Thursday, December 29, 2016

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.


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