Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Can Auburn connection provide punch for UConn's offense

Saying that Rhett Lashlee and J.B. Grimes have difficult jobs could go down as the largest understatement of the year.

When they were on the Auburn coaching staff together they helped the Tigers win the SEC title and earn a spot in the BCS national championship game as Auburn ran for 4,596 yards and 48 touchdowns during that magical 2013 season. Now it could be argued that other than head coach Randy Edsall, there probably aren't two UConn coaches who will have more eyes on them than Lashlee, the offensive coordinator and Grimes, the offensive line coach.

When I mentioned to UConn director of athletics David Benedict (who worked with both of them at Auburn) than Grimes may have the toughest job on the staff considering the horrendous level of play of the UConn offensive line in recent years, he wasn't ready to agree with me.

"It is going to require a herculean effort for all of our coaches to come in overcome a transition and overcome the fact that we've had Randy be the fourth coach in six years that's led this program," Benedict said. "That is a challenge in itself. I think it is going to be collective effort and it is not going to be on one particular coach but I will tell you this, if we needed a coach to take on more challenging positions, you want a guy like J.B. who has over 40 years of experience and probably has been in this situation before."

The one complaint from UConn fans in the last couple of years that I've heard the most was the pedestrian manner with which the Huskies played on offense. While other teams in the American Athletic Conference have adopted the philosophy that playing fast on offense is the way to go, there was Bob Diaco encouraging a style of offense that probably would have worked in the 1950s or 1960s. Lashlee made it clear that those days are over.

"We are going to play fast, we are going to try to dictate the tempo the best we can, play to the strengths of what we have until we recruit to the level to get where we want," Lashlee said. "We are going to be exciting to watch and hopefully we can score some points.

"If you were to ask our guys to get into a huddle, after a couple of weeks for us they wouldn't know how to do it. No huddle, we believe in tempo. I think it is exciting for the guys to play, exciting for fans. I believe in balance, being able to run and throw the football. I don't mean 50-50 distribution, 40 runs and 40 passes. I believe balance is being able to take what the defense gives you. One game they may be defending the pass and you have to run the ball more. The next game they may be loading up to stop the run and we will throw it and we are able to do so.."

Lashlee, who opened a few eyes when he left Auburn to take the same job at UConn, said that the offense the Huskies will be running is already being run by AAC teams. I followed up and asked him which programs in particular does he think are most similar to what he will run at UConn.

"(SMU coach) Chad Morris worked at Clemson and took the offense from Clemson and just won a national title so we run the same offense," Lashlee said. "Mike Norvell at Memphis, we all come from that tree so there will be a lot of similarities hopefully in the success rate too.

"It's not about how many plays you have, how many plays you can run well? We have to figure out what we do well, what our guys can do well."

Lashlee said he hasn't been pouring over game film to get a sense of what he has to work with but has viewed cut-up footage of individual players. He wants to use the spring and fall camps to make his observations on the UConn offensive personnel.

He also said he won't be surprised if no starting quarterback is announced until fall camp especially since three players who could compete for the starting job won't be enrolled at UConn in time for spring drills.

"It is going to be an interesting spring," Lashlee said. "It will be interesting to see what Bryant (Shirreffs) and Donovan (Williams) can do, we have two or three new guys coming in but they won't be here until the summer.

"The best guy is going to play whether he is one of the four guys here currently competing or whether it is one of the three guys coming in new, it will probably will be one of those deals where  we will be in fall camp before we figure it out this year."

I was also curious about the role the tight ends will have in the offense. Despite recruiting plenty of tight ends, Diaco and his staff didn't utilize them too often in the offense. I looked at Auburn's stats and saw that in 2013 there were only 12 passes caught by tight ends (11 by current NFL tight end C.J. Uzomah), there were 13 the following year, none in the 2015 season and two last season.

"We do have a lot of tight end bodies on our roster and if they become some of the better players on our roster, we need to use them," Lashlee said. "Some of that (lack of use for the tight ends in the passing game) was maybe difference of opinions and I believe if we have tight ends we should use them. We have had success in tight ends. you look at Charles Clay, C.J. Uzomah so we kind of like those hybrid guys who can live in both the run game and pass game and are a little bit of mismatches for us."

Now onto Grimes. UConn does have five offensive linemen who have between 9-15 career starts but that doesn't mean they will be the starters when the Huskies open up against Holy Cross.

"We don't have a depth chart right now," Grimes said. "We'll know a lot more after spring ball is over.

"There will be frustrating times, I can predict that it is going to be frustrating but you don't ever go negative on those kids. They are what we've got. We can't go out on the waiver wire and get new players, We've got some new guys coming in and we will see what they can do when they get here but they are not going to get here until June so the guys we have to win with are here right now pretty much. That may change over the course of fall camp but you can't go negative on these kids. You to have to coach them in a positive way but deal in realities. Don't try to tell something that isn't true, always deal with realities."

So what does Grimes look for in a successful offensive lineman?

"There are seven factors that are very critical in an offensive lineman, is he big enough, is he strong enough, is he quick enough, does he have balance, can keep his rear end off the ground, does he have a football IQ and two most critical factors are character and toughness, what kind of character does that kid have. Is he a kid who can take good, hard, fair coaching or is he going to back away from good, hard, tough coaching? Is he a tough guy? Does he like the game? The bottom line is if you don't love it, don't do it. It is not worth it, go get a job waiting tables, be a newspaper man. Character and toughness are the two most important factors. Then when you get those other five (parameters), you don't always have to have all five of those, you can have three of the five and be OK, be an efficient player. All of those are critical factors you look for in an offensive linemen."

I didn't get to all the coaches but do have stuff from running backs coach Terry Richardson and defensive coordinator Billy Crocker that I'll pass on in the coming days.

The first spring practice is March 21 with the spring game set for Friday night April 21 at 7 p.m. The first practice in fall camp will be on August 4.


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