Saturday, January 14, 2017

Taking a look at UConn's returning offense

OK, so UConn now has an offensive coordinator and for the first time in a few years it is somebody with experience calling plays.

Based on what I've seen posted on social media, Husky fans are pretty fired up about 33-year-old Rhett Lashlee leaving Auburn to try to get one of the nation's worst offenses going. What will we see from UConn's newly-hired offensive coordinator? It's too early to tell. It would be easy to look at Auburn game film and saw he's going to run a certain style of offense but the reality is it would be hard to know where head coach Gus Malzahn's influence ends and where Lashlee's input begins.
Randy Edsall is known for having a run-dominated offense in his first stint at UConn except when record-breaking quarterback Dan Orlovsky suited up for the Huskies so it will be interesting to see what the parameters that Lashlee will be working under.

What I can speculate a little more is what Lashlee will have to work with although I've been doing this long enough to know that attrition and position changes are rather inevitable when a new coach comes in and especially when he brings in a new staff with him.

Obviously many of you saw Arkeel Newsome become UConn's leading rusher for the second season in a row, Hergy Mayala emerge as the second receiving option after Noel Thomas and Matthew Peart work his way through his first season as the Huskies' starting left tackle. The reality is that the short-term success of UConn's offense could ride on some players who have seen limited snaps or redshirted a season ago.

Quayvon Skanes came to UConn with plenty of buzz and UConn coach Bob Diaco declared that he would play as a true freshman either as a returners on special teams or as a receiver. Like much of what Diaco promised, that never happened and that is not a bad thing. Considering that Diaco pretty much made the concept of returning punts obsolete in his final two seasons, it would have been a shame to waste Skanes' freshman season as the No. 4 or 5 receiving option and to go back for fair catches. He should have a chance to show what he can do during this upcoming season. Glastonbury's Keyion Dixon is another receiver worthy of mention. Dixon was named the team' Look Team Player of the Year which is an indication of how well he practiced during his true freshman season. He is a rangy and dynamic athlete who could also work his way into the rotation at receiver along with returnees Mayala, Tyraiq Beals, Aaron McLean and Bryan Coney.

Of course no mention of UConn's offense would be complete without mentioning the team's most troublesome spot in the five seasons I've been covering the team - the offensive line.
What I noticed is that as the season wore on is that tackle Cam DeGeorge and guard Nino Leone worked their way onto the second-team offensive line. Neither of them were going to play but with the graduation of three-year starters Andreas Knappe and Richard Levy, I would not be the least bit surprised to see them push hard for those starting spots. Peart, center Ryan Crozier (who had to play a new position and do so while coming off a serious knee injury) and guard Tommy Hopkins (who was missed desperately when he went down early in the season) should be centerpieces of the line. Trey Rutherford and Brendan Vechery had their struggles a season ago but have some moments of solid play in each of the last two seasons while Shelton's Steve Hashemi is another lineman to keep an eye on.

UConn has plenty of experience returning at tight end as Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom will be seniors, Tyler Davis made the most of his move from quarterback to the tight end/h-back position and Chris Lee also saw some time while we'll have to see if Zordan Holman works his way into the rotation. One thing I noticed is that Auburn ignored the tight ends in the passing game even more than UConn did with two catches by tight ends in the 2016 season and none during 2015. Even with future NFL tight end C.J. Uzomah on the roster, Auburn only had 13 catches out of the tight end position during the 2014 season. Obviously since Randy Edsall's son has been hired as the tight ends coach, it is not a position that is going to be ignored but I am rather curious to see how the fullback or fullback as Teddy Allmendinger saw time there as a true freshman walk-on, h-back and tight end positions are worked into the offense.

It wasn't always easy to pick out the true freshmen at practices because they would be on the look team and would wear the uniform numbers of the team that UConn was facing that week. However, it wasn't hard to figure out when true freshman running backs Ja'Kevious Vickers and Nate Hopkins had the ball. I've gone on the record as mentioning both of them and after pretty much being limited to just using Newsome and Ron Johnson at tailback (with former walk-on Jason Thompson getting a few carries), there will be more options. Vickers is the smaller of the two but was listed at 193 pounds so he's not exactly a scat back and I would say he did something at every practice I attended that caught my attention. Hopkins came inn weighing 225 pounds and he was among the finalists for the Look Team Player of the Year.

In a perfect world, I would be discussing Donovan Williams as a quarterback prospect coming off a redshirt season but obviously that is not the case as they threw Williams into the fire for the final three games in a lost season. Williams, playing behind a porous offensive line, struggled in the games. In practices he had his moments. He has the ability to make plays with his feet and throws a pretty good deep ball. If Diaco had returned he made it clear that Williams was going to be UConn's No. 1 quarterback but now we'll have to see if former starter Bryant Shirreffs can win the job back assuming that he returns for his final season.

With the defense returning experienced players at every position but safety, there's definitely an expectation of that being a pretty solid unit during Billy Crocker's first season so once again we are left wondering if the offense can make enough plays to win games. After watching UConn's ultra conservative offensive play calling under Diaco's watch, there is some reason for optimism with new blood pushing for roles and the coaching staff being overhauled.

Stay tuned


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