Tailback Situation Slightly Puzzling

STORRS – The offensive storylines surrounding the University of Connecticut football team are starting to sound like a sports-oriented remake of the movie Groundhog Day. First, there's the three-quarterback situation that refuses to go away. We remain at status quo as the Huskies prepare to play Iowa State Friday night at Rentschler Field.

Then there's the repetitive tale of senior tailback D.J. Shoemate. Stop us if you've heard this from coach Paul Pasqualoni before.

"Well, I'm optimistic that this rest we've given him two weeks in a row is going to pay off for him," Pasqualoni said at his Monday press conference. "I'm looking for D.J., by Thursday of this week, to be 100 percent."

Sounds like Pasqualoni can't wait to get Shoemate on the field, doesn't it? But isn't that the same thing we heard at the weekly press conference before the Vanderbilt game?

I'm having a hard time following and/or understanding this. I don't think there's any cover up going on – or a more serious injury – but I honestly can't figure out what is going on.

It feels as if a piece is missing.

Shoemate, the choice of the coaching staff to start at tailback throughout spring practice and fall camp, injured his right ankle in drills in Storrs on Sept. 1. The irony of that moment was that without tropical storm Irene, the Huskies would have played their opener against Fordham at Rentschler Field that Thursday night. Instead, the game had been postponed to Sept. 3 and the Huskies were still practicing.

It made perfect sense to hold Shoemate out of the Fordham game, a winnable contest against an overmatched team. Shoemate said he was about 75 percent at kickoff. Even though the media didn't know, Pasqualoni told Shoemate before the game he wouldn't play. Redshirt freshman Lyle McCombs got a chance to sparkle and he did, picking up 141 yards and four TDs on 24 carries in the understudy role.

But last week was different. Shoemate said he was 90 percent on Tuesday. Pasqualoni gave every indication on Thursday that Shoemate would play – if not start – against Vanderbilt.

"A player here, in our system, does not lose his position because of an injury," Pasqualoni said. "So when that player is 100 percent healthy he comes back to where he was when he got hurt. And then we go from there with it."

But Shoemate didn't practice Thursday, and by Friday night, we are told, Pasqualoni had decided to start McCombs. Once again, Shoemate stood on the sideline the entire game – even though he took part in pre-game stretching and drills.

McCombs rushed 27 times for 118 yards, but 74 of those yards came in the first quarter. After the 24-21 loss to Vanderbilt, Pasqualoni told UConn beat writers who made the trip to Nashville that Shoemate didn't play because he was "92 percent" and needed more time. (Never heard a number like 92 percent but evidently that's what the coach said.) Shoemate told Desmond Conner of The Hartford Courant that he went to Pasqualoni at halftime, with the Huskies trailing 14-3, and said he could play. He said Pasqualoni's response was to "stay warm and ready" but Shoemate was never called upon.

The entire burden of the running game was left on McCombs, with a young team on the road for the first time, facing a Southeastern Conference team. I asked McCombs when he was told that Shoemate would not play. He said, "I didn't know at all."

On Sunday, Pasqualoni reiterated that Shoemate wasn't 100 percent.

"I was going to use him if we absolutely had to use him," Pasqualoni said. "The urgency of getting him in never really arose. So we just stayed status quo with an effort to give him this week to get back to being 100 percent. I think we have a chance for that to happen this week."

Maybe this is just the way Pasqualoni handles injuries. Since he is in his first season at UConn, we are still learning his priorities and how he makes decisions. But I think many other coaches would have looked at the 14-3 deficit and given Shoemate an opportunity to make something happen – at least on one series, to see what might develop.

Everyone talks about how Shoemate's downhill style of running could help the Huskies. We haven't seen it yet. It could spark the offense, which is really struggling. None of this is a vote against McCombs. He has been outstanding but he can't do it alone, especially at this stage of his college career. And quarterback Johnny McEntee could have used a boost at Vanderbilt too. Instead, UConn lost and McEntee put the blame entirely on his shoulders.

"It's not only going to help me, it's going to help our whole team," McCombs said of Shoemate's eventual return. "He brings a different dimension to our offense."

The Huskies could use a lift against the Cyclones Friday night. The sight of Shoemate sprinting on the field for the first offensive series might be what the doctor ordered. Splitting the carries between McCombs and Shoemate might give UConn that "Thunder and Lightning" attack they've been talking about.

That sounds like a good counter to a talented group of Cyclones.

"At the end of the day, to have two different style of backs – which is what we would have – presents an issue for the [opposing] defense," Pasqualoni said. "We'll have to figure out what this two-back system will be.

"The first thing we've got to do is get D.J. back to 100 percent. I'm optimistic, but I don't have a crystal ball either. We've got to make sure he's ready to go and then it will be a good problem to have."

And then, maybe this Groundhog Day scenario will finally go away.


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