Saturday, July 29, 2017

A healthy Tommy Hopkins eager to return to field for UConn

Alec Bloom eager to celebrate more touchdowns as a senior at UConn

In Tommy Hopkins' first season as a starter he was arguably the most consistently effective offensive lineman during UConn's march to a bowl game.

Naturally, expectations were high coming in the 2016 season but Hopkins never really had a chance to build on his solid 2015 campaign. However, Hopkins was injured while helping clear the path for former teammate Ron Johnson for a 21-yard touchdown run in the 2016 season opener. Hopkins missed the next four games. After averaging less than 105 rushing yards per game during his absence, The Huskies ran for 188 yards and had 412 yards of total offense in his first game back as the Huskies picked up their lone conference win in 2016 by beating Cincinnati 20-9. In the next game UConn had a season high 306 passing yards but Hopkins suffered a season-ending injury in the loss to South Florida.

Hopkins was held out of spring drills as well but now he is healthy and eager to get the work as preseason camp got underway today.

"It was really tough," Hopkins said. "It was disappointing going back out there and having it happen again, it was like there was no way this could happen to me. The athletic trainers did a great job on the rehab but it was disappointing. I still tried to help out as much as I could watching film. If I see something, I see a good play I will let them know."

With a new coaching staff in place, Hopkins knows nothing is set in stone. These next couple of weeks will be a key time for him to prove he belongs in the starting lineup.

"I am focused on camp right now, going out there," said Hopkins, who ironically was cleared to practice shortly after spring practice came to an end.

"I think we have a pretty exciting group, I think we will be pretty good and I am excited to see and excited to work in camp, see it all come together."

Senior linebacker Junior Joseph started rattling off names of under the radar defensive players ready to make an impact and it didn't take long for him to mention true freshman defensive Omar Fortt.

Fortt, a former star at St. Luke's, enrolled at UConn for the spring semester allowing him to partake in spring drills. He took advantage of that time and saw time with the first team defense.

"I was coming out, being physically, take no prisoners and with everybody nurturing me, it gave me confidence with everybody around me telling me how well I was playing," Fortt said. "Summer ball, I am going to try to ball out as much as I can. I have a great guy in front of me in Tre Bell and I'm following him."

Senior cornerback Jamar Summers was also a mid-year enrollee who got on the field right away. He said he won't be surprised if Fortt does the same thing this season.

"That is my guy, Omar he came in mid year like I did and he definitely accepted the challenge," Summers said. "It is a transition from high school to college, he handled it well and he has been excelling. I am looking forward to see him during training camp compete and I'm willing coach him in whatever he needs help with. He is like me, competitive, goofy at times but he is willing to put the work in.

"The hard part about it is the academic side, from scheduling from the classes to doing the work, time management is a big thing in college but athletically, it is probably the best position you can put yourself in coming in mid year and getting a head start on everything as a freshman and seeing what needs to be done and how to handle things of that nature. It worked to his benefit, he is a step ahead of the freshman class that (just) came in."

Fortt had three tackles including a tackle for loss in the spring game and now he is looking to use his experience during spring practice to carve out a role on the 2017 UConn team.

 Alec Bloom was far away from San Francisco when he saw a report in early May that he was among undrafted players trying out for the San Francisco 49ers.

"I was about to take a final and I said this is definitely not true since I was sitting in class," Bloom said with a laugh. "I got a call and said I will take care of it when I get out because I am not out there."

It would not be a surprise to see Bloom in training camp in 2018 in fact it would be more surprising if that is not the case.

UConn's new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee came in from Auburn and in the last two seasons tight ends caught a grand total of two passes compared to 76 catches out of tight ends or players from other positions lining up at tight end. Bloom said it will be up to him, fellow rising seniors Tommy Myers and the other tight ends to earn their role in the new look UConn offense.

"We get out of it as much as we put into it," Bloom said. "If we show them in practice we are an asset to the offense, we are going to get more chances. Football is like life, if you put out more, you are going to get more chances and we are ready to show what we've got."

My main story off media day was focused on the fact that quarterback David Pindell and linebacker Santana Sterling's final game as junior college players happened to be against each other.

As is rather typical, I wrote way too long on the story so I wasn't able to fit all of UConn coach Randy Edsall's thoughts on the two of them into the piece.

Here are some quotes I thought people would enjoy reading.

"He (Pindell) has this quality about him where he is very cool under pressure," Edsall said. "Watching him on film and observing some things, I don't know if I've ever see a guy get the ball out of his hands so quickly. The other thing, I am jealous of him because I think he is 3.5 percent body fat but he is a good kid who has good talent. I go out watch and observe a lot of times and by doing that, I think you find out a lot about a lot of things. It seems to me like people have already started to gravitate towards him, Santana is a guy who I thought had a knack for making plays and being around the ball quite a bit.

"They are good quality kids. They don't say a lot, they just work and those is my kind of guys."

Edsall said the first five practices will be about getting all the players a chance to showcase what they can do. The first scrimmage of preseason camp will be on Thursday and after that he is hoping to have an idea of who should be playing with the first and second teams. Don't look for a depth chart to be posted probably until the Sunday before the Aug. 31 season opener although Edsall is hopeful that his coaches have a pretty good idea of the first and second units well before that.

Finally, I caught up with running backs Arkeel Newsome and Jason Thompson so look for a story on them in tomorrow's paper.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

This time Jasen Rose plans at staying at UConn for a while

Tommy Myers couldn't help but chuckle as the reporters converged on the table he was residing at during UConn football media day festivities.

Myers, one of the most engaging personalities on the UConn team, wasn't on the receiving end of very many questions. However, the player sitting to his right most certainly was and Myers' playful reaction was his way to telling his younger teammate to buckle up for a heavy dose of question answering.

Jasen Rose was a highly-touted recruit and two time Register All-State selection during his remarkable run at Southington High.

Rose was a headliner in last year's batch of incoming freshmen but his time at UConn was relatively short. He left early in preseason camp and put out a statement through UConn expressing his intention of stepping away from football for the foreseeable future.

Well, a year later Rose is back at UConn and recently was placed back on scholarship. Unlike the previous regime, there were no restrictions on players we could talk to. Not only was Rose made available to the media, UConn officials had the foresight to place him at one of the tables instead of being with a players sitting in a row of chairs who may or may not be approached by a member of the media.

"I think it was more of a personal thing, mentally I wasn't there so me not being there mentally, I felt like I wasn't getting anything positive out of it so I needed some time off," Rose said in response to inquiries of why he left UConn in the first place. Whatever happened then, happened then. Now I am back and I am happy."

Rose, who said he took a couple of classes at a local community college, realized very quickly who much he missed football and the structure that comes with being a member of a team.
"I didn't have a schedule, I didn't have anything to do and it hits you really fast," said Rose, who will play tight end at UConn. "It is like, 'is it something you really want to do?' As soon as you start missing it, you are like I want to get right back to it."

Rose wasn't sure what the reaction of his teammates would be considering his quick departure from the team a year ago.

"They welcomed me back with open arms which I really appreciated, I kind of walked out on them," Rose said. "Nobody has really said anything about it. They are happy to have me back and I am happy to be back."
Rose would love to get onto the field in the upcoming season but with seniors Myers and Alec Bloom, UConn is in pretty good shape for starters at the tight end position.

"It is really nice to have seniors like Tommy and Alec because they are there to help you," Rose said. "I sat down with them all summer and watched film with them."

Bloom was named to the watch list for the John Mackey Award presented annually to the nation's top tight end. He is thrilled to have Rose back in the fold.

"We are excited to see him back," Bloom said. "He is a good kid, a good player and we are looking forward to seeing what he's got."

Rose reached out to Edsall expressing the interest to return to the program. Edsall didn't ask many questions about what led to Rose's departure.

"That wasn't important to me," Edsall said. "The young man reached out to me saying he would like to be here, that was what was important to me. I wanted to know from him why he wanted to be here and how he would see himself being successful by being back here in this program so that was important to me. What had happened before, I laid out here are the expectations that we have in our program and if this is something that he wanted to do, I would be more than happy to welcome him back and be a part of our program and he would come back as a non-scholarship participant."

Rose's time as a walk-on didn't last long as Edsall gave Rose a scholarship between the spring game and American Athletic Conference media day in Newport, R.I.

"I see Jay coming out from underneath by the weight room and the Shenkman facility and starting to walk the step," Edsall said. "He walks across road and he had the financial aid agreement. He talks that financial aid agreement and give it a kiss. He is pumping his fists. Seeing him acting like that, it told me that what I did was the right thing and that young man appreciated it. Right then and there I knew I had made the right decision and I knew we weren't going to have any issues moving forward.

"He came back, he got involved in those things and in terms of what I felt was best for our program
seeing what he was doing, I felt like he had earned that opportunity."

Rose is still emotional when he reflects back on that day.

"I knew when I came back that I was going to earn everything I was going to get," Rose said. "I can't say I expected it to come as soon as it did but when it came, it was an unreal feeling, surreal."

UConn's Levenberry looking to return to field this season

When news broke that linebacker E.J. Levenberry suffered a torn ACL on April 1, the feeling was that he would miss the entire 2017 season.

However, at Friday's UConn football media day, Levenberry said he expects to play this season.

"My knee has been progressing, I am running now so I feel great," Levenberry said.

"I am definitely playing this year in my mind. It's up to the trainers when I can come back."

Levenberry has been working diligently to return to the field.

"Pool work, field work, training at home when we have breaks so it is a combination of things," Levenberry said. "My knee, I feel no pain in it right now. I started running again, I was sprinting today so it is all good."

So when does he hope to return to game action?

"Whenever the trainers say I can come back but I want to come back, help the team and contribute this year," said Levenberry, who had 37 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and 3 1/2 sacks last season. "I understand you can't rush those types of things. Physically, I feel like I can go out and play but it is also about being smart."

Levenberry still looks stunned at how he suffered the first major injury of his football career.

"We were right here, we were doing punt drills and my knee just popped," Levenberry said. "I tried to wrap somebody up and it just popped, it was non contact."

Levenberry made his debut at UConn during the 2016 season after sitting out the 2015 campaign following his transfer from Florida State. With the way Matt Walsh, Junior Joseph and Vontae Diggs, he didn't start any games for the Huskies.

"I learned patience, I had to patiently wait my turn," Levenberry said. "When I was on the field I feel like I made a lot of plays and it was unfortunate what happened here. I have gone through a lot of adversity throughout my college career so it is nothing I can't bounce back from."

Some new names on UConn's updated roster

UConn posted its roster for the start of preseason camp not too long ago.

Names of  the players previously reported to be joining UConn in the fall are on there - Kyle Buss,  Kevin Mensah, Zavier Scott and Santana Sterling are on there. But there are four new names to report as well freshman receiver Jerrell Chaney, freshman punter Luke Magliozzi, freshman defensive back Ben Pryor and junior defensive lineman Carlton Steer.

Some newcomers including quarterback David Pindell and tight end Jasen Rose were on the previously-posted roster so that is why they were no listed above. One of the best news items to report is that everybody on the previous roster is present and accounted for on the upcoming roster.

Here's some info on the aforementioned players

Kyle Buss had 50 catches for Robert Morris during 2015 season. He only played two games last year and had two catches.

Don't have much information Jerrell Chaney. No hometown is listed on the roster but believe he comes from Albany (NY.) High School.

Luke Magliozzi comes to UConn from Australia. Don't have much info on him but here's a link to a youtube video of him punting

Kevin Mensah is a running back caught up in red tape as he transferred high schools as a senior forcing him to miss two games before being cleared to play

Ben Pryor originally enrolled at Sacred Heart University

Zavier Scott is a receiver who like Mensah reclassified into the Class of 2017 and is immediately eligible

Carlton Steer is a former tight end at Central Connecticut State who had two tackles during the 2014 season and one reception in 2015.

Santana Sterling, a linebacker, originally enrolled at Arizona State before landing at Mesa Community College.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wilbur Cross OL Travis Jones commits to UConn

John Acquavita knows a thing or two about developing major college linemen.

During his successful run at Hyde, Bruce Campbell started at Maryland before playing three seasons in the NFL, Richard Kittrell was one of the state's most heavily recruited players 15 years ago before committing to Iowa while Martin Parker won a national championship at Richmond before spending time in NFL camps with multiple teams.

On Thursday morning the Wilbur Cross High School football coach said that UConn commit Travis Jones, "could probably be the best (lineman) we've ever coached."

Acquavita said that Jones is 6-foot-5 and 352 pounds and the starter for the Governors on both sides of the ball as a sophomore and junior who recently ran a time of 5.0 in the 40-yard dash. As a junior he had 45 tackles and a sack on defense and on offense he anchored a line that helped the Governors average 5.3 yards per carry.

"I think the sky is the limit with this kid,' Acquavita said. "I think if he continues to grow, there is no telling what he can do on a football field. He is very good, a very talented athlete for a guy that big."
Acquavita wasn't sure where the All-Area lineman projects to play at UConn.

"I think probably offensive guard but nobody has ruled out the defensive side of the ball either," Acquavita said.

Jones, who previous had committed to Rutgers, also drew significant interest from Boston College, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Temple.

Jones is the fifth member of the Class of 2018 from Connecticut joining the Capital Prep duo of Khyon Gillespie and O'Neil Robinson, East Hartford's Kevon Jones and Cheshire Academy's Dillon Harris. Jones is the first lineman among the known UConn commits in the current recruiting class.

Here are some videos of a Wilbur Cross game I covered when Jones was a sophomore.

"He had a good amount of offers and had some options," Acquavita said. "From the get go I wanted him to feel things out, meet the coaches and as it got down towards the end, he was asking me what I thought. I think to be part of a rebuild and be at the foundation level of a rebuild ... If this should take off and be something special, to be an in-state guy and be a part of that could really be a great thing for him to be a part of that and be a face of a program that is in the rebuild process. The support system of having coaches, family and everybody here right at your fingertips for anything you need is kind of a nice feeling."

Jones' senior season begins on Sept. 9 when Wilbur Cross plays at Foran.

Monday, July 24, 2017

National TV time tonight for former UConn captain

Former UConn offensive lineman Alex Mateas is slated to start at left offensive guard as defending CFL champion Ottawa faces Toronto tonight at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised live on ESPN2.

Ottawa leads the CFL with 1,755 passing yards and 10 passing TDs in the first five games of the season which is something new for Mateas. When he was a senior  at UConn the Huskies ranked 113th among 128 FBS teams in passing offense.

Ottawa's defense has been an issue giving up 28.4 points per game leading to a 1-3-1 start.

Mateas is one of four former UConn players in the CFL. Defensive end Jesse Joseph and long snapper Martin Bedard play for Montreal and defensive lineman Reuben Frank was recently signed by Calgary.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Edsall weighs in on UConn's QB situation, Newsome's work load

Arkeel Newsome will be key piece of UConn's offense this season however
the role of quarterback Bryant Shirreffs is still to be determined for 2017
Randy Edsall's opinion regarding the battle for the starting quarterback position hasn't changed since spring practice wrapped up. That certainly makes sense since there hasn't been a practice since that time.

Bryant Shirreffs has started 21 games. He ranks in the top five in UConn history in passing efficiency (4th, 124.95) and total offense (5th, 4917 yards) and is in the top 10 in plays, passing attempts and completions and net passing yards.

Donovan Williams started the last three games and after a knee injury sidelined him in spring camp, Edsall said he is healthy again.

They certainly have the experience at UConn but certainly junior college transfer David Pindell is going to compete for the starting job and was brought here to do just that.

"It's a wide open competition," Edsall said. "The guys know that and whoever the best guy is, that will be the guy to go out there. (Pindell) is a guy who understands the game, the presence that he has about himself has been really impressive watching him and how he goes about his business. He is a hard worker, he puts the time in to be the best he can."

When Edsall spoke about the other quarterbacks, true freshman Marvin Washington's name was mentioned but Brandon Bisack (who received plenty of work in the spring) and true freshman Jordan McAfee were not. What does that mean? Not a heck of a lot. Pecking orders are not determined by quotes at a media day function a week and a half before the first practice of fall camp. Pindell, McAfee and Washington have not thrown a pass in an official practice at UConn. Something tells me that leaders will emerge early in camp because there aren't enough reps to go around for six quarterbacks.

I'm not quite sure yet if we're going to be able to witness practice or not. We were able to see more practices when Bob Diaco was the head coach than we did during Paul Pasqualoni's time at the helm of the Huskies. I did some coverage when Edsall was UConn's coach in the past but it was more of just showing up for interviews or games. Something tells me I will not be at a heck of a lot of practices this season but time will tell.

Players report on July 27 and there will be a media access period the next day with the first practice slated for July 29.

Stay tuned.

Edsall made it clear yesterday that Arkeel Newsome will not be challenging UConn's single season record for rushing attempts of 367 set by Donald Brown in 2008.

He said Newsome won't be a guy getting 25-30 carries a game. I'd look for him to be in the 15-18 range but to get plenty of balls thrown his way to try to get Newsome out in space. As a point of reference, Brown had nine games with at least 25 carries in 2008 and two years later Jordan Todman had at least 30 carries in five of the last six games. That was a different era and the offense being run by coordinator Rhett Lashlee will not resemble the one Edsall's teams ran in his previous stint. In his final three seasons UConn completed fewer than 15 passes 23 times and posted a 15-4 record when throwing for less than 150 yards. The Huskies will be passing early and often during the upcoming season and while I expect Newsome to be a major piece of that, I don't anticipate seeing him approach 300 carries in his final season at UConn. However, 200 carries, 50-60 receptions and some work on kickoff returns would still allow him to be a featured part of the UConn offense.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Wrapping up AAC media day festivities

Getting around to wrapping up today's American Athletic Conference media day festivities a little later than anticipated but the set up in Newport didn't really make sense for me to work from there so I did most of my work after driving two hours to my home.

Not a ton of news to come out today.

Randy Edsall did say he gave Southington's Jasen Rose a scholarship last week. Rose was one of the biggest names in the 2016 recruiting class but he left the program just a few practices in last summer. He returned to the fold and will compete for playing time at tight end.

"He reached out and if he wanted to be a part of that, great," Edsall said of Rose's return to UConn. "He did and he is back with us now. I put him on scholarship a week ago. I'm looking forward to having him out there competing."

There was no two-deep chart to report on today and Edsall said he might not do one in time for media day on July 28. It's quite possible the first depth chart won't appear until shortly before the season opener against Holy Cross.

Edsall hinted at the possibility of some additions to the roster which is better than suggesting that some names will be coming off the roster.

Edsall was asked which position/positions concerned him. Punter was his first response and he said there's still question marks on the offensive line (stop me if you've heard that before).

"Who the punter is going to be?" Edsall said. "We're OK in field goals and PATs. We have a couple of positions on the offensive line that have to be sorted out. Having (center) Ryan Crozier back is going to help, that is going to give us some leadership and experience. Who is going to step in the offensive line positions. And to see who some of the young guys have matured since spring."

Edsall said he'd like to see more consistent leadership in the secondary. Linebacker Junior Joseph rattled off the names of defensive backs Brice McAllister, Omar Fortt and Tony Watkins are under the radar defensive players to keep an eye on.

If all of Edsall's decisions are as wise as the one to bring Joseph, tight end Tommy Myers and defensive end Luke Carrezola, it could be a memorable season. They are three of the most engaging players on the team. I would have added Foley Fatukasi as well and speaking of Foley, he was named to the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy which recognizes work in the community.

My focus was on the connection between Pennsylvania natives Carrezola and Joseph so look for that story on the Register's site shortly.

One funny moment came when I was wrapping up an interview with SMU receiver Courtland Sutton. When UConn headed down to SMU in 2013, the 1989 UConn at SMU game was mentioned quite frequently by media in Connecticut including myself since it was SMU's first victory after the program received the "Death Penalty." I asked Sutton if that game is talked about and he wasn't aware of it so that answered my question. Myers and Joseph were a few feet away looking to say hello to Sutton and Joseph thought I was referencing the 2014 game when a winless SMU team beat UConn in the regular season finale. I laughed as I mentioned that I was talking about the 1989 game.

Didn't get around to as many non-UConn players as I would have liked but had enjoyable interviews with the very personable Sutton as well as the USF duo of Auggie Sanchez and Quinton Flowers.
Sanchez said he has been in contact with Joseph via Instagram since last year's UConn/USF game and I including that info in my story.

For people who worry about such things, UConn was picked sixth (and last) in the AAC East Division preseason poll. Once you get past USF, UCF and Temple, the other three teams in the division could have landed in any order.

Verne Lundquist was the master of ceremonies. More than a few players and media members got photos taken with him which he willingly obliged. He also had question and answer sessions with all the head coaches. I caught some of the answer from Edsall about him not monitoring the social media accounts of his players. Unfortunately, I stopped taking the video just before he went off about needing to stop offering recruits as such a young age and doing so when they were juniors.

As I mentioned, UConn's media day is in a week and a half so keep an eye out for more stories then.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Some catching up to do

After taking the last two weeks off, it's time to catch up on what I missed.

Obviously, the biggest news in the last few days was that Connecticut ethics lawyers ruled that Randy Edsall violated the state's ban on nepotism with the decision to not only hire his son Corey as an assistant coach but having it written into his contract.

UConn officials dispute the ruling saying that the deal to hire the younger Edsall was done before Randy Edsall officially started work. They can state their case on July 20 when the issue goes up for a vote. If the ruling stands, Corey Edsall's stint as UConn's tight ends coach will be a one-year deal as the initial ruling declared no action would be taken if Corey Edsall is not reappointed to the position for the 2018 season.

As a state employee, Randy Edsall is held to a different standard than if UConn were a private institution. It would see as if the ethics committee could use their time a little more productively than concerning themselves with the appointment of an entry-level assistant football job. On the other side of things, Randy Edsall's assertion that he would never be his son's supervisor seems silly since a football coach is responsible for every position on the field. If Randy Edsall believed that one of the tight ends should be seeing more playing time or featured more in the passing attack, he should be able to make that happen. The thought that he would need to go through Beth Goetz to make that happen is rather foolish.

With American Athletic Conference football media day set for Tuesday in Newport, R.I., it will be interesting to see how Randy Edsall handles inquires on the matter. I would have to think he will respectfully decline to answer such questions.

Speaking of media day, hard to dispute Edsall's choice of players to accompany him - linebacker Junior Joseph, defensive end/linebacker Luke Carrezola and tight end Tommy Myers are three of the team's most engaging personalities.

Carrezola and Myers are also among 26 UConn football players named to the 2016-17 American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team. Fellow 2016 starters Alec Bloom, Folorunso Fatukasi, Tommy Hopkins and Bryant Shirreffs were also honored for their work in the classroom.

Bloom and Fatukasi were selected to the preseason watch lists for the major college football awards. Bloom was one of 55 players named to the watch list for the John Mackey Award. Sort of surprised not to see Myers name on that list.

Fatukasi was included on the watch list for the Outland Trophy and Nagurski Trophy. Linebacker Vontae Diggs has been nominated for the 2017 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team,
Diggs has served as a mentor at events hosted by the Goal Line Project, which provides guidance to inner-city students, read to local elementary school students through the Husky Reach literacy program and encouraged his teammates to band together to make holiday cards for local students.

Next, according to their social media posts, former UConn players Teddy Allmendinger and Nazir Williams are headed to Trinity College and Coffeyville Community College. Also, per social media posts, former Robert Morris receiver Kyle Buss is planning to transfer to UConn.

Last but certainly not least, Reuben Frank was not only signed by the CFL's Calgary Stampeders but also had two tackles in Friday's 30-23 loss to Montreal.

Sure there were other items I missed but will catch up on more news later.