Filling UConn's Needs

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – When Ellis Marder got the phone call and scholarship offer from Connecticut assistant coach Darrell Perkins last June, he never hesitated. Marder had attended camp at UConn and "loved" his visit.

Perkins told the Windermere, Fla., native he would be a good fit at safety for the Huskies. That's all Marder needed to hear.

"I am shutting down my recruitment," Marder told on June 24. "I am 100 percent committed. What more could you ask for?"

More than seven months later, Marder officially became part of UConn's Class of 2012 on Wednesday when he sent his letter of intent to the UConn football office. But getting from point A to point B wasn't as simple as it sounds.

"People were trying to get him to change his mind last night," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said Wednesday at Rentschler Field after receiving letters from 19 high school seniors on National Signing Day. "Some other people came in on him.

"But, I go back to what I've said. When you go in [the house] and you sit down with the mom and the dad, the high school coach and the player, and you look them in the eye, I think you've got to come out of there comfortable [when] the character and commitment you are looking for is there.

"We're very happy with what we did. Ellis held in there strong and told the people trying to get him to change his mind, ‘I'm going to Connecticut. That's the commitment I made. I'm going to Connecticut.' "

That was just one of the stories Pasqualoni could tell Wednesday as he put the finishing touches on his first full recruiting effort as UConn coach. With five recruits already enrolled at UConn for the spring 2012 semester, and tight end Neil Shortell transferring from Butler (Kan.) Community College, the Huskies officially welcomed 25 newcomers.

At the top of the list, for a variety of reasons, is quarterback Casey Cochran, the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Connecticut. He will join Chandler Whitmer, another transfer from Butler CC, in a five-way battle for the starting quarterback job when the Huskies begin spring football.

"Chandler Whitmer is going to be competing; he's not going to be conceding anything," Pasqualoni said.

As important as it was to add talent at the quarterback position, this recruiting class was all about filling broader needs and bringing in the players who fit this coaching staff's vision for UConn.

The 25 spots break down evenly with 12 offensive signees, 10 on defense, one highly-regarded kicker (Bobby Puyol of North Palm Beach, Fla.), and two players (Jazzmar Clax and Wyatt Vinci) who could be used on either side of the ball.

Cochran was one of three Connecticut players coming on board. Center/guard Rennick Bryan of Hillhouse High in New Haven signed his letter and Bristol's Drew Ghio, like Cochran, is already enrolled and has accepted an offer to walk on. Ghio is an offensive guard from Bristol Central and Loomis Chaffee.

"Rennick is very athletic and a good prospect for us," Pasqualoni said. "And I just liked the fact Drew wanted to be at the University of Connecticut. He's got great passion for the state and the institution. We afforded him an opportunity to join the team."

A good sign for the program is the fact that Pasqualoni and his assistants were able to cultivate talent and relationships in Florida and New Jersey, two of the most fertile regions for football talent in the country. With five recruits from each state, it shows that UConn can hold its own in those territories.

One of those Florida recruits was wide receiver Ricky Gutierrez from Hialeah, Fla. Even though his father is Ricky Gutierrez, the former Major League Baseball shortstop, he wasn't heavily recruited and committed to the Huskies on a last-minute visit to Storrs last weekend.

The elder Gutierrez won a World Series ring with the Red Sox in 2004 and told Pasqualoni he was thrilled about his son coming to New England to play. Pasqualoni was absolutely beaming over landing Gutierrez, repeatedly talking about his leaping ability and his "enormous" hands. Gutierrez was a bit of an unknown on the recruiting trail, but UConn dug him out.

"He's one of these guys who can jump up there and kind of take the ball away from you," Pasqualoni said. "He broke his collar bone and missed seven games. He fell by the wayside. I started watching the last five games he played and I said to myself, ‘Holy mackerel. We've got to get moving here." We got in there quick, got him up here [for a visit] and it worked out great."

Pasqualoni is pleased with the versatility of this class. Several players have what he calls "position flexibility" and that should strengthen the Huskies in many ways. He said he feels confident that all of these players will make a contribution – even though it might not be in their first year.

"You have position specific needs that you earmark," he said. "You have to fill these needs. We felt we needed to bring in a couple of quarterbacks and we did that. We felt like we needed to bring in a kicker. We did that. We needed to sign a tight end and we did that. We needed to bring in some offensive lineman, a couple of linebackers and a couple of wide receivers.

"Did we do everything that I would have liked to have done? No, not everything. But pretty close. Pretty close. And we'll keep working on those other things."

Two players who had committed to UConn did not sign. Academics changed their plans. Wide receiver Neally Cunningham of Palm Bay, Fla., is expected to attend a junior college but could return to UConn. Cornerback Chauncey Lanier committed to Memphis.

Pasqualoni won't lose any sleep over the fact UConn didn't sign any five-star or four-star recruits. Or that UConn's class was ranked next-to-last in the Big East and 66th in the nation.

"There will be guys who emerge out of this [class] and become outstanding players," Pasqualoni said. "The bottom line is no one knows until these guys have been campus and they've been with you for a while. The true test, the proof of the pudding, so to speak, will be down the road a couple of years. But I feel very, very good about this group."

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