I’m going to start this preview of UConn with a brief lesson in Greek mythology, specifically Sisyphus (I promise this has a point).
The title character: Sisyphus, was a King who was punished for various deceits, including but not limited to cheating death. Sisyphus’ specific punishment was to repeatedly roll a large boulder up a steep hill and have that boulder roll away just before reaching the summit, every time.
Like Sisyphus, the University of Connecticut has no choice for the foreseeable future but to participate in a difficult task (football) where just about everyone involved knows the result will be punishing and seemingly impossible to succeed at.
It’s hard to believe this is the same program where Randy Edsall won at least 8 games a total of 6 times between 2003-10 in his first stint as the Huskies head coach.
My initial reaction to the news of UConn moving to the non-football Big East was that it was bad news for their football program. After doing the research to create this preview, I still don’t believe it is good news but it may not be bad either. The Huskies’ inability to compete in football in the AAC feels systemic and life as a Division 1 Independent almost can't be worse.
Edsall and a decent percentage of last year’s roster stuck around after an abysmal 2018 season where UConn probably fielded the worst defense in Division 1 history. They were quite young last year, though there are enough question marks in key areas that I am hesitant to project too much improvement.
The Huskies Offense:
Being on the same team as a historically bad defense if nothing else has the added benefit of making the offense look better by comparison. But most of UConn’s offensive numbers from 2018 weren't really that encouraging.
The Huskies had a good running quarterback (David Pindell) and generally had a good rushing offense on the whole, but didn’t do much else consistently well.
Here’s where the bad news begins: Pindell graduated and his most experienced backup (Marvin Washington) announced in June he was transferring out. The QB with the most D1 experience on this roster has attempted 3 passes in 1 career game.
Division II grad transfer Mike Beaudry joined the program in the spring and might be the favorite to win the job. Beaudry started 14 games for West Florida in 2017 and helped lead the Argos to the DII national title game in only their 2nd year of existence. That sounds impressive, though Beaudry’s 55% completion percentage and 6.6 yards/pass attempt in ‘17 don’t scream ‘surefire D1 starter’. He’s also essentially missed 2 full seasons (2016, ’18) due to injury.
The player who has the 3 pass attempts I mentioned earlier is redshirt freshman Steven Krajewski, a mid-3-star from Georgia. Krajewski was the 2nd highest rated recruit in the Huskies’ 2018 class. Given how consistently Edsall and the coaching staff have gone ‘youth movement’ in the last couple seasons, I wouldn’t be surprised if Krajewski wins the job.
Finally, sophomore Micah Leon transferred in this summer and will be immediately eligible as he was a walk-on at his last school: NC State.
On the other hand, the running backs group is one of the few bright spots on the team.
Junior Kevin Mensah was the first Husky RB since 2011 to rush for 1,000+ yards and while he’s not a big play hitter, he can get short yardage and carry the ball a bunch. Mensah had over 1,600 rushing yards between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Mensah will be helped by the arrival of grad transfer Art Thompkins from Toledo. Last year Thompkins finished with 563 rush yards (at 5.7 yds/carry) and 6 touchdowns. He never became the feature back on some good Toledo offenses, but he can spell the starter and catch the ball out of the backfield fairly well too.
The most interesting offensive weapon on last year’s team was sophomore Zavier Scott. He had 33 receptions as compared to 34 rush attempts. He was 2nd on last year’s team in receptions while playing as a part time, 3rd down back. That’s kind of wild.
But before we get too positive, there’s the fact that this Husky receiver group doesn’t have anyone who caught more than 3 passes in 2018. The 2 leading receivers from a year ago are running backs: Scott (33 receptions) and Mensah (10). Everyone else from last year graduated or transferred out.
I don’t think there is a more inexperienced group of QBs and receivers than UConn. How do you even begin to build a passing game with that? Out of the 14 players on the current UConn roster listed as a receiver, 8 are freshmen. Yikes.
One the best options may be yet another DII grad transfer: Ardell Brown. Last year Brown had 1,267 receiving yards and 9 TDs at Seton Hill University. Junior Quayvon Skanes was 2nd on the team in receptions (35) in 2017 and missed last year with injury. From here, the only options are players with no significant collegiate experience of any kind.
The offensive line is another relative bright spot and did well enough Edsall named offensive line coach Frank Giuffre as the new offensive coordinator after last season. The Huskies ran the ball a fair amount last year and with an O line coach now calling the plays I believe they’ll get even more run heavy. That’s probably a good idea considering the only experience returning comes from the backs and line.
Both every-game starters at tackle return: senior RT Matt Peart and junior LT Ryan Van Demark. Peart has started all 36 games he’s been active and Van Demark has started 21 of the 24 games he’s appeared in.
On the interior both guards return as well: junior LG Cam DeGeorge and junior RG Nico Leone. DeGeorge has started all 24 career games he’s appeared in. They’ll have to figure out who starts at center, but the group is set besides that.
My concern is the Huskies allowed a fair amount of sacks (28) last year with one of the conference’s best running quarterbacks. All the candidates to start at QB are slower-footed pocket passers, so improving the pass blocking is vital if this offense wants to avoid serious regression.
There are parts of what you'd want from a successful offense here (deep/experienced RBs, experienced line) but glaring deficiencies and gaps in experience in enough key areas that I'd feel foolish being too positive about the 2019 UConn offense.
The Huskies Defense:
I teased it at the beginning, but UConn had by far the worst defense of any Division 1 team in the 21st century. There’s an argument to be made that they were the worst defense ever, of anyone who's attempted Division 1 football.
I could spend the next 1000 or so words describing in grim detail how bad the Huskies defense was, but I’ll just stick with these low lights: 50.4 points per game allowed, 335 rush yards per game, 7.7 opponent yards per rush, 8.8 opponent yards per play.
UConn’s offense last year played a run-first style, ran the ball relatively efficiently and possessed the ball on average over 31 minutes per game, but that still didn’t keep their defense from being hilariously bad.
They made a change at defensive coordinator, bringing in veteran NFL assistant and former UCLA DC (2012-13) Lou Spanos. You have to be kind of crazy to take this job, but Spanos’ UCLA defenses created a lot of havoc and he’s not going to try and ‘square peg’ the personnel he inherits here.
Let’s get back to the bad news: last year’s sack leader (DE Darrian Beavers) transferred out and another primary defensive line starter graduated.
In the interior of the defensive line sophomore Travis Jones returns after playing all 12 games last year and finishing 7th on the team in total tackles, despite being an interior lineman. Jones is listed at 6 foot 4 and 350 pounds, which is still uncommon size in this league. Fellow sophomore Caleb Thomas started the final 10 games of last year and recorded 4 TFLs and a sack.
Spanos seems to be moving towards a 4-man front more regularly, as evidenced by sophomore Kevon Jones, one of last year’s top linebackers being listed as a defensive lineman on the post spring roster. I would expect Jones, who had 2.5 sacks last year, to play in a pass rushing defensive end kind of role.
The lines, on both sides of the ball, are just about the toughest place for underclassmen to play well and 10 of the 12 players listed as defensive linemen on the most recent roster are freshmen or sophomores.
Last year’s top tackler at linebacker graduated, but the Huskies got a lot more experienced in that area after being brutally young in 2018.
Another one of Spanos’ position moves was moving guys who played as linebacker/safety hybrids (the ‘HUSKY’ position) last year to linebacker. Junior Omar Fortt was one of these players and was 3rd on the team with 76 total tackles, 2 fumble recoveries and 1 interception last year. Fortt has started 23 of the 24 games he’s played in his career.
Junior Eddie Hahn is by far the most experienced player who was at linebacker last year, starting the last 10 games and amassing 59 total tackles and 4 TFLs.
The staff also brought in Notre Dame grad transfer DJ Morgan and Juco linebacker Dillon Harris for some immediate help at linebacker.
It’s probably a bad sign, regardless of scheme, when 3 of your top 4 tacklers play in the secondary and this was the case for the Huskies last year.
Junior safety Tyler Coyle led the team in solo tackles (63) and total tackles (107) by a wide margin. Last year’s other primary starting safety sophomore Oneil Robinson, was recruited as a receiver and had to switch to defense where he ended up leading the Huskies with 2 interceptions to go along with 64 total tackles. Edsall took another JC recruit to help out the secondary: Diamond Harrell, a 6-foot-3 safety from Los Angeles Valley College.
Both of last year’s primary starting cornerbacks: junior Tahj Herring-Wilson and sophomore Ryan Carroll are back.
Basically, every defensive back who saw at least occasional action last year is back on this team. That kind of experience could be the first step to appreciable improvement in some facet of the Huskies defense… but it still feels wildly optimistic on my part.
The Huskies Special Teams:
No UConn player whether they were offense, defense or special teams last year was named to any of the All-AAC teams. The only guy with a legitimate gripe about that is the Huskies’ punter Luke Magliozzi. The Aussie sophomore set the school single season record for punt average (42.94 yards) and had 12 punts of 50+ yards in 2018.
The placekicking job is a much bigger question mark as redshirt freshmen Noah Iden and Clayton Harris are the 2 competitors for a vacancy left by the previous kicker (Michael Tarbutt) who chose to grad transfer out. This summer the staff also brought in FIU grad transfer Sean Young. Last year Young was FIU’s primary kickoff specialist.
The Huskies lose their top kick and punt returners from a year ago, but neither was exactly great, and Tyler Coyle returns after having last year’s best kick return average (22.1 yards).
The primary long snapper for the last 2 years, junior Brian Keating, also returns. Keating should get at least some credit for Magliozzi’s outstanding punting season.
The Season Outlook:
UConn will be an underdog in every game they play in 2019, except for their Thursday night season opener vs FCS Wagner. How much the Huskies do or don’t struggle with Wagner might be a litmus test for the rest of the season.
The schedule is somewhat friendly in that the Huskies get potentially winnable league games (ECU, Navy) at home. They also go to a UMass team with a 1st year head coach and could even conceivably end up a slight favorite to win that one.
But breaking in a completely new QB and set of receivers is a tall task. You don’t often see teams have to deal with one of those problems, much less both. UConn’s run game has the ingredients to be pretty good, but why should any opposing defense not just put 8 or 9 men in the box every time and dare the Huskies to throw the ball?
They were ridiculously young on defense last year, but a bunch of players being a year older doesn’t guarantee improvement. If the new DC Spanos can capture proverbial lightning in a bottle and do a better job fitting the scheme to talent, they might just only be quite bad as opposed to historically awful. That still means they’ll be a bad defense, though.
UConn could cut 11 or 12 points and 130 yards per game off their 2018 averages and still be the worst defense in the AAC. I am not saying this to ‘pile on’ but make it clear the scale of a rebuild we’re talking with this UConn defense.
Beating Wagner, UMass and 1 out of those 2 home games of ECU and Navy isn’t wildly unrealistic. It’s hardly a given and with the extreme youth and inexperience abounding this could be yet another season without a win versus an FBS opponent.
If Randy Edsall gets 3 wins this year then he has done an excellent coaching job and maybe the future isn't entirely hopeless.
Matching Up with Houston:
As someone who traveled to Hartford for the 2015 UConn upset that handed Houston their only loss of that season, you might expect me to be cautious. In this case, you would be wrong.
I am being completely serious when I say that Prairie View A&M may well have better athletes at QB and receiver than the Huskies. Even with all the uncertainty that UH has on defense, I am not even a bit worried about anything UConn projects to do.
Because this is a road game that might depress the final margin to somewhere around 30 points, but I don’t expect this one to be close by around halftime. The goal in this one should be to expose D’Eriq King to as little punishment as possible and get a 2nd half look at various underclassmen back-ups on both sides of the ball.
This will thankfully be the last time Cougar football has to share the field with one of the worst teams in FBS and have it count for a conference win.