Tuesday, September 20, 2016

UConn offense, Syracuse defense in search of early success

There are so many numbers that could be thrown out there with the high-paced Syracuse offense set to meet up with the bend but do not break style of defense installed by Bob Diaco at UConn. However, it is a different matchup that has caught my attention for Saturday's showdown of former Big East rivals.

I did some checking, OK I did lots and lots and lots of checking, and discovered that UConn ranks third from the bottom nationally in total offense in the first quarter and during that same period of time, only two teams have given up more yards than the Syracuse defense. I used that research for the foundation of the story I just filed for tomorrow's paper but here's a look at it.

TEAM     RUSHING              PASSING                         OFFENSE
                    Att-Yards-TD    Comp-Att Yards TD-Int    Plays-Yards-TD
Texas St      14--5-0                     8-12      59     0-0            26-54-0
Charlotte     20-19-0                  10-21      72      0-0           41- 91-0
UConn        30-67-0                     5-8       43      0-0           38-110-0
Rutgers        19-16-0                    6-17    104     1-1           36-110-1
UTEP           24-71-1                   4-13      41      0-0           37-112-1
Tulane          23-87-2                   5-7        30      0-0           30-117-2
Fresno          26-69-1                   9-18      73      0-1           44-142-1
LSU              14-57-1                  7-19       89     1-0            33-146-2
N. Texas       26-63-1                11-23     105     0-2            49-168-1
FIU               12-80-1                 14-24      93     0-1            36-173-1
TEAM     RUSHING              PASSING                         DEFENSE
                    Att-Yards-TD    Comp-Att Yards TD-Int    Plays-Yards-TD
Hawai'i         44-320-4               24-33 309 4-1                       77-629-8
Rutgers         43-302-3               12-22 262 5-1                       65-564-8
Syracuse       22-220-3               12-23 271 2-0                       55-491-5
La-Mon        47-299-3               15-24 166 2-0                       71-465-5
Kansas          40-325-1               11-21-139 2-0                      61-464-1
N IllIinois     31-154-2               14-24 290 2-1                      55-444-3
UNC             41-228-4                15-18 216 2-0                     59-444-6
Akron           48-168-2                19-26 275 3-0                     74-443-5
Kent             46-191-3                13-24 250 3-2                      70-441-6
Rice              35-179-3                12-19 255 1-1                     54-434-4
For those wondering, Syracuse's offense ranks 13th in total offense in the first quarter with 458 yards on 82 (yes 82) plays while UConn's defense would be somewhere in the middle of the pack giving up 335 yards.

UConn's Mikal Myers: "A tough guy with character"

I'll have to give it to Mikal Myers for delivering some memorable quotes to the media at today's press conference.

It's been somewhat of a struggle to get stuff from players, even guys I've covered for three years or even longer as I am sure they have been well schooled on the tactic of saying as little as humanely possible to the media.

Yet, there was Myers taking a page out of the Bobby Puyol school of actually seeming to enjoy talking to the media and showing personality while doing so.

Before the senior defensive tackle came to the front of the room, UConn coach Bob Diaco didn't need much prodding to rave about one of the two defensive captains.

"A plus. I have always enjoyed him," Diaco said. "I love being on the team with him because he is animated. He is tough. He is a tough guy with character. What surprised me is how good and strong of a leader he is. He is a magnetic personality. He has a lot of friends and a lot of people who like him and you want to be around him because he is magnetic, he is fun, funny but the moments when he talks, everybody gets quiet and they listen to him."

Some of Myers best stuff came on his relationship with roommate and fellow starting defensive lineman Foley Fatukasi.

"We fight like brothers, we love each other like brothers also, it has been great to be around Foley," Myers said. "If he is eating too much food, we have to go to price chopper and buy more food. He wants thre bowls of cereal instead of one.

"When he first came in, he had 1,000 questions for and I said 'I am young too. I have only been here for one year.' We have grown a friendship that I am happy about and happy to be his friend, he is a goo all around game and I love him to death.

"He is not messy, he just moves so slow If you have to go somewhere, his 15 minutes is like an hour. He moves on his own time and it bugs me to death. He is from New York so I am like 'come on, we've got to go.'

"I should be the slower one, I am from upstate, he is actually from the city an he doesn't get it."

Myers also recalled playing a state championship game at the Carrier Dome when he was at Newburgh Free Academy.

"It was like a Super Bowl venue, bright lights and it is time to play football," Myers said. "It was the biggest place I played in to that date and it was super exciting for our school and our city."

Monday, September 19, 2016

Injuries mounting in secondary for Syracuse

Syracuse posted its game notes for Saturday's game at UConn and there are some changes on the two-deep chart from the USF game.

The biggest news is that safety Antwan Cordy, Syracuse's second-leading tackler last season, is out for the rest of the season due to a forearm injury. It was also announced that starting cornerback Juwan Dowels (knee) will also miss the rest of the season. The good news is that both injured players are eligible to recapture the season of eligibility.

Rodney Williams is now listed as the starting free safety in place of Cordy (he wasn't even on Syracuse's two-deep chart last week) while Cordell Hudson is now listed as a starting corner in place of Dowels with Christopher Frederick moving into the two-deep chart. Williams and Hudson each started five games last season so Syracuse won't be breaking in newcomers.

Another interesting note regarding to depth chart is that last year's leading rusher Jordan Fredericks was listed as the primary backup to Dontae Strickland last week but now freshman Moe Neal is listed as the No. 2 tailback. Neal is third on the team in rushing attempts to Strickland and quarterback Eric Dungey and has 27 carries to 14 for Fredericks.

Freshman Sean Riley appears as the starter on both the kickoff and punt return teams. Riley has a team-leading 15 kickoff returns so he was already a key guy there and it could be merely the case of the depth chart catching up with what has been transpiring on the field.

Syracuse's notes as well as the AAC weekly released lists Dave Ryan, former NFL cornerback Corey Chavous and Melanie Collins as the broadcast team for CBS Sports Network's coverage of the game.

Other than a possible change at left guard depending on the health of Brendan Vechery, I'm not anticipating many alterations to UConn's depth chart.

The biggest news out of UConn today was that kicker Bobby Puyol was named the American Athletic Conference's Special Teams Player of the Week. UConn didn't even have a player make the honor roll in the first two weeks of the season.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

UConn football: Groundhog Day revisited

Jamar Summers comes up with another huge play
UConn football fans have earned criticism for being a late arriving crew. Well, with the way the first three games of the season have played out, I couldn't blame anybody if they arrived at Rentschler Field for Saturday's game against Syracuse with about 20 seconds on the clock.

If UConn coach Bob Diaco had called the timeout at the proper time in the season opener against Maine, each of the Huskies' first three games would have been decided on the game's final play. It seems like it was pulled right out of the script from the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day with the same events happening time after time or simply maybe it is theater of the absurd.

I did some checking and the only other FBS team that even comes close to accomplishing that feat this year is BYU as the Cougars won Arizona on a field goal with 4 seconds to play, lost to Utah when Taysom Hill's two-point conversion run was stopped with 18 seconds remaining and if BYU had recovered the onsides kick against UCLA after Hill's TD pass with 37 seconds remaining pulled the Cougars within three points, perhaps BYU could have approached the last play insanity that UConn and its fan base have experienced this season.

My thoughts and observations from yesterday's 13-10 game.

First, it was an absolute offensive disaster on both sides of the ball. UConn's first 10 drives (counting the one-play drive at the end of the first half) featured a field goal, six punts, an interception and fumble. Virginia marched 86 and 90 yards on its second and third offensive possessions to take a 10-0 lead. The next seven drives netted a combined total of 85 yards on 31 plays.

Things got so bad that Dan Orlovsky, one of the most prominent alums in UConn football history, called out his alma mater at halftime.

Does Uconn football know it's 2016 and teams score 30+ a game?!?!?!?
I feel like the O hasn't been good there in a decade😡

There are so many numbers that I could throw out there to attempt to quantify UConn's offensive ineptitude in the first three quarters but how about this one - in first quarters this season UConn has run nine plays on the plus side of the 50 and netted a total of five yards while opponents have 95 yards on 14 plays in UConn territory.

UConn's ability to make things happen in the fourth quarter salvaged another victory but this is not a script that will continue to be successful with tougher opponents coming up.

The news wasn't all negative. First, UConn picked up a win. Yes, it was a downright ugly victory but considering that the Huskies are coming off five straight losing seasons (something that has only happened two other times in program history since 1938) so there's no turning your nose up as any sort of victory.

Jamar Summers continues to prove to have exception instincts when it comes to breaking on a pass. His interception, coming the next play after Arkeel Newsome's fumble, was the biggest play of  the game. While I have no way of knowing how the would have played out if Virginia didn't turn the ball over there, it definitely swung the momentum back to UConn.

Trey Rutherford deserves a ton of credit. When starting left guard Tommy Hopkins was injured in the Maine game, I thought Rutherford might move back to guard to replace him since he was good enough to start at guard in the St. Petersburg Bowl. He remained at tackle in the two practices I attended last week and it wasn't until Wednesday when I noticed that he was working at guard as Brendan Vechery donned a red (no contact) shirt in that practice indicating that he was injured. Vechery did snap for the second-team offense but with the red shirt, he did not engage in any duties except snapping the ball. With the injuries on the interior of the line, true freshman Nino Leone was seeing some time with the second-team offensive line.

"A little bit of attrition at the guts of our line," Diaco said when I asked him about Rutherford after the game. "He (Vechery) was cleared for participation today but he really wasn't going to be 100 percent functional so in an emergency situation he would have been used. Kudos to Trey Rutherford, I look forward to watching his play, he was the next plan there as you work through Hop, Vech, (Dan) Oak, three interior offensive linemen who have not been available.

"He is a very aggressive player, he is big, strong and athletic and fast and development is on the (rise). The best thing to do to get ready is to play in the games. You can't get to be a veteran, mature functional football player without playing  in games so it was a grwt oportunity for him today."

 I liked what I saw from juniors Foley Fatukasi and Junior Joseph. Yes, they teamed up on a stop on fourth down in the fourth quarter and that play generated quite the buzz but at first glance I thought this was the best overall game of the season for both of them.

Also, I think getting the ball into sophomore receiver Hergy Mayala's hands is a must. He was targeted as much as anybody in the fourth quarter and his catch on the sideline looked impressive live but watching it on tape, impressive doesn't do it justice as he reached up with one hand so he could corral the ball and still got one of his feet in before heading out of bounds. While seeing Newsome rip off some runs is a good sign moving forward although he would like to have the fumble on the pitch back. It is troubling, however, that after catching 45 passes as a sophomore, Newsome has just two catches in the first three games.

Last but certainly not least, kicker Bobby Puyol continues to deliver and punter Justin Wain bounced back from a tough performance against Navy. I'll have more on Puyol in tomorrow's paper but he has made his last eight field goals and also had four touchbacks on four kickoffs.

On the other side, Andrew Brown and the rest of Virginia's front seven seemingly made a living in UConn's backfield. I didn't rewatch the entire game but on the play immediately preceding Newsome's 38-yard run, Richard Levy barely - and I do mean barely - touched Brown giving him an easy path to Newsome for one of his 3 1/2 tackles for a loss. Levy was also beaten on a sack by Brown on UConn's game-tying drive. Things seemed to get better as the same wore on but I have been extremely underwhelmed by the play of UConn's offensive line this season.

Bryant Shirreffs had an average game. He overthrew some passes and were times when he pulled the down and if not for four Virginia penalties on UConn's first two scoring drives, the Huskies likely would have been down 10-6 heading into their final drive of the game instead of the game being tied at 10. No penalty was bigger than the facemask call on Kirk Garner on a third-down incompletion in the end zone to Noel Thomas which would have likely forced UConn to try a field goal. I taped the game but Garner, who had man coverage on Brian Lemelle on the play, escaped from view when the penalty infraction took place so I can't speak to whether it was the right call.

Also, the secondary play will need to be much better with Syracuse coming to town as Eric Dungey ranks fifth in FBS with 91 completions. His two top receivers are West Virginia's Ervin Phillips (third nationally with 30 catches) and Amba Etta-Tawo (tied for fourth with 28 receptions). The 11 completions in the first quarter weren't as troubling to me as the 26-yarder on the final drive when the defense is designed to stop those throws.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

UConn's Melifonwu set to join select company

UConn senior safety Obi Melifonwu needs three tackles to become the 27th Husky with 250 career tackles.

This will be the 38th career start for Melifonwu and he could finish in the top five at UConn for career starts during the FBS era. He won't approach Moe Petrus' program record 51 career starts or Lawrence Wilson's 50 starts but could finish with as many as 48 starts in his career which would be tied with Mike Hicks for third since 2002.

Player    Years       Tackles
John Dorsey              80-83 495 
Lawrence Wilson      07-10 449
Troy Ashley              86-89 428 
Maurice Lloyd          01-04 412
Mike Jansen              84-87 394 
Vernon Hargreaves  80-83 393
Alfred Fincher          01-04 357
Paul Duckworth        90-93 354
Dennis O'Connell      76-78 341
Yawin Smallwood     11-13 332
Jamal Lundy              99-00 323
Jim Reppi                  90-93 313
Paul Zenkert              91-94 312
Brad Keatley             94-97 311 
Uyi Osunde               99-03 292
Mark Michaels          82-85 290
Abbott Burrell          86-89 288
Terrance Smith         00-03 280
Sio Moore                 09-12 274
Rob Belucore            89-92 274
James Hargrave        02-05 271
Jamar Wilkins           97-00 270
Rich Fenton               73-75 266
Andrew Adams         12-15 263
Lou Donato               81-84 257
Donald Thompson     73-74 250

Friday, September 16, 2016

UConn looking for faster starts

One of the trends I noticed from UConn's first two games is how well the Huskies play in the fourth quarter so I took some time trying to break down the statistics.

The first set of numbers that jump - and I do mean jump - out at me is that quarterback Bryant Shirreffs is 17 for 18 passing for 168 yards in the fourth quarter. The lone misfire was a slant attempt that was nearly hauled in by Noel Thomas against Maine.

Taking it a step further, UConn ranks 9th among 128 FBS teams with an average of 148 yards of total offense in the fourth quarter. Here's the breakdown with all the teams on the list having played two games except for Hawai'i which has three games played.

Team                Plays-Yd-Avg-TD
UCLA                54-403-7.5-4
TCU                   38-396-10.4-5
Purdue               50-386-7.7-4
Nebraska            43-350-8.2-7
Arizona St.         37-336-9.1-5
Wash. State        49-336-6.9-4
California           54-318-5.9-2
Missouri             48-307-6.4-2
UConn               45-296-6.6-1 
S. Alabama        48-289-6.0-2
Rutgers              44-283-6.4-3
Ohio                   40-275-6.9-3
Oregon               38-274-7.2-2
Ball State           37-273-7.4-3
Troy                   45-271-6.1-4
Texas Tech        41-270-6.6-4
Louisville          35-259-7.4-3
C. Michigan       25-258-10.3-4
Hawai'i              51-383-7.5-3
Clemson            45-250-5.6-3
A couple of notes worth mentioning. First, UConn joins Central Michigan, Louisville, Rutgers and UCLA as the only teams to average at least 125 yards of offense and less than 50 yards on defense in the fourth quarter while UConn is the only one of the 20 teams listed above not to have multiple offensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter. What all of this means tomorrow? Probably not a heck of a lot but perhaps some of you will find it interesting.

Here is a breakdown of how UConn fares in the American Athletic Conference

First quarter: 29 plays-89 yards (11th, ahead of only Tulane's 87 yards)
First half: 66 plays, 282 yards (11th , ahead of only Memphis' 172 yards)
Through three quarters: 89 plays, 420 yards (11th, ahead of only Memphis' 237 yards)

First quarter: 25 plays, 211 yards (10th, only UCF and Navy have given up more yards)
First half:  51 plays, 409 yards (10th, only SMU and East Carolina have given up more yards. UConn is last in yards per play allowed in both the first quarter and first half).
Through three quarters: 89 plays, 589 yards (8th).
Fourth quarter: 21 plays, 85 yards (3rd behind only Tulane and Memphis)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

UConn grooming Donovan Williams as quarterback of the future

The words uttered by coaches on national signing day can often be little more than idle chatter. If the words are taken at face value, each recruit signed would be a three-year starter and All-American candidate.

However, when Bob Diaco said, "there are others who could quarterback our team but Donovan (Williams) is "the" quarterback, he was brought in for that purpose. It could be argued whether he was a national recruit but he was close. He was a 20-40 offer player, a spectacular young man, high achiever in all areas. He make all the throws, athletic, fast and every time I see him he gets bigger" this was not just typical signing day hype.

Fast forward to this week and during both Tuesday's and Wednesday's practice and there was Williams gets reps with either the first or second team offense. He wasn't in there a ton but he was getting the chance to go up against the No. 1 defense in 11 on 11 drills and not as the quarterback of the scout team which would be normal operating procedure.

When I spoke with offensive coordinator Frank Verducci after Wednesday's practice, the first question I had pertained to Williams' chance to work with the top offensive units.

"Any benefit we can give him as far being exposed to the varsity to bring him along, that is what we are trying to do right now," Verducci said. "Obviously if there is an apocalypse plan because you have plans for everything ... so you want to get him exposed as much as possible. If he never plays a down this year, he is going to start in spring ball at a level so much higher than he would have been if we just put him on the scout team the whole year. He is obviously a great physical talent."

Let's be honest here, UConn does not want to put Williams into a game this season. In a perfect world, he gets to redshirt this season, he moves into the role as No. 2 quarterback next season and then takes over as the Huskies' signal caller during the 2018 season.

Williams roomed with starting quarterback Bryant Shirreffs during preseason camp which was another smart move since it allowed him to spend plenty of time with the team's starting quarterback and one of its four captains.

"Donovan's a great kid," Shirreffs said after Tuesday's practice. "A really good kid, he stays quiet but once you get to know him, you learn who he is. He is a really hard worker and a pleasure to be around."

Another youngster who earned praise from veteran players and coaches was sophomore receiver Aaron McLean. Both Shirreffs and senior receiver Noel Thomas raved about the block McLean threw on one play and he had a key 24-yard catch on the final drive of the game. What I didn't realize until talking to Verducci was that those were McLean's only two plays in the game.

"McLean is really the exceptional one because he played two plays," Verducci said. "One play he did a kickout block like a fullback and puts the guy on the ground. The other play, he catches a 24-yard pass so give credit to him for his preparation and staying in the game. He had every excuse to not be focused but when those guys got gassed on the two-minute drill, he goes in and makes a play. It is not a scripted play, it is a scramble, it is an adjustment and he makes an adjustment and makes a play."

Those are the types of plays that should get McLean more than two snaps of playing time in the future.

Verducci chose his words carefully about how junior running back Arkeel Newsome has been utilized in the first two games but it was noteworthy that Newsome's 10 touches in the Navy game were the fewest for the former Ansonia High star since the third game of last season when he had two carries and one catch in a loss at Missouri. Newsome averaged 22 touches per game for the rest of the season. Playing time is earned during practice and Newsome hasn't been flashing as much the practices this year as he did a season ago but it is clear he is still a key piece of the offensive game plan. I would expect him to get more than the 10 touches he had against Navy on Saturday as the UConn coaches hope that he can return to being one of the most explosive playmakers on the team.

"Ron has shown some growth and we are happy with that but for us to be as good as we can be, both of those guys have to have a contribution," Verducci said.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Thomas on record-setting pace at UConn

It's not very often when you click on the list of offensive leaders on the NCAA database and see a player from UConn near the top of the list.

Yet, two weeks into the season Noel Thomas is tied for third among FBS players with 20 receptions. That reception total, if it came at the end of the season, would have ranked in the top five at UConn in six of the last eight seasons. Off the subject, it should be noted that Bryant Shirreffs is third nationally with a completion percentage of 79.6.

As I mentioned in the story I wrote on Thomas for today's Register, there are 96 FBS players with at least 10 catches this season and Thomas is the only one to account for 50 percent of his team's receptions.

It got me to wondering where his numbers through two games would rank in UConn history. According to my research, Thomas broke Mark Didio's record of 16 catches through two games which was set in 1989 and matched two years later. Some of my research came back in 2013 when Shakim Phillips got off to a blistering start so I can't recall if I went back to the pre-Mark Didio days but the only player in the top 10 on UConn's season receiving mark is Keith Hugger, who had 57 receptions during the 1981 season so my apologies if he should be on this list.

Noel Thomas     2016 20-186
Mark Didio         1989 16-283
Mark Didio         1991 16-208
Shakim Phillips  2013 15-255
Alex Davis         1991 14-244       
O'Neil Wilson    2002 14-147
Geremy Davis    2014 13-209
Terence Jeffers   2007 12-121
Carl Bond           1997 11-240
John Fitzsimmons 98  11-203
Keron Henry      2004 11-183
Shaun Feldeisen 2002 11-171
Dak Newton       1996 10-240
Jason Williams   2004 10-200
Geremy Davis    2013 10-154

I certainly do not expect Thomas to end the season averaging 10 catches per game. There were some encouraging signs in the fourth quarter against Navy as sophomore receivers Hergy Mayala and Aaron McLean combined for 80 yards on four catches. I didn't have the space to include Thomas' thoughts on the development of the younger UConn receivers but here's what he said.

"It definitely is big for those guys," Thomas said. "The play Aaron made, I wasn't even on the field so that was a hell of a play by him. Hergy, (five catches) for 68 (yards) I believe, that is his career high and it is just going to get better from here. Aaron had two plays in the game (counting a memorable block) and both were highlights so that is awesome. It is huge because it shows the selflessness to go out there in the game and make a block then to not play until the last drive and come up big, that is awesome to see."

As I mentioned in today's story, Thomas also became the 18th UConn receiver with 100 career catches during the fourth quarter of the loss to Navy but just the sixth to accomplish the feat during the FBS era (Keron Henry and Shaun Feldeisen hit triple digits but played some of their career before UConn made the jump).

239 Mark Didio 88-91
200 Alex Davis 89-92
186 Glenn Antrum 85-88
173 John Fitzsimmons 96-00
165 Geremy Davis 11-14
161 David Dunn 85-87  
159 Brian Kozlowski 89-92
145 Carl Bond 95-98
126 Kashif Moore 08-11
118 Jason Williams 02-05
116 Ryan Griffin 09-12
113 Tory Taylor 95-98
111 Keron Henry 01-04
107 Shaun Feldeisen 00-03
104 Michael Smith 08-10, 12
103 Keith Hugger 79-82
103 Noel Thomas 13-present101 Scott Sweitzer 84-87


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Diaco gives his take on chaotic end to UConn/Navy game

Heading up to Storrs for today's football press conference to preview Saturday's home game against Virginia I knew there would be plenty of questions about the way the Navy game can to an end and boy where there ever.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing to come out of his question and answer session was that originally a pass play was called on the final play but the offensive players wanted to win the game with a power running  play.

There was actually a light hearted moment when Diaco, in the midst of giving his thoughts on what led to the decision making asked "You want me to keep going." The reply was an emphatic "yes" from the media in the room so he continued.

"From the 1/2 yard line, we call the play you are all wondering why we didn't call," Diaco said. "The launch pad wants what they want which is awesome. They want to muscle the opponent into the end zone and win the game. They are both good calls so we obliged the group and called the play they wanted call and then time expired."

I wasn't sure what Diaco's tone was going to be since he was understandably criticized for his team's inability to get more than one play off in the final 17 seconds after junior tailback Ron Johnson was stuffed on a 2nd and goal play. He stood at the front of the room and didn't shy away from answering any question on how the game ended.

"I take full accountability for not having another play," Diaco said.

"If you are looking for somebody blame, I am standing here ready to take it."

Diaco said that a different personnel package was in on a play from the 1/2 yard line than if the ball was spotted at the 2 after a catch on the sidelines by Hergy Mayala which resulted in burning the final timeout.

"It was tight again, it would have been at 1," Diaco said of UConn getting the ball snapped before a delay of game penalty was called. "I called a timeout at 3 (seconds left on the clock) it would have been at 1 but I think he would have gotten it off."

What was interesting was that despite those quotes above, Diaco never actually admitted to making the wrong decision other than saying if he had a chance to do it again, he would have done it differently. Even that was not during a moment where he questioned whether the right play was called but because it was the right way to proceed but simply because the play they tried was not successful.

"I take accountability for the fact that we played 146 plays, we definitely could have played 147," Diaco said. "Whether the 147th would have been incredibly productive or not, punch it into the end zone, we are cheering and hugging, that is written in the stars. Could we have played 147th play?

"Absolutely the offensive team wanted to run the ball. If the players want to believe they can execute a play, isn't that better than believing that they can't? I am excited about that. That is great stuff. That is an awesome thing to take accountability, have a swagger  believe that you can get something (accomplished). My only regret is we didn't get a chance to do it two times in a row."

Diaco went back to what he said after the game when he highlighted the risks of throwing the ball because it could be tipped at the line of scrimmage (something I don't recall happening previously during the game).

"You want to throw a pass there so you get two downs but if it got batted and intercepted at the
line of scrimmage, you'd be the biggest idiot in the world," Diaco said. "You are on the half yard line, I just watched a Super Bowl where they did that, what did all of those papers (write) at the end of that game? If we punch it in on the half yard line, it is one of the greatest comebacks in UConn football history and being that we didn't, we should have thrown the ball there. I don't have a crystal ball.

"It was well thought out; it didn't work out, I wish since it didn't work out, would we have done things differently? Absolutely, who would say no to that. There is not a moment of a lack of understanding, that never happened."

Diaco said there was consideration of putting the ball in the hands of Bryant Shirreffs, who set a UConn single-game record by completing 89 percent of his passes and is also a threat to run the ball in before the decision was made to run Johnson, the Huskies' most physical tailback, behind senior offensive linemen Richard Levy and Andreas Knappe.

"Whether you agree or disagree, I can explain in great detail way why we do what we did," Diaco said. "Some of these conversations end up being what came first, the chicken or the egg? If it works, you are really smart and if it doesn't you really aren't smart so all I can speak to is my reality and I don't mind doing that.

Diaco had good news to report on two of the players who missed the Navy game. Senior linebacker Omaine Stephens and offensive guard Tommy Hopkins both have lower-leg injuries and while Diaco stopped short of calling them day to day, there are both getting closer to returning to the field.

"He (Stephens) is on his way back," Diaco said. "Tommy (Hopkins) is on his way back. Tommy isn't necessarily day to day, I wouldn't put him day to day but we are really pleased with his progress. He is definitely on his way back."

While he wouldn't commit to staying with Tyraiq Beals ahead of Arkeel Newsome to return kickoffs alongside of Brice McAliister, he said he liked what he saw from Beals (with the exception of the one kickoff he fumbled).

There will be more on this later this week but I missed a couple of milestones as Noel Thomas had his 100th career catch (the 18th player in program history to hit triple digits).

Also, senior safety Obi Melifonwu is up to 247 career tackles putting him three away from being 27th player in program history with 250 tackles. I have to look it up but there is a chance that Melifonwu and Jhavon Williams can be the first set of defensive backs in the same class at UConn to combine for more than 400 tackles as Williams is up to 118.

I also did some checking and Matt Walsh's 11 solo tackles made his the sixth UConn player since 2008 with at least 10 solo tackles in the game and the others (Sio Moore, Andrew Adams, Lawrence Wilson, Scott Lutrus, Greg Lloyd) either played in the NFL or made it onto an NFL practice squad.

Here's the list.
Sio Moore 13 vs. West Virginia 10-29-10
Andrew Adams 12 at Memphis 11-29-14
Lawrence Wilson 12 vs. Syracuse 11-28-09
Scott Lutrus 12 at South Florida 11-23-08
Greg Lloyd 12 at Pittsburgh 10-10-09
Matt Walsh 11 at Navy 9-10-16Sio Moore 10 at South Florida 12-4-10
Lawrence Wilson 10 vs. Louisville 10-23-10
Lawrence Wilson 10 vs. Louisville 10-17-09
Scott Lutrus 10 vs. Oklahoma 1-1-11

Sunday, September 11, 2016

UConn's Summers delivers another big play

There are certain defensive players who just have a knack for being around the ball and UConn junior cornerback Jamar Summers certainly is one of those guys.

Last year his interception return followed by Bobby Puyol's extra point provided the only points for the Huskies in a win over Tulane and he was back at it on Saturday.

Navy was driving and in position to restore its two-touchdown lead in the third quarter when the Navy right guard Evan Martin ran right by 325-pound senior defensive tackle Mikal Myers in order to get to the second level of the UConn defense. Myers, who usually attracts at least one blocker on every play, was more than happy to have a clean shot at Chris High as he got the ball. Sean Marinan and Cam Stapleton quickly converged and the ball popped free from the Navy fullback. Summers failed to corral the ball on his first attempt but finally scooped it up and was credited with an 86-yard return for a touchdown.

"Just make a play, whatever it takes," Summer said after the 28-24 loss to Navy. "Coach calls this team to fight for every inch and it is an opportunity to change the game.

"I thought the play was going to be called dead but I didn't hear a whistle so I took the opportunity, picked it up took it to the house."

I did some checking and Summers is in some pretty select company.

First, it was the longest defensive touchdown by a UConn player since Darius Butler returned a fumble 86 yards for a score against Army back in 2005. It is also tied for the fourth longest defensive touchdown in program history. He is also one of 13 UConn players with more than one career defensive touchdowns. The list includes current NFL players Dwayne Gratz, Byron Jones and Darius Butler, former NFL CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson and former NFL linebacker Scott Lutrus.

When you factor in Summers' 67-yard interception return against Tulane, he joins North Haven's Jeff DeLucia as well as former NFL draft picks Lawrence Wilson and Yawin Smallwood as the only Huskies with two defensive scores of at least 50 yards. He needs one more defensive score to tie the UConn career record set by DeLucia from 1997-99 and matched by Gratz, a current Jacksonville Jaguars defensive back, with a touchdown during the 2009, 2010 and 2012 seasons.

Here is the list of the longest defensive TDs in UConn history
100 Paul Carney fumble vs. Massachusetts 1935
100 Dave Korponai interception vs. Rhode Island 1962
93 Pheno Tombari interception vs. Wesleyan 1928
86 Darius Butler fumble vs. Army 2005
86 Jamar Summers fumble vs. Navy 2016
84 Len Posner interception vs. Coast Guard 1936
80 James Rankin interception vs. Brown 1936
77 Louis Waggoner interception vs. Buffalo 1997
76 Bob Strickland interception vs. Middlebury 1945
74 Jeff DeLucia fumble Buffalo 1997
72 Cliff Hill fumble Buffalo 2001
72 Jeff Thomas interception vs. Boston University  1879
70 Jeff DeLucia fumble vs. UMass 1999
70 Byron Jones interception vs. South Florida 2014
69 Bob Donnelly interception vs.  Rutgers 1940
67 Jamar Summers interception vs. Tulane 11-7-2015
64 Yawin Smallwood fumble vs. Vanderbilt 2011


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Clock mismanagement comes back to haunt UConn this time

I truly thought nothing could top the images of Yale's game at Dartmouth several years ago when an official stood over the ball after a long completion by the Bulldogs should have set up a game-winning field goal or the call for a fake punt by the Bulldogs on 4th and 22 against rival Harvard.

However, it is possible that what I witnessed in the fourth quarter here in Annapolis, Maryland tops the "I can't believe what I just saw" list of my time covering college football games.

There were some remarkable performances by UConn players beginning with Bryant Shirreffs setting a UConn single-game completion percentage record by going 23 for 26. The 88.5 percent mark tops the previous standard of 82.9 by Dan Orlovsky against Navy in 2002. Noel Thomas had a career-high 11 receptions which it tied for the eighth best mark in program history. Luke Carrezola had a career-high three tackles for loss (the most for a UConn player since Graham Stewart's 3 1/2 against Tulane last year) while Matt Walsh finished with career-high 12 tackles. Still, it is impossible to write about Navy's 28-24 victory without focusing on some curious coaching decisions.

I realize that Bob Diaco is about playing the percentages and if you like, he often coaches not to lose but calling for a Ron Johnson run on 3rd and 7 from the UConn 8 with just over 5 minutes to play is not a play call that is going to be well received by many people. Predictably, Johnson was stopped well short of the first down and with UConn punting against the win, the result was a line drive punt by Justin Wain and a 26-yard return by Calvin Cass to set up what proved to be the winning score.

I asked him about the decision to run the ball there when a pass play would have given the Huskies more of an opportunity to pick up the first down.

"I don't have a great recollection of that last play selection, I was trying to get the first down and calling plays to get the first down," Diaco said.

You could even put on the second-guessing hat earlier in the game. Navy's triple option offense is going to move the ball so if you give the Midshipmen the ball at their own 25 or 45, is it that much of a difference? UConn had a 4th and 4 at the Navy 45 on the first drive of the game and punted. On the second possession the Huskies were faced with a 4th and 5 on the 41 and punted. Both times after Navy got the ball, it drove the field for touchdowns to go up 14-0.

That was merely the opening act.

With Navy playing the dreaded prevent defense (why do I have that quote flashing in my head that the only thing the prevent defense does is prevent you from winning), Shirreffs might have engineered his best drive as a Husky. He ran when it was right to do so and ran three times for 20 yards. However, he also stood tall in the pocket and connected with five different receivers to give the Huskies the ball at the Navy 1 with 17 seconds to play.

Here's where things got a little chaotic.

UConn had a timeout remaining meaning it could run or throw the ball with 17 seconds to play. Instead, the play clock was about to expire so the Huskies burned that last timeout when it would have been a more logical move to spike the ball since it was second down. I am sure Diaco's mind was scrambled with everything that transpired and the 30 or so minutes that elapsed before he made it into the interview room wasn't enough time for him to clear his head but twice he mentioned it was third down. It is a mistake the staff can't make because there's a huge difference between spiking the ball on second down and on third down. Then came the actual play call. At that point Ron Johnson had 33 yards and nine carries while Arkeel Newsome had 13 yards on nine rushing attempts. Shirreffs was making plays with his feet and arm and yet the ball was given to Johnson. The seconds ticked away as the UConn players desperately attempted to get to the line of scrimmage to run the second play called but time expired before the Huskies could snap the ball.

Just over a week after calling a timeout too quickly to give Maine some time on the clock to return a kickoff after Bobby Puyol's game-winning field goal and also taking a delay of game penalty at the end of the first half rather than give Puyol a shot at a long field goal or try to heave into the end zone, the clock mismanagement issues returned.

Diaco normally begins his postgame press conferences following a script of heaping praise on the players and coaches from the other team but this time he heard the clock management question and was ready with his response.

"To address the final moments of the game without talking about the other things that created that opportunity to have final moment," Diaco said. "The play to Hergy (Mayala), we didn't know
if it was complete, where, on the 1, on the half (yard line), incomplete so the clock is running down.

"We were not going to get the play off so I burned the timeout, third and goal from the 1, third and goal from the 1/2 yard line... We can't be third and goal from the 5 1/2, third and goal from the 6, whether it (the play clock) should have been reset. As soon as that (the timeout) happened, they review the play.

"Should the ball have been thrown on the third down to guarantee the fourth down final play? At that moment there are 17 seconds, how did 17 seconds run off the clock?

"We called two plays, we were going to run two plays but they (Navy's defensive players) wouldn't let everybody off the ground and that is kudos to them. I am not knocking them, we don't make
excuses. I am not making any excuses, I take full accountability. I am just describing the final seconds because I know you are going to ask because I know you should and I know UConn Nation wants to know as they should. Without even reviewing, I am just recapping in my mind what I lived in that moment. I am not sure

"Throw the ball, we are on the half yard line, throw the ball and it is picked, throw the ball and it is batted, why did you throw it? What are you doing? You idiot. I got all that (the criticism) and I am good on that."

The unfortunate part is that there are so many positives that could have been taken out of this game and some of them just may be used to aid the team's development. UConn was down 21-0 to Navy, yes the Navy team that sucks the life out opposing defenses with time-consuming drives. I did not see any scenario where the Huskies would have come back to take the lead but that is exactly what happened with the aid of a well executed fake field goal, timely third down conversions and a huge defensive play when Mikal Myers forced a fumble which Jamar Summers returned 86 yards for a score.

Obviously there is plenty more to get to in the coming days so stay tuned but as was the case when a coaching decision probably cost Yale the chance to beat Harvard back in 2009, you really have to feel for the players who despite some miscues put themselves in position for what would have been a huge victory.

"I have never really felt anything like that before," said senior receiver Noel Thomas, who had a career-high 11 catches. "We fought back at the end like we always do in practice, we work 2-minute drill, we fought hard and we make the play at the end."

Almost time to get rolling for UConn, Navy

It is about to become discovery time for the UConn football team.

I don't think I am exactly delivering stunning news to say that UConn would be wise to be a little better at getting off the field on third downs than in last year's meeting as Navy had scoring drives of 62, 85, 77 and 69 yards on the first five possessions in last year's game.

One of the major issues for the Huskies was how Navy was able to extend drives with third-down conversions as Navy converted on its first seven third down plays.

Here's the breakdown
Opening drive
3rd and 4 from UConn 34: Demond Brown 10 yard run
3rd and 2 from UConn 16: Offsides UConn
(Navy scored two plays later on Keenan Reynolds' 10-yard run)

2nd drive
Navy didn't need to run a third-down play as Navy scored on Reynolds' 19-yard pass to Jamir Tillman

3rd drive
3rd and 6 from Navy 44: Chris Swain 10-yard run
3rd and 1 from UConn 23: Dishan Romaine 3-yard run
3rd and 1 from UConn 11: Reynolds 7-yard run

4th drive
3rd and 4 from Navy 31:DeBrandon Sanders 7-yard run
3rd and 4 from Navy 44: Reynolds 11-yard pass to Dishan Romine
3rd and 8 from UConn 43: Reynolds tackled for 1-yard loss by Mikal Myers to set up punt

5th drive
3rd and 4 from UConn 38: Reynolds 10-yard run
(Navy would take 28-10 lead on Reynolds' 10-yard scoring run on first play of fourth quarter).

UConn held on the final three third down plays but it was too little too late.

With a much less experienced offensive unit (Tillman is the only projected offensive starter with more than five career starts) we'll have to see how well the Huskies do in forcing Navy to punt the ball.

There will be a live blog for today's game. Feel free to check it out.

UConn commits Swenson, Saulin shine in victories

Four of the eight players committed to UConn in the high school class of 2017 were in action last night.

The most noteworthy game involving a future Husky might have been the Loyola Academy/Mt. Carmel game in Chicago.

Ian Swenson had an interception and helped Loyola Academy, the No. 1 ranked team in the Chicago area according to the Chicago Tribune ratings, come up with a late defensive stand in a 35-28 win over No. 4 Mt. Carmel as Loyola Academy won its 20th game in a row.

Rob Saulin had five tackles and a seven-yard reception as Pennsville (N.J.) opened its season with a 28-7 win over Woodbury.

Other than seeing reports of a 53-yard punt to the 1, I don't have much in the way of statistics for Ryan Fitton as Staples used a strong second half to post a 38-13 win over McMahon in the season opener.

The news wasn't all good as Ryan Dickens' Raritan team lost 41-0 to Rumson.

Jordan McAfee leads his Everett team against perennial Boston area power Xaverian today at 1:30 p.m., Bebe Olanyian's Woodberry Forest squad meets up with Pinecrest today at 2 p.m.

Friday, September 09, 2016

UConn's Tony Watkins excited to be back in Maryland

The last time Tony Watkins stepped onto a football field in his native Maryland, his Fort Meade team was falling to eventual state champion Wise in the 2012 Maryland Class 4A semifinals.

After a season at season at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, a redshirt season with the Huskies and then seven games at UConn last season, Watkins is set to play in front of friends and family yet again when UConn plays at Navy on Saturday at 3:30 p.m.,

"I haven't played in Maryland since I was in high school so it will be great to be back to see my family,' Watkins said.

"My mom's already asking for tickets so that will be fun for my family getting to see me play."

Watkins grew up about 20 miles from the Naval Academy's campus so it is only natural that he got to see his share of Navy games.

"They were on TV when I was younger watching (football) on the weekends so it will be fun going back home for the first time in my college career," Watkins said.

Watkins was also part of a Fort Meade team that was 2-0 against teams from Annapolis when he was a senior as Fort Meade thanks to a 41-0 win over Annapolis HS and 14-0 victory against  Broadneck.

While there may be an extra jump in the step of Watkins and fellow Maryland native Chris Lee, his main focus is on having a stronger effort against Navy than he did in his first career start.

Watkins was beaten on the game-tying touchdown pass and missed a tackle on a 48-yard catch and run in a 24-21 win over Maine.

"There are plays I wish I could have had back, I know I could have done better but overall it was a great first game for the team, a lot of learning lessons for me," Watkins said. "It just requires more film study, get better every day.

"I look at it as I can get better on each and every play. I am just trying to get better each day."

Watkins learned of the importance of film study from Andrew Adams, the player he replaced in the UConn starting lineup. With Navy coming at UConn with its challenging triple-option offense, it will be even more important than normal that Watkins makes the right pre-snap reads.

"It is all about the preparation for it," Watkins said. "Drew basically lived in (the film room) during the entire year. He could read plays just because he watched a ton of film during the week so it is all about preparation."

UConn coach Bob Diaco, who is rarely critical of any of his players in his dealing with the media, admitted that other than safety Obi Melifonwu that the play of the other three starters in the secondary was "average."

Watkins' teammates are confident in his ability.

"He's played before," UConn senior linebacker Matt Walsh said. "He is a really hard-working kid, a hard-nosed guy and a great student of the game so he is kind of learning everything and picking it up fast. He feels like one of us out there."

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

UConn's Shirreffs named Golden Helmet winner

UConn junior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs was named the winner of the New England Football Writers' Association Gold Helmet winner (at the FBS/FCS level) after throwing for 162 yards and rushing for 95 in a 24-21 win over Maine, It is the second time Shirreffs has received the award and both times it came after a season opener as he was the recipient following last year's win over Villanova.

The 95 rushing yards are five shy of his career high set last year against South Florida.

Shirreffs now has three of the eight best rushing performances by a quarterback in UConn history. It was his fifth game with at least 75 rushing yards which is a record for a UConn QB. The previous mark of three was held by Madison's Ken Sweitzer, in his first season as the sideline reporter for UConn football games on the UConn Football Radio Network.

Navy announced that its two team captains Toneo Gulley and Daniel Gonzales will wear uniform No. 2 for the remainder of the season in honor of injured quarterback Tago Smith who played behind Keenan Reynolds for three seasons and then saw his season end with a knee injury in the first game of the season.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Mutual respect exists between UConn, Navy coaches

There's a lot of lip service that exists when collegiate football coaches discuss the team they are playing next and in particular the opposing team's head coach. However, when Navy's Ken Niumatalolo and Bob Diaco of UConn heap praise on their counterpart I am inclined to believe it is truly what they feel.

Diaco might have been more questions about defending Navy's triple-option offense than any other subject at today's press conference. It is a subject he knows well dating back to his days as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator.

"We kind of laugh about but as prepared as you are, they are still going to have one formation, one small little wrinkle one way they are getting their business done that is not even on your wallpaper board, it is not even on anything that you have watched," Diaco said. "If they have to do it 35 times in a row, they have to do it 35 times in a row. It is a very unique preparation."

Niumatalolo recalls the matchups between Navy and Notre Dame as well as last year's game against UConn when Diaco was at the forefront of explaining the nuances of the triple-option offense to his players.

"He is one of the best defensive minds, best football coaches in the country," Niumatalolo said. "I think he has done a really good job at UConn in changing the culture there. His guys, you can't trick these guys. Different things we do, a lot of it is deception, doing different things but his guys are always clued in with their keys, they know what they are doing. It becomes a real physical game because that is how they play. Sometimes we can get people by tricking them, do certain things to deceive them but with UConn and with Notre Dame over the years, his teams are always well prepared, assignment sound and are very detailed in what they do."

One of the things that jumped at me when I looked at Navy's game notes is that Niumatalolo, offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper and defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson have been on the coaching staff at the Naval Academy 19, 17 and 21 seasons respectively. If there is another team in the country with the three top coaches having been with the program that long, I am not aware of where that would be.

"It creates a circumstance  where at no point in time are you going to surprise them," Diaco said. "At no point in time are you going to create something that they haven't already seen, at no point in time do they not know instantaneously know where to go with the ball based on what you are doing."

Diaco also brought up the new NCAA rules limiting the areas when cut blocking is allowed which could come into play on Saturday since Navy utilizes cut blocking to run its offense. Now players who are outside of the tackle box can't come back into the area and block low.

"You no longer can come from outside of the offensive tackle whether you are pre-snap aligned there or not, the minute you extend outside the offensive tackle, you are restricted from coming back in and blocking below the waist which is brand new," Diaco said. "I could show a half dozen clips of our Mike (middle) linebacker being chopped at his knee by a front side slot (back) who pre-snap was tied to the (tackle) box but then extended outside, came back in and cut a scrapping linebacker, you can't do that any longer. I think it is all spectacularly good for American football."

While the Connecticut high school football season doesn't begin until later this week, some of UConn's commitments from other state have already started their senior seasons.

Getting stats on some of these games has been a bit challenging but I can report that cornerback Abiola "Bebe" Olaniyan had a team-high seven solo tackles as Woodberry Forest opened its season with a 37-35 victory over Bishop McNamara.

It is not the first time Olaniyan as he had six tackles and an interception in last season's 37-18 win over Bishop McNamara.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Navy QB Smith out for year; UConn's Hopkins sidelined for a bit

Tough news coming out of Navy with the local media there reporting that starting quarterback Tago Smith tore his ACL and is out for the remainder of the season.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo didn't have confirmation on the severity of Smith's injury when he spoke on the American Athletic Conference coaches teleconference this morning but spoke as if he was already preparing to face UConn without the quarterback who was finally getting a chance to run the show after backing up the record-breaking Keenan Reynolds.

Will Worth is expected to start at quarterback for Navy in Saturday's conference opener.

 On the UConn injury front, UConn coach Bob Diaco said that starting left offensive guard Tommy Hopkins could miss a few weeks including Saturday's game with a lower-leg injury suffered in the win over Maine. Brendan Vechery, who started all 13 games at center last season, is expected to take Hopkins' place in the starting lineup.

Vechery was listed as Richard Levy's backup at right guard in last week's depth chart but in the updated two-deep chart, Vechery moves over to be the starting left guard. Kyle Schafenacker remains the No. 2 guy at left guard while redshirt freshman Tom Tabur is now the second stringer at right guard. The only other change on the depth chart comes at linebacker as Jon Hicks is listed as Vontae Diggs' backup, a spot previously held by Omaine Stephens.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

A closer look at UConn's season opener

Noel Thomas was targeted 14 times in UConn's season-opening win.
It's taken me a little longer than originally anticipated to get around to going this but I wanted to watch a replay of the game before giving my thoughts on the 24-21 win over Maine.

My first thought was that I was disappointed from what I saw up front on both sides of ball especially in the first half. It started early as UConn's first offensive possession ended on a sack when three linemen went to block one player allowing linebacker Sterling Sheffield to come up the middle untouched for an easy sack. That type of miscommunication short circuited so many drives a season ago and seeing it happen on the fifth play of the season was concerning. For all the talk of being bigger, stronger and faster, I was expecting a more dominating showing from the opening snap.

Maine had 10 tackles for loss in the game and five other times, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs made positive yardage after being hit in the backfield. UConn coach Bob Diaco said it was a case of Maine "storming the castle." He is correct, Maine blitzed early and often but with UConn rarely throwing the ball down the field, there is little risk in a team bringing linebackers and defensive backs to either disrupt the running game or get to Shirreffs. I would compare it to giving an intention walk in baseball and seeing the batter hit a weak ground ball to second base. If the player who comes up after the intentional walk crushes the ball into the gap, teams will think twice before revisiting that strategy. It's the same thing in football. If there's little risk of having a ball thrown over your head, why not send guys into the backfield? Something tells me we will be seeing more of that by UConn opponents this season.

Another issue from a season ago also returned as other than Noel Thomas, no other wide receiver was targeted in the passing game until Brian Lemelle's huge catch with 21 seconds left to play to set up the winning field goal by Bobby Puyol. Counting the pass interference call drawn by Thomas, UConn threw the ball 24 times and 14 of those throws headed in Thomas' direction. Tyler Davis, who only recently moved to tight end, and Arkeel Newsome ranked second on the team with three targets each. Tight ends Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom as well as receivers Tyraiq Beals and Hergy Mayala combined to be targeted ONCE and that resulted in Myers' 15-yard reception. That simply can't happen. There are playmakers on this team and falling into a pattern of forcing the ball to Thomas is a recipe for disaster. Mayala in particular impressed me during the preseason practices I went to and he needs to be involved in the passing game more than just being a downfield blocker.

Some of the blame could fall onto Shirreffs' shoulders since I don't know who the intended target would have been on designed pass plays that turned into scrambles by Shirreffs. There are times when Shirreffs needed to take off and he saved a bunch of plays with his ability to escape the pass rush but there were other times when he gave up on the play way too early. I've said it before but Shirreffs' running ability can be one of his greatest attributes but also one of his greatest weaknesses. There's no questioning his toughness but taking some of the hits that he did on Thursday will take its toll moving forward. That balance of when the take off and make the most out of a broken play and when to extending plays so he can make throws down the field is something he will continue to work on.

There were also some costly blown coverages resulting in Josh Mack's 20-yard touchdown catch and Reed's 48-yard reception. Game management issues were there as well for Diaco. He has a conservative approach to football (see lack of punt returns) but still I thought giving Puyol a shot at a 52/53 yard field rather than take an intentional delay of game penalty so the clock would run out was a questionable decision as was the quick timeout after Shirreffs was instructed to get the best ball placement for Puyol's field goal was a head scratcher. Nothing came out of it on the final play but why not make Puyol's kick the final play of the game? Diaco said he called the timeout because the play clock was running down but watching the replay, that was not the case.

Heralded redshirt freshman Matthew Peart had moments when his inexperience showed but he also had his impactful moments as well. He had a key block (along with Myers and Bloom) on Johnson's 21-yard TD run and did well on Arkeel Newsome's scoring run as well.

With all the negatives I just mentioned, UConn did win the game so learning after a victory is so much better than having to make corrections after a loss.

I liked what I saw from the offensive line in the latter stages of the game even having some success with an unbalanced line in the second half which at least give the Navy coaches something extra to prepare for in practice in the coming days. Brendan Vechery, who came in at left guard for an injured Tommy Hopkins, deserves plenty of credit which he received when I asked Diaco about his performance after the game.

"Kudos to him," Diaco said. "He could have very easily pouted when Croz (starting center Ryan Crozier) came back and he started for 13 games as a starting center. He just went to work, he can work, he learned three positions, he can play guard, he can play tackle as the next man in at a lot of different spots. He went in on the PATs and field goals, kudos to him, his mindset and his preparation leading up to this point."

Diaco said that both Anthony Watkins and Brice McAllister would play at strong safety and he wasn't kidding. I attempted to break down the snap count for the two of them but with safeties not always visible in the TV broadcast, I was unable to do that. However, McAllister seemed to be out there more than Watkins as the game wore on. Watkins had a tough opener, he missed a couple of tackles including one that Jaleel Reed turned into a 48-yard catch and run. Reed also beat Watkins (with Obi Melifonwu arriving late) on a 40-yard touchdown catch. With McAllister looking like the more physical of the two and the Huskies facing Navy's run-dominated triple-option offense a week from today, I wouldn't be surprised to see McAllister in there early and often in the next game.

Justin Wain, with three of his five punts inside the 20, had a net average of 42.6 yards the best for a UConn punter since the 2013 game against South Florida. Bobby Puyol, in addition to his winning FG, had three touchbacks on five kickoffs as Maine's average starting position was its own 19 with the best starting position being the 27. That is a centerpiece of how Diaco wants things to go.

Davis looks like he could play a key role in the passing game (one that likely would have been filled by Billy Williams had he remained) and Vontae Diggs looked like a playmaker in his first career start. Also, while UConn didn't have a sack, I thought one of the key plays in the game was Luke Carrezola's pressure off the edge forcing an inaccurate throw on the drive when Maine had its potential go-ahead field goal blocked. Reed was clearly open on the play and if Maine quarterback Dan Collins had time to throw the ball, the Black Bears likely would have had a seven-point lead late in the game.

UConn only had three penalties in the game. One was the intentional delay of game referenced above, another was a rather questionable pass interference call on John Green and then Carrezola was whistled for a roughing the passer penalty. In the second half there were none of the "let's call a timeout before the play clock runs out" issues that hurt the Huskies last season.

With Navy coming up, any issues in the pass coverage probably won't be addressed until the preparation leading into the Virginia game since the focus will be on the discipline needed to deal with a triple-option offense.

While I am sure plenty of fans were upset with the opening game showing, it can be dangerous to place too much emphasis on the opening game. In 2011 and 2012, the Huskies won their opening games by a combined score of 72-3 only to limp to 5-7 seasons each time. Having seen a lot of different looks offensively in practices, I would say that the UConn staff wasn't rolling everything out there and there is hope that things will look better moving forward.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Experienced offense gives UConn reason for optimism

When I was researching the story I ran today on the more experienced offensive unit, one of the items that I found the most interesting was the difference in the number of starts of the projected starting offensive line compared to last year.

Math is not always one of my strong suits but if I added correctly, the starting offense in the 2015 season opener against Villanova combined to start 45 games with 32 of them coming from the offensive line. This year if the No. 1 offense in the two-deep chart starts tonight have combined for 128 career starts with seven players having started at least 10 games.

2015 (45 starts)                  2016 (128 starts)
QB Bryant Shirreffs 0       QB Bryant Shirreffs 12
RB Ron Johnson 5            RB Arkeel Newsome 13
WR Noel Thomas 5          WR Noel Thomas 17
WR Thomas Lucas 2        WR Hergy Mayala 5
TE Tommy Myers 1         TE Tommy Myers 9
TE Alec Bloom 0             TE Alec Bloom 11
RT Andreas Knappe 7      RT Andreas Knappe 20
RG Tyler Samra 13          RG Richard Levy 25
C Brendan Vechery 0         C  Ryan Crozier 3
LG Tommy Hopkins 0     LG Tommy Hopkins 13
LT Richard Levy 12         LT Matt Peart 0

Catching up with UConn's in-state commits

Obviously much of my attention has been spent on getting ready for tonight's season opener against Maine but I was also assigned a feature on UConn commit Ryan Fitton for our high school football preview package. A story on Fitton turned into a pair of features since  felt like I should do something on the other Fairfield County prospect (Omar Fortt) who has also committed to the Huskies. Another story is in the work with the aid of the quotes I compiled from these interviews but in the meantime here are links to the two stories

Branford's Brown, Stamford's Fortt ready to make some noise at St. Luke's and UConn-bound Fitton hoping to lead Staples back to state playoffs

Carrezola, Stapleton could form dynamic duo for UConn

There's plenty of things I'm interested to see take place during tonight's season opener against Maine. Right at the top of the list is just how the UConn coaching staff decides to use junior linebacker/defensive end Cam Stapleton.

If there was a player who had a more impressive spring game than Stapleton, his name escapes me at the current time. Yet, he heads into the Maine game still listed as a backup to Luke Carrezola.

Early in preseason camp I did notice Stapleton and Carrezola out on the field together and asked UConn coach Bob Diaco about the possibility to using the two together.

"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 backs 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."

So what does Carrezola think about the potential of being on the field at the same time as Stapleton?

"Me and Cam work on pass rush a lot together and seeing him on the field brings another spark to our defense," Carrezola said. "He is a great player. We push each other to get better."

UConn tied for 94th among FBS teams with 21 sacks a season ago and tied for 92nd with 67 tackles for loss. Carrezola led the team with 11 1/2 tackles for loss while Stapleton had four in a reserve role. They also combined for eight sacks so having the two of them out there together would help in the pass rush department.

"We are trying to wreak havoc back there, trying to get that quarterback to get the ball out early, mess up his timing, hit him and get him on the ground," Carrezola said.

Stapleton figures to spell Carrezola as he did last season but he is too good of a player to merely be a reserve. He will be up for whatever role the coaches have for him including playing alongside Carrezola.

"Me and Luke out there together, it is going to be something crazy, it is going to be a sight to see," Stapleton said. "It is great to be alongside another brothers like Cole (Ormsby), Foley (Fatukasi) and just thrash around, be great players."

Stapleton said it was not much of a struggle to learn how to play the outside linebacker slot opposite of Carrezola (one where Vontae Diggs is likely to be the starter).

"It is an easy position," Stapleton said. "It is basically like a defensive end, something I played in high school so being able to switch over and play defensive end. Playing linebacker, I love it. I never played it until I came to college and it is awesome to play now."

Speaking of Carrezola and Stapleton, they have the benefit of having not one by two defensive coaches who were on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot. Last year I caught up with defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter when he was on the 2015 ballot. This year he was joined by Vincent Brown and I recently got Brown's take on being recognized with a spot on the Hall of Fame ballot.

"It was a tremendous honor to be recognized for your efforts as a player," Brown said. "When I first found out, I was extremely humbled and honored, regardless of the outcome of the ballot there are some tremendous names on that list that I just feel honored to be mentioned in the same breath win."

At some point I will have to research this but I can't think there are too many college coaching staff with two assistants on the College Football Hall of Fame ballot.

"Pretty neat, huh?" Brown said. "Having the chance to work with Dex for the last seven years now, knowing what kind of player he was and an even better coach, well deserved."

Finally, feel free to check out my season preview on UConn finally having some offensive continuity and also a feature on UConn commit Ryan Fitton.

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