UConn needs Kevin Mensah.
The Huskies defense is a problem. In Bill Connelly’s S&P analytics the Huskies are No. 130 (out of 130) in defensive S&P +, an adjusted scoring metric. In traditional measures they have allowed the most yards (2020, only team over 2000 in the country) and most points per game (55.7).
Even if that side of the ball makes large strides, which with a host of freshman playing integral roles is unlikely, it is fair to say the unit will be a tremendous liability all season long. Which means UConn needs points, and lots of them. This was clearly evident last weekend as UConn allowed 49 points to FCS foe URI, just narrowly escaping with a win by posting 56 of their own.
In that game Kevin Mensah, a true sophomore from Worcester, Massachusetts had 25 carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns. On the season Mensah has 55 carries for 285 yards and has been the Huskies RB1 the last two games. He is also listed atop the depth chart heading to Syracuse this weekend.
A small (5’9”, 195 lbs) back, Mensah compensates with tremendous speed and vision. He couples with David Pindell to pose a dynamic threat in the backfield, and with an offensive line that has been shaky, the two need to create plays for UConn to move the ball and put up the massive sum of points they will need to compete the rest of the season. After losing Donovan O’Reilly in the preseason, it is imperative that Mensah standout in a team lacking options.
Before UConn needed Kevin Mensah, Kevin Mensah needed UConn. A star at Holy Name Central Catholic in his native Worcester, Mensah transferred to nearby Shepherd Hill High School in Dudley, Massachusetts to play his final year for coach Chris Lindstrom and a program that sent two linemen to Boston College, a tight end to Michigan and a new dynasty dominating Central Mass. Except it didn’t quite go as planned. Holy Name felt the transfer was unethical and unfair and did everything in their power to prevent Mensah from being eligible.
Mensah missed the first two games due to a MIAA suspension and it took two different court injunctions gave him temporary reprieves to play before the court system finally turned down the last of the MIAA’s appeals and let him take the field. Preceding the debacle was another one where Mensah had expected to enroll at local prep powerhouse and prospect factory Cheshire Academy, but they left him out to dry.
A glamorous and productive sophomore and junior year put him in the local recruiting spotlight, but his inability to play and media circus surrounding him took away from his prestige as a prospect. Mensah considered returning to Holy Name or going prep, but decided to stick it out and eventually made it on the field after enduring a turbulent experience.
“Just keep(ing) believing. When things don’t go your way just keep working because without football you never know. Going through that process was tough but (you) just got to keep going and good things will happen,” said Mensah on what the experience taught him.
It is a mindset he had to embrace then and now.
“It was almost similar to this year. Without academics you can’t play football, so I had to focus on academics. I kind of knew the habits to do”, Mensah said. He is referring to being listed behind redshirt freshman Zavier Scott on the depth chart for the home opener, after spring where he faced some relegation, something head coach Randy Edsall alluded was due to the fact Mensah wasn’t getting it done in the classroom. While in the doghouse Mensah utilized that same approach from his past to crawl his way out.
Back in high school he endured a strenuous process to be in a spot where he could take the field for a school like UConn.
“As Kevin was working on his football game, he was working just as hard on fulfilling the NCAA required classroom eligibility requirements for Division one football...Kevin’s persistent, dogging desire became a reality of playing major college football at UConn,” said Chris Lindstrom, a former NFL lineman and his coach at Shepherd Hill.
Mensah never considered not playing high level college football. He had local programs looking at him and a preferred walk on spot at Michigan available, but by June after his senior year, incredibly late in the recruiting process, was still uncommitted.
“I never thought (about it) but I probably would (have) done like post-grad, played for a year then left early …but I’m happy to be here. I’m happy UConn chose me; I’m happy they believed in me,” Mensah said.
Lindstrom said, “Kevin’s goal was only to play major, Division one college football and invested all of his energies to develop his body and make himself academically eligible to play Division one football. Division one football was his only goal and he invested 100 percent. Teams have different needs and UConn was in need of a running back this was a perfect marriage.”
“Kevin has backed up all the things that he does,” said head coach Randy Edsall. “It is not a surprise to me that he has played as well as he is because of how hard he works…You talk about a young man who has a passion to play the game and a passion to be as good as he can be.”
The production is not all derived from intangibles, however.
“He started to get a little more comfortable with reading his blocks and making some cuts, seeing a defense ahead of time and maybe anticipate things,” said Edsall.
It is unknown if he can read Edsall’s mind, or just overheard his remarks, but he and Edsall are on the same page. When I asked the biggest difference between last season and this one Mensah said, “My patience, vision, just reading my blocks.”
UConn needs Mensah to build off the URI game and stay in a groove. When asked what it means for him to be in such a state Mensah regurgitated the apparent company line, “Patience. Block reading. That’s the main focus when I’m excelling.”
Mensah is not a finished product, nor can he be satisfied with what he has done to this point. If his past is any indication, he will keep working to get better and is taking some steps in the improvement process.
“Just working hard. Seeing what other running backs do…I try to see how they make their cuts, what’s their one-two jab before a cut, how do they catch the ball, how do they burst out of the hole, how do they read their holes and all that stuff,” Mensah said when asked how he becomes a better running back.
He referenced Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley as two he has observed with a thieving eye. When asked which pro he may be most similar to he lists Tyreek Hill but with less speed. Yet he aspires to be like Le’Veon Bell. Ricky Williams was a favorite growing up.
Big names and lofty expectations, but Mensah is familiar with chasing his goals with persistence.
“I’m just going to keep working hard and believing in myself. I’m sure the coaches believe in me too but they’re more realistic. I just listen to them and do what they say; I try to go to the full extent and I try to do more things so that I can have more opportunity and maybe a shot to go to the NFL,” he said.
Lindstrom and those from his past have stayed involved, keeping an eye on his UConn career on and off the field. “Our current recommendations to Kevin are to work hard in the classroom and do exactly what his coaches tell him to do on the football field,” said Lindstrom.
“The time and effort he’s putting into it are paying off for him,” said Edsall. “He’s a great example for other guys like David Pindell. Those are guys who are great examples for other guys on the team. When you work that hard and put that much into it and have that much you can go out there and play well.”
He is just scratching the surface of what he can do. In the sphere of high school football with less talent around, Mensah produced as a receiver, on special teams and as a leader while playing in the Ram’s double wing formation. The UConn staff would undoubtedly love to have a well-rounded dynamo as well.
“Kevin has a lot more to give to UConn He has unlimited potential growth. I look forward to him excelling for UConn and seeing him play on Sundays,” says Lindstrom.
UConn doesn’t just need production. They need leaders and program changers. Guys are going to set the culture. UConn came through when Kevin Mensah was in a hard spot, now he is on his way to returning the favor.
Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.