2015 CFB Preview – Connecticut

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The legend of Randy Edsall grows with each passing year.

By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

Bob Diaco is the latest coach to be humbled by the challenges of coaching at a basketball school in Storrs, Conn. Since Edsall left the Huskies in 2010, the team has strung together four straight losing seasons, getting progressively worse each fall. Diaco’s honeymoon is already over after his first team capped a 2-10 debacle by becoming SMU’s only victim of 2014.

Even the habitually positive and energetic young coach was alarmed at the giant mess that was left for him by predecessor Paul Pasqualoni. For Diaco to see this rebuilding project to the end, he’s going to need ample patience, from himself, from his administration and from the locals.

First, the good news. Connecticut is in better shape than it was at this time last year, the result of having a full season for the staff to become better acquainted with the personnel. And vice versa. This past spring session had more to do with actually building and teaching than attempting to lay a philosophical foundation.

The ongoing concern, of course, is that the Huskies lack the talent and the depth to effectively compete, even in a watered-down American. And the latter doesn’t figure to change anytime soon. Instead, Diaco will need rip a page out of Edsall’s old book by turning middling high school recruits into players who attract NFL interest.

Not a single Husky earned All-AAC in 2014, so sure-fire building blocks will be scarce entering 2015. The offense is in a particular state of disarray—again—leaving the defense to shoulder the responsibility. And the veteran D might be up to the challenge, provided it can be far more disruptive than it was a year ago. In fact, UConn as a whole may have been the least explosive team in the country in 2014, finishing 110th or lower in offensive plays of 20-plus yards, sacks and takeaways.

Diaco has a long way to go before approaching Edsall’s achievements in the Nutmeg State. And he knows it. But a new year brings renewed optimism and a certain sense of stability that was missing in 2014. The Huskies ought to be more competitive, especially if quarterback play improves.

However, bowl contention, let alone conference contention, is at least a year off, because the talent divide between UConn and the American pedigree remains as wide as ever.

What you need to know about the offense: Frank Verducci obviously doesn’t shy away from challenges. Anyone who agrees to coach the UConn offense must be a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. Verducci was the centerpiece of an offseason staff shakeup designed to generate a spark from one of the nation’s most impotent attacks. The Huskies have averaged less than 21 points per game the last three seasons, are still auditioning quarterbacks and are a mess at the line of scrimmage. After being held under 14 points six times in 2014, the only conceivable way from here is up. Connecticut is pinning its hopes on a handful of players who haven’t been with the program very long. For instance, NC State transfer QB Bryant Shirreffs, second-year RB Ron Johnson and rising WR Noel Thomas could all play pivotal roles this fall. However, so much will hinge on the play of a shopworn O-line that’s been FCS-caliber for too long. The Huskies won’t win with offense in 2015, but they’ll lose a bunch of games if Verducci’s attack fails to locate a pulse … again.

What you need to know about the defense: Where are the tempo-changing plays? While coordinator Anthony Poindexter has a decent foundation on which to build, someone must get after the quarterback and wreak occasional defensive havoc in 2015. The Huskies were last in the American in takeaways in 2014, and were last in sacks the past two seasons, driving the need for more playmakers. If UConn can dial up the pressure, it has a chance to be pretty good this fall. Just one starter from last year’s finale has graduated, and the linebackers and safeties can carry the team for a while. LB Marquise Vann and S Andrew Adams, in particular, are all-league timber. The young corners, though, will get exposed if the front four is again neutralized. NG Julian Campenni and DE Kenton Adeyemi are steady. However, fingers are crossed that young Huskies, like DE Cole Ormsby and DT Folorunso Fatukasi, can parlay a solid offseason in the weight room into better on-field production.

What to watch for on offense: New Shirreffs in town. Although Bob Diaco isn’t ready to anoint a starting quarterback just yet, NC State transfer Bryant Shirreffs clearly inched ahead of holdover Tim Boyle this spring. The Huskies are once again pining for better play at quarterback after ranking 112th nationally in passing efficiency. The 6-1, 216-pound Shirreffs occasionally ran the wildcat for the Pack, and his ability to scramble and accurately connect on the move could give UConn some much-needed offensive wrinkles.

What to watch for on defense: Taking the next step. The Husky D is ready to move forward under coordinator Anthony Poindexter. The coach now knows his players, the players know their coach and 10 of 11 starters from last year’s regular-season finale are back. The linebackers will be especially talented, led by sophomore Junior Joseph and seniors Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart. And if the program is successful in getting a waiver from the NCAA, Florida State transfer EJ Levenberry would make the second unit even stronger in 2015.

The team will be far better if… the O-line overachieves. For all the talk about UConn’s problems in the backfield, and they’ve been really bad, the offensive futility begins at the line of scrimmage. The Huskies have averaged less than five yards a play for five straight years largely because of a blocking unit that can’t hold up at the point of attack. For this lifeless squad to make appreciable gains on offense, the young linemen who started late last year must make a quantum leap as blockers.

The Schedule: The Huskies are one of three teams that’ll face BYU in 2015, travelling to LaVell Edwards Stadium on Oct. 2 for a Friday night nationally-televised matchup.
– As part of a home-and-home series, UConn will meet Mizzou for the first time when it journeys to Columbia in Week 3.
– The Huskies will play games on ten consecutive weekends, and are one of three American teams that must wait until Nov. 14 before enjoying a bye week.
– The season kicks off with two winnable home games versus Villanova and Army, affording UConn a much-needed opportunity to start fast before the slate gets tougher in a hurry.
– UConn will pile up the frequent flyer miles this fall, with five of its six road trips being at least 750 miles from the Storrs campus.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Villanova. The Wildcats are never a team to be taken lightly, as evidenced in last year’s one-point, double-overtime loss at Syracuse.

Best offensive player: Senior TE Sean McQuillan. McQuillan’s value to the Husky offense extends well beyond the box score, because his numbers may never match his overall ability. He’s a quality tight end, yet he’s also a mentor to his younger teammates by constantly bringing it on the practice field and in the classroom. McQuillan has All-AAC potential, as a blocker and as a pass-catcher. Now, he just needs more help from the other 10 guys on offense to maximize his potential.

Best defensive player: Senior S Andrew Adams. The team’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year is back for a final year, looking to elevate the D and improve his own draft stock. Adams exploded out of the gate after missing all of 2013 to injury, leading Huskies in tackles and interceptions. He’s a complete player at safety, with the intelligence and the instincts to be in the right place at the right time. Adams and Obi Melifonwu give UConn one of the league’s better safety tandems, and the experience needed to support the young cornerbacks.

Key players to a successful season: The quarterbacks. Over the past three seasons, Husky quarterbacks have thrown 38 touchdown passes … and 48 picks. And while the futility has clearly been a collaboration, there’s no denying that this program needs a playmaker from behind center to step forward. Whether it’s Bryant Shirreffs, Tim Boyle or Laney College (Calif.) transfer Garrett Anderson, Connecticut has to become more dangerous from behind center, or else the entire program will remain stuck in neutral.

The season will be a success if … the Huskies are playing their best ball in November. Forget victory totals, and certainly bowl eligibility, at this stage of the rebuilding process. Those will be more realistic pursuits in 2016. Today, UConn simply wants to raise the bar a notch higher in Bob Diaco’s second season in charge, which needs to be evident all year, but especially down the stretch. After the wheels came off last November, the Huskies plan to take a little head of steam into the next offseason.

Key game: Sept. 3 vs. Villanova. November will be telling, but so will the opener. A visit from an FCS opponent will be the most winnable game on the 2015 slate. And the Huskies better win it, especially since Missouri, Navy, BYU and UCF appear on the first-half schedule. The Wildcats are always tough and prepared under Andy Talley. Connecticut must hold serve at Rentschler Field, or else it could be staring down the barrel of another two-win season.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Turnovers: Connecticut 28 – Opponents 15
– Sacks: Connecticut 13 – Opponents 29
– Points per game: Connecticut 15.5 – Opponents 29.8

Players You Need To Know

1. S Andrew Adams, Sr.
Adams made the most of his first full season as a starter, getting named the program’s Defensive Player of the Year for 2014. The 6-0, 197-pound riser bounced back from an injury-shortened sophomore season to notch 96 tackles, a scoop-and-score and team-highs with four interceptions and eight passes defended. Adams’ strengths are his versatility and his instincts, both as a run supporter and a pass defender. After being overlooked last fall, he’s poised to garner well-deserved all-league recognition in 2015.

2. LB Marquise Vann, Sr.
Vann used his first full season in the lineup to showcase his considerable upside potential as a Husky. The athletic Cincinnati native started every game on the outside, racking up a team-high 105 tackles, seven stops for minus yards and a forced fumble. Vann is a hard-working and humble 6-0, 226-pounder, whose vision, intensity and sideline-to-sideline range should result in another 100-tackle campaign in 2015.

3. LB Graham Stewart, Sr.
Stewart is beginning to make the most of his second chance at this level. The Florida transfer nabbed a starting gig in 2014, parlaying it into 94 tackles, a team-high 10.5 stops for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles. He’s an athletic 6-1, 228-pounder, who operates with boundless energy for both the game and the weight room. Stewart will again be one of UConn’s top tacklers and emotional sparkplugs in 2015.

4. S Obi Melifonwu, Jr.
Melifonwu continues to evolve into one of the top defenders in Storrs. After breaking on to the scene as a rookie in 2013, he played with even more poise and production a year ago. Built like a linebacker-in-waiting at 6-3 and 214 pounds, Melifonwu covers plenty of ground, and has the length to deflect passes from centerfield. He finished fourth on the Huskies with 75 tackles, 3.5 behind the line, while breaking up three passes and earning the school’s John L. Toner scholar athlete award.

5. NG Julian Campenni, Sr.
For one final year, the 6-0, 302-pound Campenni will hold down the fort in the middle of the line for the Huskies in 2015. He’s played in 34 games over the last three years, with 25 starts, bringing quickness and a blue-collar work ethic to the front wall. The recipient of the team’s Kendall Madison power player of the year award contributed 35 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss and a pair of sacks last season.

6. CB Jhavon Williams, Jr.
Williams is ready to take over as the Huskies’ top cover corner now that Byron Jones has exhausted his eligibility. Williams started all 12 games a year ago, giving him 17 career starts since arriving from Delray Beach, Fla. He’s a fluid all-around 5-10, 194-pounder who made 38 stops and seven pass breakups a year ago. With improved coverage and ball skills, he can become a stopper in the UConn secondary.

7. WR Noel Thomas, Jr.
The coaching staff is bullish on the future of Thomas, the Huskies’ leading returning receiver. Thomas started five games in 2014, finishing with 26 receptions for 305 yards and four touchdowns. And in an indication of his potential and his trajectory, the 6-1, 193-pounder was playing his best ball in the second half of the year. The son of a coach, Thomas works and studies hard, and is constantly improving on the weight room.

8. OT Andreas Knappe, Jr.
Knappe is quickly becoming the exception to the rule up front in Storrs. While the Huskies have struggled badly along the O-line in recent years, Knappe laid the groundwork last season to become a future all-star. The 6-8, 310-pound Denmark native has continuously improved since moving over from defense in his rookie year. In 2014, Knappe started the final seven games at right tackle, earning UConn’s Newcomer of the Year Award while run blocking better than any of his teammates.

9. RB Ron Johnson, Soph.
UConn absolutely, positively must run the ball better going forward. Johnson is sure to be a big part of that objective. As a rookie out of Palmetto Ridge (Fla.) High School, he started five games and led the team with 429 yards and three touchdowns on 114 carries. At 5-11 and 220 pounds, Johnson runs with the north-south toughness and leg drive that head coach Bob Diaco really covets. Johnson isn’t going to be a solo act, but he will have a chance to be featured this fall. . 

10. DT Mikal Myers, Jr. 
A big body for the interior of the line, the bowling ball of a 6-1, 312-pounder can move a little bit while also bringing a little power. He came up with 30 tackles on the year while getting into the backfield with two sacks and six tackles for loss. He’ll be asked to do even more against the run, but with his experience and quickness, he can do far more.

Head Coach: Bob Diaco
2nd year: 2-10
Sept. 3 Villanova
Sept. 12 Army
Sept. 19 at Missouri
Sept. 26 Navy
Oct. 2 at BYU
Oct. 10 at UCF
Oct. 17 South Florida
Oct. 24 at Cincinnati
Oct. 30 East Carolina
Nov. 7 at Tulane
Nov. 21 Houston
Nov. 28 at Temple
Ten Best UConn Players
1. S Andrew Adams, Sr.
2. LB Marquise Vann, Sr.
3. LB Graham Stewart, Sr.
4. S Obi Melifonwu, Jr.
5. NG Julian Campenni, Sr.
10, DT Mikal Myers, Jr.