After stringing together just two wins in Bob Diaco’s first season (similar to Chad Morris’ first season at SMU), the Huskies turned some heads with their noticeable improvements in 2015, including a win against then-undefeated Houston.
Now entering 2016, and returning the majority of starters on both sides of the ball, many are saying if this offense can make necessary adjustments, they could return to a second consecutive bowl game and continue their rise. The Huskies’ defense made tremendous strides in 2015 under the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator, allowing just 19.5 points a game after giving up almost 30 a game (29.8) the year before.
They still have a long way to go after averaging just 17.8 points a game on offense. Connecticut finished just 6-7 after losing to Marshall 10-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl, and if this team wants to improve on that, their offense will have to take make major strides.
Just like SMU, UConn’s offense will be led by a mobile transfer quarterback in Bryant Shirreffs (above). The junior amassed 503 yards on the ground and passed for 2078 yards as a sophomore while seeing the majority of playing time through the year. With 10 returning starters on offense, including their top passer (Shirreffs), rusher (Arkeel Newsome), and receiver (Noel Thomas), the Huskies have nowhere to go but up on offense. Newsome, named to the Doak Walker Award watch list, also was second in receiving on the team with 45 catches for 465 yards and 2 TD’s.
Many have also talked about tight end Alec Bloom as a possible break out player this year in the AAC after bringing in 22 catches for 314 yards in 2015. In all, UConn returns their top-six receivers, which bodes well for a team that averaged just over 180 yards per game in the air. Just like SMU, the Huskies struggled mightily on the offensive line in 2015; however, the team returns four starters, which can only be a positive. For this unit in 2016, the hope is that they can take a few steps forward to help take pressure off of their stingy defense.
Few defenses improved more than the Huskies did in 2015. They essentially took 10 points off their season average from the year before, and led the conference in defensive scoring. Although there were two games they gave up 500+ yards, they perfected the bend, don’t break mentality. This unit loses a few more players than their offense did, but they still return the meat of their defense.
Top pass rushers in Folorunso Fatukasi and Luke Carrezola, and their second-leading tackler in Junior Joseph all are back, along with three out of their four starters in the secondary (not to mention Jamar Summers and his 8 INTs).
The Huskies even added some size at linebacker with now-eligible Florida State transfer E.J. Levenberry. Despite losing their leading tackler in Andrew Adams, this defense still has plenty of experience and depth. Former fullback Matt Walsh should get the nod at middle linebacker after racking up 33 tackles and 4 TFL’s in his first year at his new position.
The Huskies, a six-win team last year, should have no problem repeating those numbers in 2016, but the key for UConn is taking a step forward. For that to happen, it starts on the offensive side of the ball. Now in his second year under center for the Huskies, Bryant Shirreffs must continue to develop into a more consistent passer. For that to happen, Shirreffs will need more time from his offensive line. The more time he gets in the pocket, the more guys like Noel Thomas and Arkeel Newsome will shine.
For the Huskies to have a legitimate shot at winning seven or eight games, this offense needs to score more points and convert on third downs— two areas they struggled mightily in last year. The Huskies OOC schedule isn’t particularly difficult, with games against Boston College, Virginia and Syracuse, but they will not have an easy time winning if they continue to score just 20 points a game. With the experience that this team is returning across the board, they should have a good shot at returning to another bowl game.