EAST HARTFORD – UConn football made its return to the gridiron Friday night under the lights at Rentschler Field with the 2017 Spring Game. With returning head coach Randy Edsall unofficially on the sidelines for the first team in his second stint as UConn coach, the UConn side defeated the Huskies 27-24 in an informal scrimmage.
Here are five takeaways from the spring game.
1. Offense moves fast, and it could get faster
The biggest surprise from Friday’s game was the fast-moving pace of the UConn offense, which hurried quickly to the line of scrimmage after plays to keep the defense off balance.
“I thought they adjusted to it pretty good,” Edsall said after the game Friday about the offense’s use of an up-tempo pace. “I thought that we were a little bit more consistent, tonight, all the way through.”
With speed on their side, both UConn sides scored touchdowns on their first possessions, a far cry from the first quarter futility of last year’s UConn offense.
And Friday was just the result of 15 spring practices. Edsall believes that as the team continues to work, the pace will continue to quicken.
“I know we can play even a little faster than that,” Edsall said.
2. Defense also poised, learning
The offensive players stood out more Friday, possibly because they had the ball in their hands, as Edsall alluded to in his postgame press conference. However, the UConn coach was impressed by the progress and poise of both units, while continuing to emphasize that more progress must come.
“Overall, I thought both sides [offense and defense] really adjusted to the tempo, and now they understand the kind of shape that they have to be in in order to play the style that we’re going to play,” Edsall said.
3. Mayala leads crew of receivers trying to fill Noel Thomas’ shoes
With the graduation of wide receiver Noel Thomas, the Huskies lost a player that posted 100 receptions and 1,179 receiving yards last year. Edsall talked after the game Friday about the benefits of replacing one dominant pass catcher with several reliable ones, and named one receiver as the potential alpha dog of the new unit.
“To me, if all those guys can emulate the work ethic and the commitment to get better than Hergy [Mayala] has, then we’ll be really good,” Edsall said. “That guy will be the leader of that group, and what an example he sets for those kids.”
Mayala hopes to build on Friday’s encouraging showing.
“We executed well, but we’re far away from where we want to be, and this summer’s going to be useful for us,” Mayala said.
4. Young playmakers show what they can do
Several young offensive players filled up the stat sheet Friday. Running back Nate Hopkins punched in three touchdowns, while fellow back Ja’Kevious Vickers added 54 rushing yards. Wide receiver Quayvon Skanes caught seven passes for 75 passes.
Arguably the most impressive showing came from wide receiver Keyion Dixon, who caught five passes for 94 yards and added a 12-yard rush. Dixon impressed with his hands and his ability to run after the catch.
5. Shirreffs is back in town
Senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs lost his job late in the 2016 campaign, raising questions about his future as the leader of the UConn offense, but Shirreffs made a strong claim towards the job Friday. Shirreffs completed 19-of-33 passes for 310 yards, showing strong accuracy on passes down the field, and looked better than sophomore Brandon Bisack, the other quarterback to receive snaps Friday night.
In what was a common refrain among the offensive players after the game, Shirreffs expressed his support for the offensive pace.
“I think the efficiency in the offense is unbelievable. It’s a pleasure to be a part of it, and to be able to learn. It’s by no means easy to learn, but it’s challenging and then very rewarding when you put the work in and understand things,” Shirreffs said.