Column: Burning Donovan Williams' redshirt is Diaco's biggest mistake yet

The UConn football team lost to Temple 21-0 on Friday, Nov. 4, at Rentschler Field. Freshman quarterback Donovan Williams started in place of Bryant Shirreffs. (Jackson Haigis/The Daily Campus)

Bob Diaco shocked UConn football fans and media Friday night before the Huskies’ home game against Temple.

No, Diaco didn’t invent another rivalry game and corresponding trophy. This was bigger than that. Needing to win their final three games in order to make a bowl game for the second straight year, Diaco benched junior quarterback and captain Bryant Shirreffs in favor of true freshman Donovan Williams, and in the process burnt Williams’ redshirt one week after saying he would never do such a thing.

“I'm not going to burn Donovan Williams' redshirt. I'm not going to do that to him,” Diaco said following the 41-3 loss to East Carolina.

Diaco told the media following the Temple game that this was not a lie, and that it was Williams himself who suggested playing.

That doesn’t make things any better.

Just because Williams wanted to play doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Diaco’s job as a head coach is to look out for the well-being of his players, and that includes their future. Throwing away a full season of a mature and more experienced Williams in 2021 for three meaningless games in 2016 doesn’t seem like a decision in Williams’ best interest. It was not a rash decision – Diaco insisted that isn’t how the team operates – but people talk themselves into bad ideas all the time. This was one of them.

Diaco has made his fair share of poor decisions. The obscure timeouts just minutes into the first quarter, the end of the Navy game and waiting too long to demote Frank Verducci from the offensive coordinator position are just a few. But burning the redshirt of Williams, arguably the most highly-touted quarterback to come to Storrs in the last few years, is by far the worst move he’s made during his three-year tenure at Storrs.

This doesn’t mean that Williams is not a good player. He certainly has potential, demonstrating a big arm on the rare deep pass plays that were called against Temple and showcasing elite speed with his 43-yard run up the middle in the first half, but burning Williams’ redshirt with three games left in the season is foolish. Giving up Williams’ entire senior season for a quarter of his freshman one is a bold and selfish move for Diaco, who knows his job - with a $5 million buyout for this season - is essentially safe for at least one more year whether the team goes 6-6, 3-9 or anywhere in between. It simply costs too much to even consider looking for a new coach.

The biggest problem with this team has not been the quarterback, but rather a horrendous offensive line that has surrendered 32 sacks this season, including nine in their last two games. Coupled with a highly-touted defense that has grossly underachieved, UConn has struggled competing on both ends of the ball. A new quarterback doesn’t fix either of these issues. Right now, it’s hard to even say that Williams is a better player than Shirreffs, due to Shirreffs’ experience and deeper knowledge of the offense. A change for the sake of change doesn’t always make things better.

Had Williams not been injured in practice following the Huskies’ loss to Houston on Sept. 29, he would’ve been the starter, according to Diaco. That would mean he would have had the opportunity to play half of the season, a much easier pill to swallow than these last three games.

After Williams came back this past week, Diaco, like he has done on the field and with his game plan so many times this year, refused to change his mind and gave Williams permission to burn his redshirt. With that decision, he not only added more salt to the wound of this disappointing season, but may have squandered a season in the future.

Williams likely will be a good quarterback down the road. He certainly has the size and skills to do so. But now, he has one less year to make that happen. Who knows what missing that season will cost him in experience, statistics and maybe even dollars if he potentially gets drafted.

Winning football games in the present is certainly more important than winning in the future for the Huskies. Diaco insisted on that Friday night. Was Williams the better option in that case? It’s impossible to say for sure, but likely not.

Starting Williams showed fans and the media alike that the focus isn’t on the distant future for whatever reason, but instead is on this season and next year. Diaco wants to buy himself enough time to try and turn things around. Building around a young quarterback makes sense, but there’s still a slew of important decision and calls that need to be made. If this decision shows anything, it’s that Diaco very well may not make enough good decisions to live up the gaudy expectations he sets year in and year out.


Dan Madigan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering football and women's basketball. He can be reached via email at daniel.madigan@uconn.edu. He tweets @dmad1433.