Thursday, December 29, 2016

UConn's Auriemma on Randy Edsall: He certainly knows the neighborhood

Since I was down at Maryland, I made an attempt that get at least one high-ranking Maryland athletic department official to comment on former Maryland coach heading back to UConn but that never happened. I did, however, get UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma's take on Edsall returning to Storrs after tonight's 87-81 victory by the Huskies.

"I think for a lot of us it came as a little bit of a surprise but I think (UConn AD) Dave (Benedict) was looking for a certain type of coach, someone who has a certain understanding that this is not just any place. He has complete familiarity with what the deal is at Connecticut, what you have to do. He coached a lot of great players here, he has a lot of success while he was here. They say that you can never go home again but we are in a different league, it is a different scenario but maybe he can himself in the same spot he was in before. He certainly knows the neighborhood, that's for sure."

Edsall will be officially introduced as the new UConn football coach tomorrow at Rentschler Field at 11 a.m. and fans are invited to attend.

Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of covering two UConn teams is that occasionally there will be conflicts. Tomorrow is one of those times as I am headed to Orlando for the women's basketball game at UCF but hopefully I'll be able to provide some updates from afar.

UConn plays it safe by bringing Edsall back as football coach

It's been sort of hard to really get a read on David Benedict since he was brought in as UConn's director of athletics after Warde Manuel headed to Michigan.

There were times when he addressed the media including the annual women's football clinic when he entertained a variety of questions and had measured responses. He was made available to the media after the Big 12 opted not to expand and his answers to the questions were hardly revealing but rather appropriate.

So when the UConn football ended a disasterous 2016 season by losing by 38 points at East Carolina, by 21 at home against Temple, by 30 at Boston College and by 25 at Tulane, it was clear that it was going to be time for Benedict to show what kind of leader he is. If he allowed Diaco to proceed with minimal changes to his coaching staff or coaching philosophy, more seasons of futulity could be in the program's short-term future.

News came that Frank Verducci, demoted from his offensive coordinator position with three games remaining, would be relegated to a non-coaching position but nothing else was forthcoming. Certainly there must of have been more changes in the staff because what was in place was not working.

I believed that Diaco would be back unless he was resistant to Benedict's call for change and sure enough came the news that there would be no year No. 4 for Diaco.

In the press conference after the Tulane loss Diaco made it clear that he expected to be back.

"I have a contract until 2021 unless my calendar is wrong it is 2016, there is a spectacular amount of work that needed to be done that we are doing," Diaco said. "We are in year three, I am in year three, this is a big undertaking that we have made a lot of ground with. Definitely from a record standpoint nobody was expecting (a 3-9 mark) but we got the team back to a bowl in year two, ahead of schedule. There are a lot of things that have been fixed, a lot of things to continue to not have to rebuild that have already been done. We have to get better at playing football and we will. That fix, it kind of why that word came out 'easy' I didn't intend, it is not going to be easy but it is isolated, we clearly know it and see it so we are going to be able to fix it. I fully intend to be diligent in that process as soon as I step away from this podium, I am going to go full blast."

Diaco did just that, securing six commitments in December. However, the tide began to turn as Benedict went from believing Diaco deserved the chance to at least start the 2017 campaign calling the shots to deciding that a new leader was needed for the football program.

It was hard to fault Benedict for pulling the plug. The progress that Diaco said was there was really hard to see. The Huskies were fortunate to escape games against Maine and Virginia with three-point victories. The only game where the Huskies had things going on was during a 20-9 win over Cincinnati. In the last four games UConn completed fewer than 50 percent of its attempted passes as the Huskies were outgained 1619-884 and outscored 130-16. Prominent UConn football alumni were expressing their disgust on social media and fans sent a stronger message by staying away from Rentschler Field for the final two home games. From an offensive standpoint, the only constant in the five seasons I have been covering this team is the absolute pounding that quarterbacks Chandler Whitmer, Casey Cochran and Bryant Shirreffs have taken and I don't think proving how tough your quarterback is should be at the top of the most noteworthy offensive achievements.

Seeing Diaco's bend but don't break defense do plenty of bending and breaking last season as a lack of consistent pass rush and soft coverage in the secondary proved to be a recipe for failure. The offense also proved to be a low risk and low reward proposition. The decision to not rush the punter and settle for fair catches has been previously mentioned and criticized in this blog and in my stories.

Benedict's move was a bold one and one that couldn't have been done without the assistance of some boosters with deep pockets. The question was - now what?

Lots of names began being thrown around headlined by former UConn assistants Joe Moorhead and Todd Orlando. Funny thing is that people weren't lining up for this job. It was a different story when Diaco was hired. There was optimism that with some success on the football field than a Power 5 Conference would come calling and that would improve the profile of the program. Perhaps it will still happen but some of those doors have been closed. So there would be no hiring eye-opening candidates like Scott Frost or Charlie Strong who landed at UCF and USF.

Would the Huskies look at former Temple and Miami coach Al Golden, did Benedict have a coach in mind from one of his previous stops? The answer came in resounding fashion when Benedict opted to bring back Randy Edsall, who has won more games than any other football coaches at UConn, to coach the Huskies.

It's an interesting hire to say the least. In one aspect, the move makes sense. UConn simply can't afford to gamble and lose with an unknown commodity. Diaco was a well-respected defensive coordinator but some of the nuances of being a head coach seemed to elude him. It didn't help that he brought in coordinators who hadn't served in those roles either. So UConn went with a safe pick, somebody who knows what it takes to recruit at UConn and somebody who has had success here before. His teams have been able to establish a running game led by a solid offensive line so that will be task No. 1 for Edsall once he hires a staff and finishes strong in the final month of recruiting.

The other side of the ledger, however, is hard to overlook. Edsall's departure from UConn was well documented for how underhanded it was. A coach who made running back Jordan Todman announce to the team that he was turning pro did not follow suit by revealing his pursuit of the vacant Maryland job. The six years that have passed probably softened the blow to some UConn fans but there are going to be some who probably will never be in Edsall's corner again. Also, in a conference with some young, bright offensive minds, will Edsall have an offense that can be effective and explosive enough for the Huskies to be in contention for bowl games on an annual basis?

UConn went 9-4, 8-5, 8-5 and 8-5 in Edsall's final four seasons with four straight bowl appearances highlighted by the 2011 Fiesta Bowl appearance. In those four seasons UConn had four winning streaks of at least three games but since he left it happened just twice. UConn is at the point where an eight-win season would be a revelation.

A baseball analogy I would use for this hire if that rather than signing a middle of the lineup hitter, the Huskies went for a No. 2 hitter taking a guy who can solidify things in a variety of areas but isn't going to be in the running for MVP honors. The hire is not one that is going to wow the national media but it is a solid hire.

Time will tell how successful Edsall's second stint is but I feel pretty strongly that the end of the game situations will be handled much better with Edsall calling the shots. There will not be a repeat of the end of game disaster against Navy when Diaco said the play call from upstairs was changed because the players wanted it to be. If Edsall's history shows anything it is that he has a pretty good eye for hiring assistant coaches as his former assistants have found success at various levels. UConn officials also won't be cringing at the latest words to come out Edsall's mouth. Diaco had plenty of energy and enthusiasm but there were times when his superiors must have looked at each other and wondered if he said what they think he said. There will be no manufactured rivalry games, no proclamations about getting a player involved only to see him ignored in the game plan a week or two later.

I'm going to have more on Edsall's recruiting background in a future blog but from 2005-13 the Huskies had 21 players taken in the NFL draft, a pretty impressive number considering that Edsall and his staff weren't exactly getting the nation's elite players to come to UConn on an annual basis.

Ironically, I am currently in Maryland for tonight's women's basketball and headed to Orlando tomorrow for the Huskies' conference opener against UCF so I won't be at press conference where Edsall is introduced as the Huskies' new coach but I am curious to see what Edsall and Benedict have to say. I am interested in seeing how things will look as a UConn team with enough talent to make a run at a bowl game as early as next season.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Edsall coming back to take over UConn football program

Some of Randy Edsall's assistant coaches were being touted as potential candidates to become UConn's new football coach.

UConn AD David Benedict isn't hiring Joe Moorhead or Todd Orlando, instead he is bringing back the program's all-time winningest coach as the school announced that Edsall is coming back to be UConn's coach.

“It is an honor to have the opportunity to rejoin and lead the UConn program,” Edsall said in a statement. “I want to thank President (Susan) Herbst, Athletic Director David Benedict and the rest of the administration for believing I am the right person to build this program and develop its student-athletes. I look forward to working with David, our student-athletes and the entire athletic department.”
Edsall coached at UConn from 1999-2010, winning a program record 144 games. He oversaw the Huskies' transition from the I-AA level to jumping to the Football Bowl Subdivision level. All seven winning seasons that the Huskies have had at the FBS level have come under Edsall's watch.
“Coach Edsall is the right fit for our university, football program and student-athletes,” Benedict said in a release. “He led UConn to its most successful period in the history of our football program, and I believe he will provide consistent leadership and long-term success once again.”

When Edsall left UConn to take over the Maryland program shortly after the 2011 Fiesta Bowl without flying back with the team and telling his players of his decision to accept that he termed his dream job, it created a backlash from the UConn fan base.

After struggling with former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni and Diaco, a highly-decorated defensive coordinator, the UConn leadership group is going to bank on Edsall being able to return

UConn to a program that can annually make it into bowl games.

Edsall is currently the director of research - special projects with the NFL's Detroit Lions. Edsall won seven games in his third season at Maryland including a victory over UConn. The Terrapins started the 2014 season with a 4-1 record before going 3-5 down the stretch. An eight-game losing streak the following season brought an end to his time at Maryland.
“Certainly as I look back on it, I wish I had done things differently in that instance,” Edsall said in a statement. “I completely understand and respect that there are loyal fans, supporters and former players that still have not forgotten and it will take time to forgive. I have many incredible memories of my time at UConn and I hope the fans do too. It is my goal to get us back to that level of success and I hope that all of the Husky fans out there will be along for the ride.”
The terms of Edsall’s contract will include $1 million annually in guaranteed compensation, with the opportunity to earn bonuses based on performance and achievement, for a term of five years. The buyouts for the University and Edsall will mirror each other beginning at $3 million and decreasing $1 million each year to zero after the third year.
During his time at UConn the Huskies were known for having a punishing running attack and a solid offensive line. Offensive line struggles have been a constant for the Huskies since Edsall's departure. He also earned a reputation for hiring top-notch assistant coaches with former pupils Joe Moorhead and Todd Orlando among the names being touted as potential candidates for the UConn job. He also had 15 players he recruited taken in the NFL draft from 2005-2011.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Diaco's time is up at UConn

I have always believed that a coach deserves a four-year recruiting cycle when taking over a program especially one that was in as much disarray as UConn was gig when former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was brought in to turn things around.

However, I will say that I believe UConn AD David Benedict made the right choice in cutting Diaco loose or at least announcing plans to do just that on Jan. 2 so that the buyout drops down to $3.4 million from its current mark of $5 million.

Time will tell if this was simply a case of Benedict (who was not at UConn when Diaco was hired) was not the guy he thought could get things headed in the right direction or if it was more of a case of Diaco holding firm on how he wanted to run his program including the control of the staff and if that ultimately led to today's big news.

Diaco was operating as if he was coming back and the six commitments in the incoming freshman class this month is a perfect indication of that. I would hope that Diaco was operating in good faith at the time he hosted these recruits, offered and accepted their commitments and I do believe that is the case.

Before I left for vacation, I did some poking around and was hearing rumblings about alumni with deep pockets ready to ante up in order to get Diaco out but I wasn't ready to go to print with what was little more than idle chatter but obviously there was been unrest and dissatisfaction (to say the least) about how things transpired in year three of Diaco's tenure.

The ironic part is that a year ago today I was at Tropicana Field to watch UConn play Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl. The week leading up to that game was one of such positive vibes as Diaco guided the Huskies to a bowl game in just his second season on the stretch of a three-game winning streak. Now UConn is back in the market for the man who can get this program turned in the right direction.

Benedict has kept the media at arm's length, particularly since the end of the football season so it is hard for me to get a read on what direction he is going to go on his most noteworthy hire during his brief time in Storrs but he's made the rounds including stops at Minnesota, Arizona State and Auburn so we'll see if he pulls in a coach with ties to one of his former stops. It goes without saying that he knows he needs to act rather quickly on this to avoid a recruiting meltdown.

I am not going to turn this into a rip job on Diaco even though I've expressed concerns about the direction the program is going and was hardly a fan of his conservative coaching style. Obviously you don't accomplish the things he did at places like Cincinnati and Notre Dame without being a good football coach. Time will tell whether Diaco has what it takes to be a head coach but it was clear early on that he had a work to do growing into the head coaching gig.

There are some significant graduation losses most notably receiver Noel Thomas, safety Obi Melifonwu, punter Justin Wain, kicker Bobby Puyol, linebacker Matt Walsh, defensive tackle Mikal Myers and offensive linemen Rich Levy and Andreas Knappe.

One interesting aspect of today's events is that we will get to see what kind of recruiter Diaco was with another person at the helm of the UConn program.

There were some of his recruits in prominent roles - linebacker Vontae Diggs (the top returning tackler), receivers Hergy Mayala and Tyraiq Beals, tight end Tyler Davis, offensive linemen Matthew Peart and Ryan Crozier, running back Ron Johnson and quarterback Donovan Williams top that list. But many of his recruits were still in the developmental stage and just how good they are will go a long way in determining how quickly the new football coach can get things rolling.

Assuming they all stay, this rising senior class doesn't lack for talent. The true indication of how effective Tommy Hopkins was at guard came when he was lost for the season and the coaching staff scrambled to try to replace him (much like Tommy Myers the season before), Myers and Alec Bloom have been under utilized in the passing game while Arkeel Newsome and Johnson are a potentially explosive 1-2 punch at running back. Defensively, Luke Carrezola, Foley Fatukasi, Junior Joseph, Jamar Summers, Cole Ormsby, Diggs, Cam Stapleton (the most underutilized player on the team in my opinion) and Brice McAllister are all talented playmakers. When you factor in transfers E.J. Levenberry and Tre Bell and there could be nine senior starters. I liked what I saw from young defensive linemen Kevin Murphy and Sheriden Lawley during the season as they seemed to get better each week even if it didn't show up in the final stats on game days. There are concerns at safety but if that gets taken care of, this has the makings of a pretty solid defense.

Different regimes went with what they viewed as a safe hire in established winner Paul Pasqualoni and an energetic young coach in Bob Diaco. The hope is that Benedict chosen somebody between those two extremes and if it is not somebody with an offensive background, bringing in a top-notch play caller in addition to a strong offensive line coach would be pretty high on the priority list in my opinion.