Is tailback Lyle McCombs next in line?
Nobody would have thought that during preseason camp. But nine games into the season, McCombs has been UConn's most productive offensive player, carrying the ball 224 times for 981 yards. The redshirt freshman is averaging 4.4 yards per carry, 109.0 yards per game (second in the Big East), and has five rushing touchdowns. He also has 13 pass receptions for 119 yards and one TD.
Going into the season, the best guess was that McCombs would split time with D.J. Shoemate, the transfer from USC. But Shoemate was injured leading up to the season opener against Fordham and McCombs goes into Saturday's game against Louisville trying to become the second freshman in UConn history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Caulley picked up 1,247 as a true freshman in 2002. Only 12 other UConn players have rushed for 1,000 yards. Todman did it twice – in 2009 and 2010.
"At the beginning of the season, if you were to tell me I would have this much of a load, I wouldn't have believed you," McCombs said after gaining a career-high 152 yards and scoring a TD against Syracuse on Nov. 5. "But I've taken on the role and done the best job I can."
Coach Paul Pasqualoni often talks about how much he loves the running back who wants to stay in the game and doesn't look to the bench wanting to come out. McCombs fits that description perfectly and has been extremely durable despite his 5-8, 172-pound frame.
Durable? Those 224 carries rank eighth in single season history at UConn and McCombs has three games remaining. Brown's 367 carries in 2008 rank first.
"Lyle has grown a great deal," Pasqualoni said this week. "The thing about Lyle is, he's bright-eyed, very smart and very tough – and that all helps. His skill-set is such that he can make people miss. He makes a tackler miss, that's for sure. He knows what to do and he likes to compete.
"He just likes to win and he's a tough guy. He has meant a lot to us. We're doing as good a job of running the ball right now in the Big East and he's a big part of that."
McCombs redshirted last season after rushing for 1,544 yards as a senior at St. Joseph By The Sea High School on Staten Island, N.Y. He was named to the New York Daily News all-city team and to the New York Post all-Staten Island team as a senior, averaging 7.2 yards per carry.
We sat down with McCombs earlier this week and asked him six good questions about his season. Here's what he had to say:
How do you think your role developed this season?
"I guess the coaches trust me with the ball in my hands. That's what it comes down to. Throughout camp, throughout the season, I've gained the coaches' trust with the ball in my hands. In preseason camp, I was just trying to get on the field. I thought maybe at the most, I'd be sharing carries with someone. This role I have, I'm happy with now."
When you were in how school, how many carries did you average a game?
"Same as I'm doing right now. About 30 carries a game in high school."
Coach Pasqualoni has said he likes the way you make tacklers miss and the fact that when you get hit, you get up and get going again. Where does that come from?
"That's something I developed in high school from getting so many carries. My team in high school was a double-wing [offense] and we ran the ball every play. I was between the tackles every time. I split my time with the other running back. We each got about 25 or 30 carries a game. We passed maybe twice a game. I knew I could run the ball."
What's the key to making tacklers miss and what's the biggest difference from high school ball?
"Quickness and setting up blocks well [makes them miss]. The speed of the game is the biggest difference. Everybody's big and everybody's fast."
Do you think your performance this season sets you up for four years of success at UConn?
"With college football, it's going to be an every year grind. My spot is never going to be guaranteed. I have to come into camp every year and work every year to keep the spot that I have."
People said you were too small to carry the ball 20 or 25 times every game. Did that bother you?
"I just try not to listen to it. The coaches believe in me, so why can't I? At the running back position, it's not only carrying the ball. You've got to be able to protect the passer to be an all-around running back. It's something I had to work on. You've got to get the technique down. You just do what it takes."