Connecticut FOOTBALL PREVIEW
Head coach: Paul Pasqualoni
3rd year: 10-14
22nd year overall: 151-90-1
Returning Lettermen: Offense 14, Defense 16, Special teams 3
Lettermen Lost: 12
There's no way to dance around the facts. This is a critical season for the Connecticut program and, more importantly, for head coach Paul Pasqualoni as he heads into his third season at the helm.
His first two seasons ended with identical 5-7 overall records and that translates into no bowl game either year. Considering the fact the Huskies were coming off a BCS bid to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, where they lost to Oklahoma on Jan. 1, 2011, that has been hard for UConn fans to swallow.
Coach Randy Edsall, who directed UConn's transition from I-AA to a Big East member, left for Maryland immediately after that Fiesta Bowl. Pasqualoni was not the most popular choice when athletic director Jeff Hathaway made the hire. Now Hathaway is gone and new athletic director Warde Manuel has put out the directive that "everybody has to improve."
In many ways, this is a fresh start for UConn. Syracuse and Pittsburgh have left and the Big East is now the American Athletic Conference. Rutgers and Louisville will leave after this season. UConn has the facilities and the recruiting base in the Northeast to establish itself as a regular contender in The American.
The movement in that direction must start this season or a search for a new coach will begin.
With one of the top defenses in the nation last season – including four players who were taken in the NFL Draft – UConn should have been bowl eligible with just a middle-of-the-road offense. But the Huskies couldn't pass, they couldn't rush and they averaged just 17.8 points a game. A loss to North Carolina State at home and a road loss at Western Michigan damaged the team's confidence and then the Huskies lost their first four Big East games.
Defensive coordinator Don Brown left for Boston College and was replaced by Hank Hughes, who is in his 13th season in the UConn staff. That should be a smooth transition. More importantly, Pasqualoni shook up his staff offensively. George DeLeone, who became the target of fan criticism for a boring and predictable offense, will no longer be offensive coordinator. T.J. Weist, former wide receivers coach at Cincinnati, moves into that role and has been well received.
DeLeone will coach the offensive line, a key unit to UConn's success this season. Last year's line was inexperienced and injuries took their toll. UConn is looking for consistency and better communication. Senior tackles Jimmy Bennett and Kevin Friend, along with junior guard Steve Greene, will be asked to perform at a much higher level.
The offensive line yielded 33 sacks last season, making it difficult for first-year quarterback Chandler Whitmer to function without enough time in the pocket. And tailback Lyle McCombs, a Big East offensive rookie of the year as a freshman, couldn't find the holes he needed to pick up big gains.
Whitmer and McCombs are back. The Huskies have better depth at the receiver spots with Geremy Davis, Shakim Phillips, Deshon Foxx and Kamal Abrams all demonstrating big-play ability in spring practice, then locking down spots in preseason. Whitmer has shown leadership and toughness. And he has shown he can execute when given enough time.
The defense must replace six starters but linebacker Yawin Smallwood, cornerback Byron Jones and safety Ty-Meer Brown give the Huskies a solid foundation. The return of a healthy defensive end Jesse Joseph, injured in the third game last season, is a big boost to the defensive unit.
It's no secret that UConn must have a winning season. The players talked all spring about getting the job done, not only for the security of the coaching staff but for their own pride. The Huskies, like any other group of college players, will strive to reach a bowl game. That will require improvement on both sides of the ball.
What to watch for on offense: All eyes will be on the UConn offense and the Huskies need to find a spark. UConn ranked 110th in the nation in total offense in 2012 and much of the blame fell on an inexperienced line that yielded 33 sacks. Offensive coordinator George DeLeone felt the heat for play calling that was conservative, predictable and unproductive. That prompted offseason changes by Pasqualoni, who hired T.J. Weist from Cincinnati to become offensive coordinator. DeLeone, now associate head coach, will be in charge of the offensive line. Junior Chandler Whitmer returns as the starting quarterback but could be challenged by redshirt freshman Casey Cochran, who had a strong spring and preseason. If the line comes together, tailback Lyle McCombs has the ability to be a playmaker. McCombs has gained 2,011 yards his first two seasons.
What to watch for on defense: A lot of talent and leadership must be replaced. Cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, along with linebacker Sio Moore and end Trevardo Williams, were among the first 124 overall selections in the NFL draft. Moore and Williams combined for 19.5 sacks in 2012, when the Huskies ranked No. 9 in the nation in total defense and allowed opponents just under 310 yards per game. The good news is that UConn's leading tackler, middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood, is back for his junior season after recording 120 tackles last season. The Huskies are also happy about the return of senior end Jesse Joseph, who was granted a medical redshirt after tearing his Achilles tendon last season. Junior Byron Jones moves from safety to corner. Safety Ty-Meer Brown has experience with 19 starts. Senior end Tim Willman recorded three tackles and two sacks in a limited spring game and carried that over to a fine preseason. Tackles Julian Campenni and Shamar Stephen have played well in the preseason.
The team will be far better if… the offense cuts down on turnovers and the defense avoids giving up big plays. The Huskies were blown out just once last season (40-10 at Syracuse) but mistakes made the difference in several close games. The combination of 33 sacks and 18 interceptions – 16 by starting quarterback Chandler Whitmer – gave opponents too many chances to stop the offense. UConn also lost eight fumbles and settled for too many field goals after reaching the red zone. A 30-24 loss at Western Michigan in the fourth game of the season set a bad tone for the Huskies. A 30-yard touchdown pass and a 53-yard fumble recovery allowed Western to take that game. Two weeks later when the Huskies lost 19-3 at Rutgers, UConn's confidence was severely damaged.
The schedule: UConn has put together one of its best non-conference schedules, highlighted by mighty Michigan traveling to East Hartford to play the Huskies at Rentschler Field. The Michigan athletic department was not thrilled about playing in a 40,000-seat stadium but the Huskies were not willing to move the game and reportedly will add about 2,000 temporary seats. Maryland, and former UConn coach Randy Edsall, visits The Rent the week before Michigan. The Huskies won 24-21 at Maryland last season. The Huskies also begin play in the American Athletic Conference and should have an improved chance to be competitive. UConn plays conference home games against USF, Louisville, Rutgers and Memphis and hits the road to play Cincinnati, UCF, SMU and Temple.
Best offensive player: Junior TB Lyle McCombs. The 5-foot-8 tailback is more durable than he looks and he is the only proven entity on the offense. He enters the season eighth all-time in rushing yards in UConn history but his production dropped off as a sophomore. The coaching staff would love to see him return to his freshman season form when he gained 1,151 yards and scored seven touchdowns. If UConn can find some offensive balance and another back – perhaps Max DeLorenzo or Matt Walsh – steps up to give McCombs some rest, there's no doubt he can be a dangerous playmaker for the Huskies.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Yawin Smallwood. The product of Worcester, Mass., had a breakout season for the Huskies in 2012. He was a first-team All-Big East selection, led UConn with 120 tackles and was second in tackles for a loss with 15. He also had four sacks and two forced fumbles. Smallwood has become one of those players always around the ball and that's why he tied for 20th in the nation in tackles per game at 10.0. When Maryland visits Rentschler Field, the Terps will certainly have Smallwood on their scouting report. Last season against Maryland he had 14 tackles, 3.5 for a loss and 2.5 sacks. If the Huskies are going to maintain their defensive reputation, Smallwood can set the tone.
Key player to a successful season: Junior QB Chandler Whitmer. It may seem like a cliché putting the quarterback in a key role, but a lot depends on Whitmer. He started every game last season and has gained the confidence of the offensive unit and the coaching staff. This will be his second season in the system and he looked more comfortable in the spring. The key is eliminating mistakes, going through his reads more effectively, throwing fewer interceptions and sparking this offense. UConn cannot keep functioning with a predictable offense. With a new coordinator there has to be some new wrinkles but the staff kept that under wraps in the spring and may continue that way through the opener against Towson. Whether UConn shows some spread offense, no-huddle offense or anything else, everything goes through Whitmer. He needs to take the next step.
The season will be a success if … the Huskies return to a bowl game. With five bowl trips in eight years and four bowls in five years, a second consecutive 5-7 season with no postseason reward was a bummer for the Huskies and UConn fans last season. Victories over Pittsburgh and Louisville last season gave the Huskies a shot but they couldn't win at Cincinnati and that was a bitter pill to swallow. The goal is clear this season, from athletic director Warde Manuel on down to the coaching staff and the players. This is the final go around for a BCS bid as well, but the Huskies would be satisfied with any bowl trip at this point.
Key game: There are two big ones and the first comes in the non-conference portion. UConn needs to emerge from the non-conference season with a 3-1 record. Assuming wins over Towson and Buffalo and a loss to Michigan, that makes the Sept. 14 game against Maryland pivotal. It would be easy to point to the Michigan game at home, but that's simply a high-visibility non-conference game against a major program with great tradition. A key for UConn this season will be doing well within the new conference and that puts the focus on Nov. 8 when Louisville visits Rentschler Field. The Cardinals grabbed the Big East championship last season despite a 23-20 triple-overtime loss to the Huskies at Louisville on Nov. 24. The Cardinals went on to defeat Florida in the Sugar Bowl and this will be the only journey through the AAC before Louisville exits for the ACC. A Friday night home game on ESPN should be a big deal for the Huskies.
2012 Fun Stats:
- Time of Possession: UConn 30:51 – Opponents 29:08
- Interceptions Thrown: UConn 18 – Opponents 6
- Fourth Down Conversions: UConn 1 of 7 (14 %) – Opponents 4 of 13 (31%)
Ten Best Connecticut Players
1.LB Yawin Smallwood, Jr.
2. TB Lyle McCombs, Jr.
3. WR Shakim Phillips, Jr.
4. CB Byron Jones, Jr.
5. DE Jesse Joseph, Sr.
6. DT Shamar Stephen, Sr.
7. QB Chandler Whitmer, Jr.
8. S Ty-Meer Brown, Jr.
9. DE Tim Willman, Sr.
10. LB Ryan Donohue, Sr.
Aug. 29 Towson
Sept. 7 OPEN DATE
Sept. 14 Maryland
Sept. 21 Michigan
Sept. 28 at Buffalo
Oct. 5 OPEN DATE
Oct. 12 USF
Oct. 19 at Cincinnati
Oct. 26 at UCF
Nov. 8 Louisville
Nov. 16 at SMU
Nov. 23 at Temple
Nov. 30 Rutgers
Dec. 7 Memphis
2012 Results?(5-7 overall, 2-5 Big East)
Aug. 30 UConn 37, UMass 0
Sept. 8 North Carolina State 10, UConn 7
Sept. 15 UConn 24, at Maryland 21
Sept. 22 at Western Michigan 30, UConn 24
Sept. 29 UConn 24, Buffalo 17
Oct. 6 at Rutgers 18 UConn 3
Oct. 13 Temple 17, UConn 14
Oct. 19 at Syracuse 40, UConn 10
Nov. 3 at USF 13, UConn 6
Nov. 9 UConn 24, Pittsburgh 17
Nov. 24 UConn 23, at Louisville 20
Dec. 1 at Cincinnati 34, UConn 17