy like that out there."

Here's what Verducci had to say about Davis.

"He's a very unique player at the position,' Verducci said. "The one thing he has at the position is flat out speed. I think in time he is going to be a wonderful addition."

Linebacker Jon Hicks, who was injured a week ago (in the first practice the media was allowed to attend), could be back doing drills in a week or a week in a half according to Diaco.

Diaco also said "we don't have a quarterback controversy, we are not going into practice 16 wondering who our quarterback is, it is really a lot of fun that way."

At American Athletic Conference media day he mentioned that there was competition for the quarterback spot as Garrett Anderson is pushing Shirreffs but Shirreffs has been the No. 1 guy out there for during the practices we've been at.

Madison native Ken Sweitzer, one of four quarterbacks in program history with back to back 2,000-yard passing seasons, has been hired to serve as the sideline reporter for football games on the UConn Radio Network.

Sweitzer was UConn’s starting quarterback in 1980 and 1981 and when he graduated he owned the program record for total offense, touchdown passes and passing efficiency.

Sweitzer takes over for NBC Connecticut’s Kevin Nathan who was unable to continue in that role due to his anchoring responsibilities on WVIT’s 4 p.m. newscast.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Wrapping up a scorcher of a practice at UConn

Just got home after UConn's practice and it was absolutely brutal out there standing and watching even with the PowerAde I bought on  my way to UConn, I sure it must have been a barrel of laughs to have pads and helmets on.

Midway through the practice UConn coach Bob Diaco brought the team together so everybody could get water to deal with the conditions. He also challenged them to finish practice off strong and these are the moments that will set up how the Huskies execute in late game situations. That will be the basis of the story I am filing so more on that later.

As for what I saw at practice:

Redshirt freshman John Robinson continues to have a strong camp at cornerback.  Also, Kyle Schafenacker seems to have moved into a guard spot with the second team offensive line. Neither player appeared on the two-deep chart released during the AAC media day but if a current depth chart was published, I would say that both would be on there.

Diaco said he doesn't even think of true freshman long snapper Nick Zecchino any longer as a freshman. Zecchino was the first long snapper out there followed by Alec Bloom.

There was a scary moment when both starting right offensive tackle Andreas Knappe and inside linebacker Junior Joseph were slow to get up due to different collisions on a play late in practice. Knappe stayed on the field. Joseph did remain on the field at first but eventually came out to get checked out. The way the medical staff were moving Joseph's knee and lower leg seems to be a good sign. Joseph walked off at the end of practice without being accompanied by any members of the training staff but perhaps it was merely a cramping situation. Jalen Stevens also was down on the field after attempting to make a tackle late in practice but once again, I wouldn't be surprised if he was merely worn out from the grueling conditions.

Jon Hicks, injured during the Wednesday morning practice, did not practice but he was there in uniform. It is a situation I will be monitoring as camp moves on. Chris Britton got second-team reps at inside linebacker in place of Hicks.

Both true freshmen scholarship running backs looked good. Ja'Kevious Vickers, playing with the second-team offense, ripped off a long touchdown run of perhaps 75 or 80 yards and had some other nice runs as did Nate Hopkins. Diaco also talked up true freshman offensive tackle Cam DeGeorge, one of three true frosh working with the third team offensive line.

"Vick and Nate, Donovan Williams, Q (Quayvon Skanes) at slot (receiver), Keyion (Dixon) at wide receiver those are really highly talented guys," Diaco said. "It is easy to not think of him (Zecchino) as a freshman, I can't bestow on you a better compliment than that. He might not have to knock anybody off the ball like we might ask Cam DeGeorge to do who is going to be a heck of a tackle here. He shows all the tools of being a great tackle here, he is just a freshman so he is not going to be ready (this season) but he is going to be a heck of a good one. Nicky Zecchino is doing a great job. Tahj (Herring-Wilson) on the perimeter at the corner."

Luke Carrezola and Cam Stapleton each had fumble recoveries when the first team offenses and defenses went head to head.

There were officials on hand for the scrimmage portion of practice and Diaco told them practice would end as soon as the offense got another first down. Freshman quarterback Donovan Williams took care of that with a long completion to classmate Mason Donaldson.

Still no sign of true freshman tight end Jasen Rose. Diaco said he was still not feeling well.

"He's (still) not feeling great so he is getting better," Diaco said. We will let you guys know more when we know more

Pair of rookies from UConn make NFL debuts

Andrew Adams had 4 tackles in his NFL debut
Neither Kenton Adeyemi nor Andrew Adams were among the 253 players taken in April's NFL draft but the former UConn teammates took advantage of the opportunities as undrafted free agents to make their NFL debuts on Friday night.

Adeyemi made the stop on Green Bay running back Brandon Ross with 2:37 left in the game in Cleveland's 17-11 loss.

Adams made his first NFL tackle on the final play of the third quarter on a 4-yard reception by Daniel Thomas then he made tackles on three consecutive plays including stuffing Thomas for no gain on 3rd and 1 at the Giants 16,

Other highlights from former UConn products included Shamar Stephen making four tackles in the Minnesota Vikings' 17-16 win over Cincinnati and Dan Orlovsky was 16 of 25 for 164 yards with one touchdown and an interception in Detroit's 30-17 win over Pittsburgh. Also, Tyvon Branch had three tackles for Arizona in a 31-10 loss to Oakland, the team he broke into the NFL with.

The news wasn't all positive. Geremy Davis, a second-year receiver for Giants, had two catches for 21 yards before leaving the game with a hamstring issue.

Friday, August 12, 2016

UConn's open practice has been called off

The plan was for the fans to get their first look at the 2016 UConn football team at tomorrow's open practice at Rentschler Field. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas.

With threats of rain and thunderstorms around the time the Huskies were set to practice, the decision was made the cancel the practice.

The team will hold an indoor practice on campus tomorrow so look for some updates in the afternoon.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A more physical Watkins eyeing starting spot for UConn

There were no questions about who would be the starting field safety heading into preseason camp in Bob Diaco's first two seasons at the helm of the UConn football program.

However, with the graduation of Andrew Adams who could make his NFL debut tomorrow when the New York Giants play Miami, there is a major hole to be filled at one of the most important positions in the UConn defense.

Sophomore Tony Watkins, who made his one career tackle in last year's upset of Houston, was running with the first team throughout spring practice and continues to be the starter in the early part of camp.

"Him and Brice (McAllister) are in competition for the field safety position, they are both still in competition but Anthony had a great six practices," Diaco said after Wednesday's morning practice. "I'm very pleased and I can see him running the defense."

UConn knew that Adams and Junior Lee, the Huskies' top reserve safety, would be graduating but the Huskies also lost Ellis Marder and Jordan Floyd who did not return for their senior seasons. McAllister and Aaron Garland were moved from cornerback to safety while redshirt freshman Marshe' Terry was being viewed upon as another possibility to figure into rotation at safety.

Watkins is embracing his role whether it is as a starter or reserve.
"I am getting a better feeling, just seeing the game better and play faster," Watkins said. "I am just trying to help the team win. I want to me to be a positive for the team. Whatever role I have to play for us to win, that is all I want to do."

Watkins got to learn from Adams, Lee and Obi Melifonwu during his redshirt season as well as during his freshman campaign and he tried to use that time as best he could.

"I would stick around Andrew, Obi and even Junior Lee, they just took me under their win and I just stuck with them through film study," Watkins said. Coach Dex (defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter) really helped me out a lot during this  process.

"Being under the wing of Obi and Andrew, seeing how they run things, Coach has that confidence in me and I have that confidence in myself."

If there was a point of emphasis for Watkins to focus on to move into a key role for the Huskies it was to become a more physical player.

"We all have (things) we want to get better at so (during) the spring it was (Watkins bringing) more physicality so it was really an emphasis for me in the spring."

Fans can check out Watkins and the rest of the Huskies when UConn hosts an open practice on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Rentschler Field.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Naugatuck's Coney hard work is rewarded at UConn

Bob Diaco has spoken about the his quest to change the culture inside the UConn football program rather often since being named the Huskies' head coach.

There might never have been a better sense of what Diaco has been able to accomplish than a recent video of the team's reaction when former Naugatuck High receiver Bryan Coney was given a scholarship and he signed the paperwork with the cameras rolling.

After Wednesday's practice, Coney spoke about what it meant to him to be rewarded in that fashion.

"This is the hardest summer in all of our lives because Coach (Matt) Balis is the best strength coach in the country so we were together all summer working real hard," Coney said. "Everybody around me once I got it, knew it was a group effort, we all worked hard. My family and me, I got it but they were also part of my family so they were all happy for me. It was like they all got their scholarship too so there was a lot of love and emotion.

"We are all a big family. One thing that happens here is coaches definitely don't treat walk-ons like you watch old movies like Rudy, it is not like that. They expect you to come out and do what you've got to do. There was a lot of responsibility put on me even when I was a walk-on so I just did what they wanted me to do and they rewarded me for it."

No player seemed to revel more in Coney's special moment than starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs who quickly moved in so he could congratulate Coney.

"So many of my friends coming here and building relationships with and then to see all the work they have put in, I couldn't imagine the feeling he had," Shirreffs said. "Every time that happens I get such a strong feeling. When he first came in, I honestly thought he was on scholarship. He is really working hard and he has skills too, I didn't know he was going to get a scholarship so I was really proud of him. I was partners with him in the weight room the other day just talking to him about how I was proud of him, just to keep working. It is awesome to see something like that and the stars align for him."

Diaco has made it a point of identifying in-state products who he wants be a part of the program and he brings them in as preferred walk-ons selling them on the possibility of earning a scholarship. Madison's Nick Vitale, Shelton's Jason Thompson, Hebron's Will Rishell and Higganum's Sean Marinan are among those who have taken that path and now it was Coney's turn.

"He has some talent and skill that has given him a chance to produce with the guys so he doesn't look out of place," Diaco said.."He works hard, he works his tail off. He worked hard in the fall, did everything that everybody asked him, was one of the top performers in winter conditioning, came out in the spring and was one of the top performers again in the summer so it ends up becoming easy.

"That is what you like to do. It would be very easy for us to recruit that numbers (fill all 85 available scholarships) but if we have guys who have earned it, are quality teammates, that is how we do it. I am not saying it is right or wrong, it is just right for us. We reward walk-ons that are exceptional teammates that we believe can produce on the field whether they have or not that are high achievers  in the classroom."

So how special was it for Diaco to see the team's reaction to Coney getting the scholarship?

"It was beautiful," Diaco said. "It makes you feel great, I am so excited about Bryan and what he has done, his family and the benefits they are going to receive based on his hard work, all the commitment they have made to his development. He is a special guy and I couldn't be prouder of him."

In a recent blog I suggested that finding a way to get Luke Carrezola and Cam Stapleton on the field together might be beneficial for the defense since Stapleton is clearly not a reserve player even if he is listed as one on the depth chart.

I guess the UConn coaches had the same idea as late in Wednesday's practice I noticed Carrezola and Stapleton being on the field together with the first-team defense.

"Cam and Luke can definitely play together," Diaco said. "We are taking a look at Cam as the other outside linebacker. If he ends up becoming one of the best ones then it will be Cam and Luke so you will see a lot of plays with both of them. Based on style of play, Cam is a big physical player, he might he a different kind of tool to use to do a specific job opposite Carrezola. If we are playing an empty team (no players in the backfield), it is all spread out and we have to do work than maybe it is not Cam so it gives us more flexibility to add a little pressure where it is needed."

Diaco was asked whether he feels any added pressure to put a strong product out of the field since UConn is among the schools in contention for potential Big 12 expansion.

Here's what he had to say on the subject.

"I have no idea, I don't know what is happening outside the Burton Football Complex and the Shenkman indoor (facility)," Diaco said. "I don't know anything but these guy's lives right now and the coaches' and staff's lives right now. It is a little narrow focus but that is what camp is. I have no idea what outside pressures are putting on these guys. I don't mean to minimize that; I am excited about that but if you cant get excited about people really wanting you to achieve, you are in the wrong business, the wrong game. It is the best. I love that, UConn Nation about what we are about to become and having the expectations for greatness, how do you beat that? That is fantastic. I don't want to have the players carry that on their shoulders every day, that would be taxing carrying a two-ton weight on your shoulders and your back. But they are working as hard as they can work. There is no level of pressure that somebody could apply to these guys right now to get these guys to do anything more than they are doing."


Wrapping up Wednesday's UConn practice

The first practice from preseason practice is in the books.

Not much to report as the first and second offenses and defenses were (for the most part) are what is on the depth chart.

Tyler Davis has been moved from quarterback to tight end while freshman Jay Rose, who ironically plays the same hybrid position that Davis is now a part of, did no practice because he wasn't feeling well according to head coach Bob Diaco.

The true freshmen seeing the most time with the second team are cornerbacks (Tyler Coyle and Tahj Herring-Wilson) and running backs (Nate Hopkins, who had a TD in a short-yardage drill and Ja'Kevious Vickers).

Nick Zecchino was seeing some work as a long snapper.

It didn't happen much but I saw Luke Carrezola and Cam Stapleton on the field together and Diaco said Stapleton is being looked at as a possibility at the linebacker spot opposite of

I will have a story running in tomorrow's paper focusing on the quarterback competition between Bryant Shirreffs and Garrett Anderson, caught up with safety Anthony Watkins as he looks to win the starting spot alongside of Obi Melifonwu and spoke to Bryan Coney, who recently was awarded a scholarship so stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

UConn's Mikal Myers on PFF's list of Breakout Players

UConn defensive tackle Mikal Myers comes in at No. 14 on Pro Football Focus' list of breakout players for the upcoming season.

Myers had 26 tackles including four tackles for loss as a junior as he backed up captain Julian Campenni. Myers has played all 25 games in the last two seasons making three starts as he has recorded 56 tackles including 10 for loss and two sacks.

The PFF report said that Myers could rank among the highest rated run defenders in the country with his snap count expected to increase this season when he figures to be a full-time starter.

Tomorrow's practice is the first of the preseason camp open to the media so stay tuned for some updates and observations in my first look at the team since the spring game.

On Saturday fans will get a chance to see the Huskies practice at Rentschler Field

Here is the information released by UConn

The UConn football team will hold an open to the public practice on Saturday, August 13 at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentscher Field. Admission is free and stadium parking lots will open at 11:30 a.m. for tailgating with the stadium opening at 12:30 p.m. All fans are asked to enter the parking lots via the East Gate off of Silver Lane and park in the Blue Lots between Gates C and D. Fans will enter the stadium at Gate D and are asked to leave any bags larger than 12’’x6’’x12’’ in their vehicles and not bring in any outside food or drink.
The practice will begin at approximately 1:00 p.m. and will features several drills and stations by position groups. Seating will be in the lower bowl between Sections 120-133. Practice will end at approximately 3:30 p.m.

A marketing kiosk will be located at Gate D for all ticket information with free UConn posters and schedule cards available. UConn staff will also be on hand for questions about season tickets, mini-plans and single-game tickets. For more information and to scout out available seats, visit www.UConn.Football.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

St. Luke's DB Omar Fortt commits to UConn

When Bob Diaco was hired as UConn's head coach, one of the questions he faced was how diligently and proficiently he would recruit in Connecticut and especially in talent-rich Fairfield Country.

Well, the first player to commit to UConn after Diaco's hiring was Steve Hashemi out of St. Joseph High in Trumbull back on Jan. 20, 2014 (potential starting safety Anthony Watkins committed on the same day). With a couple of full recruiting cycles under his belt, Diaco was able to secure two commitments out of Fairfield in just over a month.

It started when Staples of Westport tight end Ryan Fitton committed on July 3 and earlier today St. Luke's safety Omar Fortt committed to UConn. Fortt announced his commitment on Twitter.

UConn didn't have to work hard to win over the St. Luke's head coach since it is the father of current UConn star receiver Noel Thomas.. Fortt, the younger brother of Khairi Fortt who was a fourth-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2014, had games with 15 and 16 tackles as a junior and had 10 catches for 211 yards and three touchdowns in a wild 43-42 win over Rye Country Day.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Former UConn DL Adeyemi signed by Browns

Former UConn defensive lineman Kenton Adeyemi was signed by the NFL's Cleveland Browns.

The Browns had an available roster spot when offensive lineman Michael Bowie was placed on injured reserve.

Adeyemi was signed by the Chicago Bears as an undrafted rookie free agent on May 16 but he was waived a month later.

Adeyemi, a Wethersfield native who played at Kingswood Oxford, worked his way into a spot in the defensive line rotation as a junior and had 59 tackles in his last two seasons with the Huskies.

Position by position breakdown of 2016 UConn squad

UConn began preseason camp this morning. There was no media access to the opening practice so I can't provide any reports on what transpired on the first day but figured I would break down what to look forward moving forward with a position by position breakdown.

Quarterback: From what I saw in spring practice, it looked like Bryant Shirreffs had distanced himself from the other QBs but I guess I was wrong as at American Athletic Conference media day, head coach Bob Diaco said that Garrett Anderson is pushing Shirreffs. Anderson earned praise for his work in the conditioning program as he dropped 12 pounds so we'll see how that translates onto the practice field. Time will tell if redshirt freshman Tyler Davis or true freshman Donovan Williams emerge as contenders for one of the top two slots.

Running back: Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson could form a dynamic tandem. Johnson looked to be a step quicker throughout spring drills and Newsome is such an explosive player. Depth is a concern after the graduation of Max DeLorenzo and transfer of Josh Marriner. It will be interesting to see if true freshmen Nate Hopkins and Ja'Kevious Vickers put themselves in position to get carries this season. Newsome is one of three former Naugatuck Valley running backs in camp as former walk-on Jason Thompson from Shelton and walk-on Rick Bartone from Derby are among the seven tailbacks on the roster.

Receiver: Noel Thomas is coming off a brilliant junior season but he needs some help. Too often the other receivers weren't involved in the passing attack. Now that Tyraiq Beals, Hergy Mayala and Aaron McLean are sophomores, I'd expect them to be a little more involved in the offense. Bryan Coney, recently awarded a scholarship, was a player that Diaco said would have a role this season and after the departure of Frank Battle, I would say that is the case. Thomas spoke highly of what he's been seeing from fellow senior Brian Lemelle. I wouldn't be surprised to see true freshman Quayvon Skanes to be a factor in the return game while Keyion Dixon is a promising prospect as well.

Tight ends: This is clearly a position of strength with the return of Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers. Bloom had a tremendous spring camp especially when it came to catching the ball, something that was an issue at times a season ago. The true impact Myers had on the offense wasn't truly felt until he was sidelined late in the season. The UConn coaches used tailbacks, offensive linemen and even a quarterback to try to fill the void left by Myers. I really thought Billy Williams was going to have a major impact in the offense but he is no longer with the program so Myers will handle the bulk of the work at the 'F' position while being backed up by Zordan Holman. Chris Lee now stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 273 pounds so if nothing else, he can be a factor as a blocker but he also has a chance to provide a massive target down the middle of the field. Myers has proven to be a strong blocker and Bloom continues to improve in that area.

Offensive line: The return of Ryan Crozier immediately makes the line better. Crozier was set to start at center last season before missing the entire season due to a knee injury. He may have been UConn's most efficient blocker in the latter stages of the 2014 season and lining up to Tommy Hopkins, who was the Huskies' most consistent lineman last season gives the Huskies a solid base to build around. Plenty of eyes will be on redshirt freshman Matt Peart, who beat out two-year starter  Richard Levy at left tackle while Andreas Knappe returns for his third season as the starting right tackle. Levy is listed as the starter at right guard while former starters Brendan Vechery and Trey Rutherford give the line tremendous depth. Steve Hashemi moved around between tight end and tackle but now he should be able to focus on his offensive line duties. Center Dan Oak and Tom Tabur will also start camp working with the second-team line.

Defensive line: Juniors Foley Fatukasi and Luke Carrezola are a pair of dynamic playmakers who figure to be playing on Sundays in the not too distant future. Mikal Myers has seen plenty of game action as he moves in as Julian Campenni's replacement and Cole Ormsby isn't as big as last year's starter Kenton Adeyemi but could provide more of a pass rush. Cam Stapleton was one of the stars of the spring game and he is a reserve in name only. Getting Stapleton more snaps should be a priority. UConn rotates in plenty of players so it will be interesting to see how players like Sheriden Lawley, Kevin Murphy and Philippe Okounam hold up when they spell Fatukasi and Myers. Sean Marinan has worked his way into a key role on the line as well.

Linebackers: Junior Joseph, Matt Walsh and Florida State transfer E.J. Levenberry give the Huskies three insider linebackers good enough to be starters while Jon Hicks is one of seven fifth-year seniors on the defensive two-deep chart. The other linebacker spot certainly bears watching. Vontae Diggs opens as a starter while he will get pushed by senior Omaine Stephens. There are seven freshmen linebackers (either true and redshirt frosh) so time will tell is they work their way into the two-deep chart. Sophomore Chris Britton drew rave reviews from Diaco for his work during the spring so he should see some snaps as well.

Secondary: It might be hard to find too many cornerback duos in the country better than Jamar Summers and Jhavon Williams and safety Obi Melifonwu is a player that Diaco thinks could be the best in the nation at his position. The other safety position, however, has some question marks. Anthony Watkins starts camp as the starter, Marshe' Terry as well as converted corners Brice McAllister and Aaron Garland could push for time there as well as compete with John Green as the nickel corner. Walk-on Chris Jean-Pierre could also factor into the rotation at safety. Green is listed as a backup at both cornerback slots and since the Huskies are known to play at least four corners, somebody else will need to emerge. John Robinson displayed some of his potential in the spring and I expect to see him on the field this season. I'll be curious to see how many cornerback reps are given to senior Nick Vitale.

Special teams: UConn returns starting kicker Bobby Puyol and punter Justin Wain. On signing day Diaco hinted at the possibility of Skanes making an immediate impact in the return game. Newsome is back to return kickoffs but somebody else will have to emerge to line up next to him. It could be Lemelle, who is also a possibility as a punt returner. Beals joins Lemelle on the depth chart as a punt returner. Tyler Davis served as the holder while Summers is currently listed as the No. 1 long snapper. We'll see who has those two jobs by the time UConn kicks off the 2016 season against Maine.

It should be noted that the Aug. 13 practice at Rentschler Field is open to the public. Practice is set to start around 1 p.m. with parking lots opening at 11:30 a.m. Don't expect to see much at the practice as Diaco's not going to tip his hand but for a program trying to build a fan base, an open practice is a nice way to start.

The first practice open to the media is Wednesday so look for updates on that day.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Select company for UConn's Melifonwu

While I was working on a story on UConn senior safety Obi Melifonwu, set to run in tomorrow's paper my research revealed some interesting tidbits.

First, seven former UConn defensive backs are currently in the NFL (Andrew Adams, Tyvon Branch, Darius Butler, Dwayne Gratz, Byron Jones, Robert McClain and Blidi Wreh-Wilson). According to the ESPN database, that is tied for 10th.

Alabama 12
Florida 11
Clemson 10
LSU 10
Texas 10
Notre Dame 9
Ohio State 9
Auburn 8
Florida State 8
Miami 7
Oregon 7
Oregon State 7
San Jose State 7
UConn 7
Virginia Tech 7
Also, Melifonwu's 233 career tackles ranks 18th among FBS active players and five of the top 19 in that category are from the AAC.

Nate Holley Kent 35 315
Dakota Cox New Mexico 34 312
Christian Tago San Jose State 311
Devon Edwards Duke 41 298
Zach Edwards Cincinnati 39 287
Ryan Janvion Wake Forest 35 282
Skai Moore South Carolina 37 260 (OUT FOR SEASON)
Steven Taylor Houston 39 257
Salamo Fiso Arizona State 40 253
Zack Ryan Ball State 37 250
Hardy Nickerson Cal (now at Illinois) 35 246
T.J. Neal Illinois (now at Auburn) 89 245
Quin Blanding Virginia 24 238
P.J. Davis, Georgia Tech 39 237
John Law, Appalachian State 39 236
Lucas Wacha Wyoming 35 236
Trent Martin Tulsa 40 236
Obi Melifonwu UConn 36 233
Nico Marley, Tulane 37 231

Finally, it looks like my research resulting in compiling the leading tacklers in UConn history to track where Adams stood will come in handy this season as Melifonwu is currently 27th on UConn's career tackles list and has a realistic chance  to become the 13th Husky with at least 300 tackles.

1. John Dorsey 80-83 495
2. Lawrence Wilson 07-10 449
3. Troy Ashley 86-89 428
4. Maurice Lloyd 01-04 412
5. Mike Jansen 84-87 394
6. Vernon Hargreaves 80-83 393
7. Alfred Fincher 01-04 357
8. Paul Duckworth 90-93 354
9. Dennis O'Connell 76-78 341
10. Yawin Smallwood 11-13 332
11. Paul Zenkert 91-94 312
12. Brad Keatley  94-97 311
13. Uyi Osunde 99-03 292
14. Mark Michaels 82-85 290
15. Abbott Burrell 86-89 288
16. Terrance Smith 00-03 280
17. Rob Belucore 89-92 274
17. Sio Moore 09-12 274
19. James Hargrave 02-05 271
19. Andrew Adams 12-15 271
21. Jamar Wilkins 97-00 270
22. Rich Fenton 73-75 266
23. Lou Donato 81-84 257
24. Jeff DeLucia 97-99 241
25. Kirk Ferentz 74-76 240
26. Chris Meyer 00-02 236
28. Andrew Cary 88-91 232
29. Byron Jones 11-14 222
30. Matt Donovan 78-81 221

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Former UConn LB Danny Lansanah signs with Dolphins

There might not be a better UConn-related story in the NFL than Danny Lansanah.

Lansanah had two tackles for the Green Bay Packers in the 2008 season and then his future in professional football seemed bleak at best. Five years later the Jets signed him and he landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers later that year. His signing barely made any rippled. However, the next season Lansanah made 82 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns.

He had 55 tackles last season but with the addition of standout rookie Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David already the Buccaneers' resident superstar at linebacker, Lansanah's role began to change. In the offseason Tampa signed veteran Daryl Smith who had at least 120 tackles in each of the last three seasons with Baltimore. The result was Lansanah needing to find a new team. That search ended when the Miami Dolphins signed the former UConn linebacker. In the "it's a small world" department, Wetherfield's Tyler Murphy was the player released by Miami to make room for Lansanah.

Madison's Matt Walsh looking to save his best for last at UConn

Matt Walsh believes the UConn camp, which kicks off on Friday, will not be his last but he plans on practicing like it will be the last organized football he will take part in.

The Madison native and former Hand High star has had an interesting run at UConn. A tackling machine in high school, Walsh began his collegiate career at fullback before moving over the linebacker.

Coming into the 2015 season playing behind leading tackler Marquise Vann, Walsh worked himself into a position to earn starts against Army, Missouri and Navy. Now a senior, there is a sense of finality as this will be his last camp at UConn.

"I want to leave everything on the field," Walsh said at Tuesday's American Athletic Conference football media day in Newport, R.I. "I want to play in a sense where I have no doubt and no regret that this is going to be my last camp. I feel like this is not going to be my last camp because I expect so much out of myself this season that I am going to be able to continue my career and everybody feels the same way on this team."

Walsh and Junior Joseph enter camp as the starting inside linebackers. However, the presence of Florida State transfer E.J. Levenberry will make things interesting as the Huskies have at least inside linebackers worthy of earning starting spots. When Walsh made the move from offense to defense, nobody was more helpful to him than Vann even though eventually it cost the two-year captain playing time. Walsh plans to take a similar team-first philosophy when it comes to helping Levenberry and other teammates reach their potential.

"I have never been the spiteful kind of guy or anything like that," said Walsh, coming off a 47-tackle season. "I always try to be welcoming and I am always going to help out everybody because the best guy is essentially going to play, I am trying to help everybody be the best player along with myself so it doesn't really matter who is playing, I am just excited for everybody to be playing together."

Despite the loss of five starters, Walsh has high expectations for the UConn defense.

"We feel like there is no reason why we can't be the best defense UConn has ever had," Walsh said.
When UConn coach Bob Diaco was asked about the most intriguing position battles, he quickly mentioned the outside linebacker spot previously played by Graham Stewart. Vontae Diggs and Omaine Stephens, who have a combined 28 career tackles at UConn, start camp as the top options at that spot.

"We feel very confident that there are a lot of different guys that can play that position and get the job done," Walsh said. "I am just really excited to see it all come together in camp."

While being invited to AAC media day by Diaco does not mean Walsh (or fellow Newport attendees Andreas Knappe, Obi Melifonwu and Noel Thomas) will be named captains, it does give an indication that they are faces of the program and the type of people Diaco feels comfortable representing the team.

In the last five seasons, the only Connecticut native to be named a team captain is current Dallas Cowboys safety Byron Jones. If Thomas and Walsh both get the call, it would be the first time two in-state products were named team captains since 2010 when Waterford's Zach Hurd and Brookfield's Scott Lutrus received that prestigious honor.

Whether or not he is a captain, Walsh has embraced the role of local football star who thrives at UConn both on and off the field.

"I feel like I had such a big family coming to the University of Connecticut before I even got here just from all the towns around me and all the guys who were able to follow me throughout high school and that support," Walsh said. "When I came to UConn, I almost branched out and make my family so much bigger to where everywhere I go, I feel like I know somebody and I am comfortable talking to everybody."

Diaco mentioned how much Walsh has changed for the better since he arrived. So what has helped Walsh mature as a player and person?

"Dedication and sacrifice, the past two years I kind of put all my eggs in the basket of football," Walsh said. "I am going to give it all I've got to where the investment is going to be something I've never done before so that is why I expect to have great success from it. I've always believed that you get what you put in so that was the philosophy I've embraced over the last few years."

Camp kicks off on Friday with the first media availability coming next week. For seniors like Walsh and Thomas, there is a sense of anticipation as the start of camp quickly approaches.

"You feel the energy in the locker room, everybody is really looking forward to putting pads on and excited to be playing again and making plays together," Walsh said. "That is why we came here for, that is kind of the love of the game that everybody has shown so everybody is excited to get out there."

Thomas is coming off an outstanding season with 54 catches and 719 yards. Dating back to the 2005 season, the only UConn player with more catches and yards in a season is current New York Giants WR Geremy Davis who caught 71 passes for 1,085 yards during the 2013 season.

"I am so ready," Thomas said. "I just want to play football, we have been lifting, running all this time and I want it to change to football."

Thomas is surrounded by a talented but young group of receivers. The 12 receivers on the roster feature seven true or redshirt freshmen, three sophomores, Thomas and fellow senior Brian Lemelle.

"They got their feet wet, they needed that year of experience and they know what to expect now," Thomas said of Tyraiq Beals, Hergy Mayala and Aaron McLean who combined for 35 catches as true freshmen. "They have been working hard and their confidence level is off the (charts) and I am excited to see Brian Lemelle this season too."

Thomas' numbers could have been even more impressive if he had caught a pass in the loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl. After the game Thomas took to social media and vowed that would never happen again.

"That was in the heat of the moment," Thomas said. "I am a receiver and nobody wants to have a catchless game but things happen and I am looking forward, I am going to do whatever I can to help the team."

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Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Competition at QB among topics coming out of media day

At the 2015 American Athletic Conference media day, UConn football coach Bob Diaco almost casually mentioned that returning team captain Marquise Vann was going to be involved in competition for playing time.

Sure enough, Matt Walsh began to take snaps away from Vann as the season wore on.

Today Diaco revealed that he expects Garrett Anderson to push incumbent Bryant Shirreffs for the starting quarterback spot.

"He is being pushed, there is still competition," Diaco said. "Garrett Anderson was awarded by the strength and conditioning group as the top performer in that whole phase dating back to January. He is not drifting off into the night, he is a high level competitor."

Anderson dropped 12 pounds going from 236 to 224 so he should be a little quicker.

The first practice is on Friday but the media will not be allowed in at that practice. We will get a chance to see the team practice next week and certainly the quarterback battle will be a topic story line.

Another comment worthy of note is Diaco predicting that Obi Melifonwu will be one of the highest-rated safeties in the 2017 NFL draft.

"Two years ago I am sitting here, nobody is really listening, I am talking about Byron Jones (being an elite pro prospect), nobody really paid attention but I tried to give you an honest evaluation," Diaco said. "Obi, and I fully expect him to have the kind of year that he should at safety, Obi is the best safety in America. This is a special, special young man, he will be either 'the' or 'one of the' top players evaluated in the NFL. He is an absolute spectacular safety prospect. I have coached several safeties in the NFL, they are Pro Bowl safeties  and he is absolutely in that conversation and in some case his tangible traits are even higher."

There will be much more on Melifonwu later in the week.

Before asking Diaco about Melifonwu I got his take on the way his players have transformed their bodies adding or losing weight depending on what was appropriate.

"You are talking about the winter system and summer system and at each turn we tried to turn the screw, we never went back the other way, the players just responded and responded," Diaco said. "We are at a point now where all of our skill players, not that you are trying to crack them (mentally) but you really couldn't, they are absolute machines. They did a great job and I am so proud of them. I mean it, this isn't coach speak, I believe we had the best sports performance collection of workers and people in America and I wouldn't trade them for any sports performance team in the country."

AAC notes: Coney receives scholarship; Weist a welcome addition

When Bob Diaco was hired at UConn, there were some concerns if he would place as much of an emphasis of recruiting in Connecticut as his predecessor.

Diaco has proven to not only is he willing to offer scholarships to top Connecticut players but he will also reward walk-ons with scholarships.

Sean Marinan, Jason Thompson and Nick Vitale are among the state products who came to UConn as non-scholarship players only to receive a scholarship from Diaco and his staff. Now you can add Bryan Coney, a receiver from Naugatuck to the list of former walk-ons.

UConn senior receiver Noel Thomas, speaking at American Athletic Conference football media day in Newport, R.I., mentioned that Coney recently received a scholarship.

"He's a guy who has been working his tail off, he is going to be good," Thomas said. "He is just a guy who comes to work every day, he always gives 110 percent and that is why he has did well."
The news about Coney came out when I asked Thomas for his reaction on the departure of receiver Frank Battle, one of four scholarship players to recently leave the program.  

"Each guy has their own plan, Frank being a receiver and in my group I definitely will miss them and he made a decision for him," Thomas said. "I hope he is successful wherever he goes."

WEIST MAKING AN IMPACTThere will be an interesting sidebar when UConn plays at South Florida on Oct. 15 since new USF receivers coach T.J. Weist is the former interim coach for the Huskies.

"He is making an impact right now," USF receiver Rodney Adams said. "He expects excellence. He is fond of he small details and that is something we are not used to. He is getting us ready for that."
Saying that Weist, originally brought to UConn as the offensive coordinator, is energetic would be a bit of an understatement. Adams laughs when he recalls his first meeting with his new position coach.

"The first time I met him I was thinking 'God he brings a lot of juice,'" Adams said. "He is a really cool guy, I love Coach Weist. There was a lot more juice, a lot more energy."

USF coach Willie Taggart worked with Weist at Western Kentucky so when the receivers' coach spot became available, he immediately thought that Weist would be a good fit.

"Every year when I find myself having to hire coaches, I always try to add guys who are going to try to take care of our players," Taggart said. "Our guys love him. He is very detail orientated and he makes the guys do exactly what they are supposed to do, I think that is one of the reasons why he is successful with what he does."

USF was picked to win the AAC's East Division while UConn was selected fourth. The UConn/USF game will be a part of a demanding three-game stretch when the Huskies play Houston, Cincinnati and USF.

UConn picked fourth in AAC East Division

Here are the AAC preseason polls
East Division
1. USF 164 (15 first-place votes)
2. Temple 144 (9)
3. Cincinnati 130 (6)
4. UConn 89
5. East Carolina 55
6. UCF 48

West Division
1. Houston 180 (30)
2. Navy 128
3. Memphis 124
4. Tulsa 92
5. SMU 65
6. Tulane 41

Look at UConn's depth chart heading into preseason camp

LT: Matt Peart; Steve Hashemi
LG: Tommy Hopkins; Tom Tabur
C: Ryan Crozier; Dan Oak
RG: Richard Levy; Brendan Vechery
RT: Andreas Knappe; Trey Rutherford
TE: Alec Bloom; Zordan Holman
TE: Tommy Myers; Chris Lee
RB: Arkeel Newsome; Ron Johnson
WR: Noel Thomas; Tyraiq Beals or Aaron McLean
WR: Hergy Mayala; Brian Lemelle
QB: Bryant Shirreffs; Garrett Anderson

DE: Cole Ormsby; Sean Marinan
DT: Florunso Fatukasi; Sheriden Lawley
DT: Mikal Myers; Kevin Murphy
DE: Luke Carrezola; Cam Stapleton
LB: Vontae Diggs; Omaine Stephens
LB: Matt Walsh; E.J. Levenberry
LB: Junior Joseph; Jon Hicks
CB: Jamar Summers; John Green
CB: Jhavon Williams; John Green
SS: Anthoy Watkins; Brice McAllister
FS: Obi Melifonwu; Aaron Garland or Marshe' Terry

K: Bobby Puyol
P: Justin Wain
LS: Jamar Summers; Alec Bloom
KR: Arkeel Newsome and Brian Lemelle
PR: Tyraiq Beals; Brian Lemelle

Monday, August 01, 2016

Returning UConn plays bulking up

The main focus whenever UConn posts its fall roster is to report who is missing and if there are any surprise additions. However, it is impossible to compare the rosters from the end of the 2015 season and beginning of the 2016 campaign and not be struck by the gains and losses in the weight column.

If my math is correct, I count 15 returning players whose listed weight is at least 10 pounds heavier than it was in the game notes for the regular-season finale against Temple.

Leading the way is Ian Campbell, who is making the move from tight end to offensive line. He has added 28 pounds and is now at 287. Fellow offensive linemen Bryan Cespedes and Matt Peart are up 26 and 25 pounds respectively and perhaps no player's weight game caught my attention more than tight end Chris Lee who added 21 pounds to get to 273 while receiver Aaron McLean is now listed at 220 pounds after gaining 17 pounds. On the other side of things, defensive lineman Felton "Trey" Blackwell and quarterback Garrett Anderson each dropped 12 pounds. It should also be noted that running back Ron Johnson, who looked a step quicker during spring drills, had dropped six pounds.

The key to the weight gains and losses is that the change in bodies is not simply about adding or subtracting mass but doing so while lowering body-fat percentage.

There's no question that it should translate to better production on the field for not only the individual players but the offensive, defensive and special team units as well.

Here are the players who have put on the most weight using the Nov. 28 game notes and the roster posted earlier today

OL Ian Campbell 259 to 287 (28)
OL Bryan Cespedes 287 to 313 (26)
OL Matt Peart 279 to 304 (25)
TE Chris Lee 252 to 273 (21)
WR Aaron McLean 203 to 220 (17)
OL Tom Tabur 283 to 300 (17)
DL James Atkins 267 to 283 (16)
WR Bryan Coney 188 to 203 (15)
DL Sheriden Lawley 275 to 290 (15)
LB Connor Freeborn 241 to 255 (14)
DB John Robinson 181 to 195 (14)
OL Andreas Knappe 311 to 325 (14)
DB Marshe' Terry 192 to 206 (14)

UConn's updated roster is up

UConn has posted its roster for the upcoming season.

The good news is that all of incoming recruits are present and accounted for but three players who could have played significant roles are no longer on the team.

Javon Hadley, who would have been the projected leader to be the nickel corner, tight end/h-back Billy Williams, receiver Frank Battle and defensive lineman David Ryslik are not on the roster and I was able to confirm that they are not with the program.

Hadley drew praise from UConn coach Bob Diaco after the spring game for his growth on and off the field, Williams had a really strong spring camp after being named the team's Scout Player of the Year. Battle fell behind his fellow freshman receivers during fall camp and was redshirted. He seemed to be losing reps to walk-on Bryan Coney during bowl week practices but rebounded well and has a strong spring camp. At the first practice during fall camp that we were allowed at (believe it was practice No. 6) Ryslik was working with the second-team defense as a true freshman which was rather noteworthy. UConn has some depth at all four of those positions but I think they all would have made it onto the field this season if they remained with the team.

There are 27 true freshmen on the roster, 16 scholarship players and 11 walk-ons. Tyler Coyle, who had some paperwork issues delaying his official arrival at UConn, is among the 16 signees with the team.

The walk-ons include plenty of in-state prospects - fullback Teddy Allmendinger (Avon), running back Rick Bartone (Derby), receiver Isiah Colebrook (Bloomfield), defensive lineman Andrew Migliacco (Granby), offensive lineman Harrison Newman (Hall), defensive back Dan Romanello (Canterbury), long snapper Jeffrey Sidebotham (Brookfield), linebacker Johnny Somers (Trinity Catholic) and cornerback Kyle Williams (Hamden Hall). Other Connecticut natives added to the roster include redshirt freshman offensive lineman Ben Bonvicini from Torrington, sophomore quarterback Brad Westmark from Brookfield, junior cornerback Terrell Huff from Windsor.

With the American Athletic Conference football media tomorrow morning, look for some more on the departures of Hadley, Ryslik and Williams. Of course, the focus at media day will not be on the upcoming season but the rumors of AAC teams being plucked away by the Big 12. There was an interesting story in the Sports Business Journal stating that Fox Sports and ESPN believe that the Big 12's plans to expand could make it less valuable in their eyes believing adding teams could water down the product.