It’s not your fault Bob Diaco! UConn fanbase, it’s not your fault! Huskies players, it’s not your fault! Look, winning in Storrs, Connecticut is hard. New England isn’t a particularly fertile recruiting ground. There are teams in this conference in recruiting gold mines like Texas and Florida. Winning here will never be easy, but it isn’t without precedent.
Depth and diversity at running back is easily the strength of this offense. Ron Johnson is a bruiser at 5’11” and 220 pounds, and the leading returning rusher. Max DeLorenzo is also powerfully built, but proved efficient to at 4.5 yards per carry. Then, there is the shifty pass catching back Arkeel Newsome. Don’t expect any of these guys to put up prolific individual numbers, but expect the trio to make up a solid tandem.
The receiving corps took a big hit this spring when tight end Sean McQuillan was charged with assaulting his roommate. McQuillan was dismissed from the team. Alec Bloom will likely step up in his stead, although he only caught three passes all last year so it’s safe to say there will be open competition at the position.
That means this year’s wide receivers will need to step up even more than was already needed. Only one returning receiver had over 300 yards receiving, and only four returning players caught more than 10 passes, one was McQuillan and the other Arkeel Newsome. The other two are Noel Thomas and Dhameer Bradley. Thomas was the lone receiver to best 300 yards.
Quarterback is still technically an unresolved position battle, but Bob Diaco has already said that N.C. State transfer Bryant Shirreffs is the leader in the clubhouse. Shirreffs will have to continue playing well to beat out last year’s backup Tim Boyle and true freshman Tyler Davis, but it’s an encouraging sign for him to have the head coach’s endorsement.
Whoever starts at quarterback they will probably need to have good mobility, strong pocket presence or both, because this line, while returning some experience, is widely considered one of the weakest in the conference. However, with three linemen who were full-time starters last season they could potentially improve.
If your team is going to struggle offensively, you generally need a defense that can produce big plays and UConn didn’t really have that last year. With plenty returning, they should be solid on defense, but a few more big plays wouldn’t hurt. The Huskies only managed 15 takeaways and 13 sacks all last year. Bend but don’t break didn’t cut it last year, and likely won’t be enough again this year.
The defensive backfield ought to be fairly strong, although the loss of “Combine Warrior” Byron Jones is a big one. Aside from Jones though, all of the other starters return. Andrew Adams, in particular, will be key as he accounted for a third of the team’s takeaways last year with four interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Run defense was by no means a weakness last year, and it should be one of the biggest strengths this year with six of the defensive front seven returning. Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart are a formidable duo at linebacker, and the defensive line returns five players who accounted for nine of the ten defensive line sacks. That bunch plus DT Folorunso Fatukasi also combined for 25 tackles for loss.
Baby steps are better than backward steps. I know that UConn fans desperately want to get back into the bowl picture, but I just don’t know if that’s realistic. There are serious questions on offense, and the schedule is not particularly forgiving. Things start fine early with home games against Villanova and Army, but then four straight against Missouri, Navy, BYU and UCF will be tough. Only the Navy game is at home of that group too. At the end of the day, the schedule may end up masking some of the improvement this team makes, but if Bryant Shirreffs and someone at receiver can step up, maybe they upset some people.
Credit Cover Photo to Jessica Hill/Associated Press