The University of Connecticut football team will open up their 2016 season in East Hartford on Thursday night, as they host Division I FCS opponent Maine at Rentschler Field. The Huskies will begin their quest to improve on a surprisingly successful 2015 season, in which they finished 6-7 and secured the program’s first bowl bid since 2011.
There has not been overwhelming turnover in personnel from last year’s UConn team, which rode a stout defense to six wins, including a stunning 20-17 win last November over a Houston team that entered the contest undefeated. The Huskies will bring back most of their key contributors on both sides of the ball, and look to continue their rise up the standings of the American Athletic Conference, which was firmly entrenched in the national rankings last year. The first opponent they’ll face is Maine, which competes in NCAA Division I FCS, rather than in the FBS.
“(Maine) is a formidable team, one that we’re really excited to have the opportunity to play,” UConn head coach Bob Diaco said in a press conference Sunday.
Last year, the Huskies also opened the season against an FCS opponent in Villanova, with UConn prevailing 20-15 at Rentschler Field. Villanova went on top Maine 13-3 on Halloween night, as the Black Bears lost their last four games and finished with a 3-8 record.
Looking to bounce back this season, Maine replaced a large portion of their coaching staff. Previous head coach Jack Cosgrove, who stepped down last November after 23 seasons in charge of the program, will be succeeded this year by Joe Harasymiak.
With Thursday’s matchup representing game one for this new coaching staff, Diaco believes the mystery of the opposing sideline’s game plan may pose a potential roadblock.
“There’s no deep understanding of what they’re going to do,” Diaco said, explaining that nearly “two-thirds” of Maine’s coaching staff and leadership was new this year. “When you have someone that’s coordinated over the course of six years, ten years, twelve years, and you get the chance to watch them and the units that they lead, there’s typically a consistency there. These two units – the offense and the special teams – are completely new. They hired talented minds from strong systems. It creates a challenge for us, not knowing what they’re going to do.”
For the Huskies, they need to combat this unfamiliarity by doing their part, and bringing along some of the plays they’ve worked on for months. Thursday represents the first opportunity for their offseason work to come to fruition.
“When you get into game week, you really just cherry pick from the overall menu. It’s not like you go into the game with the full complement (of plays) from the system,” Diaco said. “It’s a little harder in game one, with a brand new staff. That creates complexity with drilling down exactly what you want to do.”
Diaco talked at length Sunday about the importance of developing a strong running game, which will be a storyline to follow this season as UConn attempts to develop an offense more well-equipped to support its stingy defense. The Huskies were held under 20 points in six of their seven losses last season, and their offense went scoreless in a 7-3 win at Tulane, with an interception return providing the only UConn points.
The UConn offense will be led again by quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who showed potential last year as both a passer and runner. Shifty running back Arkeel Newsome and experienced wide receiver Noel Thomas return as well, along with four of the five starters from last year’s offensive line.
This continuity had Shirreffs feeling good about the offenses’ potential, a unit that desperately needs him to make plays to stay on the field.
“I have confidence in whatever we put in as an offense. We feel comfort, especially personally, in every play we call. So if you’re really successful passing the ball, the run’s going to open up. If you’re extremely successful running the ball, the pass is going to open up. I think that a good mixture of the two of them leads to great success,” Shirreffs said.
Fans will get to see the first installment of this year’s offense Thursday at Rentschler Field, as UConn battles Maine. It may not be a tough matchup for the Huskies on paper, but it will serve as a litmus test for how far they have come this offseason, and possibly a preview of bigger things to come this season. Beyond that, it’s the beginning of a new year of UConn football, which has inspired excitement in Connecticut recently under Diaco’s leadership. The team is similarly excited to get things started in 2016.
“You can smell it in the grass, just feel the energy around the building, and around the country. College football is starting up, and it’s the best feeling there is,” Shirreffs said.
UConn and Maine will kick off Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Rentschler Field.
Tyler Keating is associate sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.