Only 44 days until the most anticipated rivalry in college football, the Civil Conflict! But wait, how can it be a rivalry if one of the teams didn’t even agree to it? Only Bob Diaco knows the answer to that question, and he’s been too busy bragging about his newly created rivalry to worry about that. But, if Diaco wants to pull off another upset of Central Florida, he has a lot more important matters to address, mainly finding out how to bounce back after a 2-10 season. Here’s a closer look at the key players who will help Connecticut try to do so.
Few teams had a worse quarterback situation than Connecticut did last season. Its passers completed 54 percent of their passes and averaged an awful 5.98 yards per pass. In shocking news, the Huskies managed just 15.5 points per game. Gone are Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran, who struggled mightily during their time in Storrs. In comes sophomore Bryant Shirreffs, an N.C. State transfer who drew positive reviews in the spring. Diaco said after the spring that Shirreffs has separated himself from junior Tim Boyle for the starting job. Shirreffs will be without two of last year’s best weapons, wide receiver Geremy Davis (a sixth-round draft pick of the New York Giants) and do-everything wide receiver/running back Deshon Foxx. Sophomore Ron Johnson will assume the load once again in the backfield after an average performance as a freshman (team-leading 429 yards, 3.8 yards per carry). Explosive fellow sophomore Arkeel Newsome (above) and short-yardage type Max DeLorenzo will compliment him. The loss of Davis and Foxx looks less daunting with junior receiver Noel Thomas ready to burst out. He had a three-game stretch last season where he caught 12 passes for 192 yards and four touchdowns. Those four scores led the team. Sophomore Thomas Lucas looks ready to make a leap and Dhameer Bailey is a dependable but not game-breaking slot man. The offensive line was a major problem in 2014, but returns starting tackles Richard Levy and Andreas Knappe, plus guard Tyler Samra. If nothing else, the line will have more cohesion.
The defense wasn’t as bad as a 2-10 team would suggest. Connecticut ranked 53rd nationally in yards allowed per game (379) and 40th in pass yards allowed per game (209). Despite the loss of cornerback Byron Jones (the Dallas Cowboys’ first-round pick) and three starters on the defensive line, the Huskies have the pieces to field another decent defense. Sophomore end Cole Ormsby led the team in sacks (3.5) and should now start at defensive end. Senior Kenton Adeyemi is the lone returning starter on the line. Those two will need to spark a pass rush that registered just 13 sacks in 2014. The Huskies bring back two talented linebackers in Graham Steward and Marquise Vann, who finished first and second on the team in tackles for loss. In the secondary, Jones may be gone, but the rest of the unit is still intact. A pair of productive safeties returns: senior Andrew Adams, who led the team with four interceptions, and Obi Melinfonwu, an imposing 6-foot-3 strong safety who is solid against the run and pass. Junior corner Jhavon Williams started opposite Jones and sophomore Jamar Summers started the final five games after Jones was injured.
Diaco made a few offensive staff changes after last season, appointing Frank Verducci as offensive coordinator while demoting Mike Cummings from the post. Diaco also shuffled some assistants’ roles, but didn’t hire or fire anyone. Verducci coached under Hayden Fry at Iowa in the 1990s, but has bounced around since and was most recently the offensive line coach at Northern Iowa. It’s not an overly inspiring hire to fix a sputtering offense. The defense should be effective enough, so the load falls on the offense? Shirreffs had a good sprig, but can he be effective in actual games, and can he sustain drives? The running game will help, but the offensive line will need to take a big step forward for the offense to approach respectability. Even with three starters returning, that’s not an easy task because every lineman struggled last year.
The Huskies have two difficult nonconference matchups at Missouri and BYU, plus AAC road games at Cincinnati and Central Florida. The schedule starts favorably with home games vs. Villanova and Army. Beyond those two, there isn’t an easy, even likely, win on the schedule. If Verducci can get any production out of the offense (which is nowhere near a given), the Huskies might manage a couple conference wins and look respectable at times. But a realistic expectation is around three wins.