EAST HARTFORD — When UConn first reached the Football Bowl Subdivision over a decade ago, the Huskies demonstrated a prolific aerial attack led by quarterback Dan Orlovsky.
Since then, the quarterback position has had more lows than highs over the years. Just in the last two seasons, three quarterbacks have made starts under center for the Huskies, all with minimal success.
Bryant Shirreffs looks to change all of that.
After throwing for 202 yards and two touchdowns in UConn’s season-opening win over Villanova, the North Carolina State transfer pieced together another excellent performance in UConn’s 22-17 win over Army (0-2). Shirreffs accounted for 301 yards of the Huskies (2-0) 415 yards of total offense, going 19 for 25 and throwing for a career-high 270 yards while adding 31 yards with his legs.
“He made great choices. He’s a leader,” Diaco said of Shirreffs. “You’ve got him taking command and that next level of leadership and making smart choices and putting the ball around and not putting it in jeopardy, which is the main things.”
Shirreffs’ proficiency in the pocket has added a whole new element to the UConn offense. Not only are wide receivers able to create plays after the catch due to Shirreffs’ passes, but it also helps open holes for running backs like Arkeel Newsome, who racked up 73 yards and a rushing touchdown on the day.
“Every play, they never know what’s coming. Him having the ability to do that [throw the ball] is great,” Newsome said. “When they’re not keying on me, they’re keying on him and it’s just vice-versa.”
The redshirt sophomore’s ability to execute has also been due to a widely improved group of receivers. Four receivers had at least 40 yards receiving, led by Noel Thomas’ 83 yards.
Thomas’ growth as a pass catcher has helped instill confidence in Shirreffs’ decision making, knowing that he has a receiver willing to go up and get the ball if he runs into trouble.
The two connected twice on the Huskies’ final drive of the first half to give UConn a 12-10 lead heading into halftime. Shirreffs took a huge hit on his first throw of the drive, but Thomas managed to catch the pass for a 33-yard gain. One play later, Shirreffs hit a streaking Thomas down the sideline for 26 yards to get the Huskies into the red zone.
“His hands are ridiculous,” Shirreffs said of Thomas. “It’s great to be able to have confidence in someone and throw it up just one-on-one, you know you can go to him in a game like this. Seeing Noel make plays and the rest of the offense make plays is really fun.”
“Bryant’s doing a great job being a leader. He’s just a natural born leader,” Thomas said. “It starts with him and the [offensive] line and I think everyone has done a good job.”
Shirreffs’ only blunder of the game came on the fourth play of the Huskies’ opening drive. On 3rd and 6, Shirreffs had no open receivers and looked to scramble for a first down. While on the run, he extended to try and get the first down, but fumbled the ball in the process for his second turnover of the season.
Despite the early turnover, Shirreffs bounced back on the ensuing drive, leading UConn on an 11-play, 69-yard march to make it a 3-3 game.
“I mean I wouldn’t say that I make the best decisions. If someone else said that, I’d be happy, but I tend to see the bad part of my game more than good part, so I just am trying to fix some errors that I made,” Shirreffs said. “As far as ball security, that’s one of the things I really pride myself on, and today I put the ball on the ground, and that can’t happen if we want to beat anyone. We just got lucky today.”
While it’s only two games into the season, Shirreffs has already demonstrated skill and ability at the quarterback position that UConn hasn’t seen in years. As opposing teams watch more tape and gain more information on Shirreffs, he will have to continue to meticulously prepare for games in order to compensate for other team’s adjustments, something head coach Bob Diaco thinks he will do just fine.
“He loves studying football. He studies himself, he studies real hard, he practices hard, he’s intense at the meetings. He’s not a guy that like drifts off, he doesn’t get distracted,” Diaco said. “He probably doesn’t have a lot of other things than academics that distract his life.”
Despite all of his personal success, Shirreffs isn’t immersed in his own statistics. What truly matters to him is that his team is 2-0 for the first time in five years, he said.
“All we want to do is win,” Shirreffs said. “When it comes down to it, whenever we get a win however it may be, that’s all you can ask for.”