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.
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.