With UConn football one-third of the way into their season, Sports Editor Matt Zampini and Associate Sports Editor Dan Madigan hand out their grades for the team in offense, defense and special teams. The Huskies are currently 2-2 and travel to Provo, Utah this week to take on Brigham Young University.
Matt: The UConn offense has been OK thus far. Through four games this season, the Huskies have already matched their win total from a season ago, but it hasn’t really been from their offense. But the fact of the matter is that the offense hasn’t been able to be consistent enough. They aren’t executing the way that head coach Bob Diaco would like them to.
Through four games, they haven’t scored over 22 points. They are averaging 320 yard per game on offense, ranking 120th out of 127 teams, according to ESPN.
The Huskies are ranked 82nd in the country with 212 passing yards per game and 116th with 108 rushing yards.
We’ve seen flashes of brilliance with this offense, though. In fact, the first possession of the season, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs led the team down the field for a touchdown. Certainly better than anything we’ve seen in the past few years at UConn.
In the red zone, UConn has scored a touchdown on six of 11 trips (55 percent).
The offense is different this season. Shirreffs is a mobile quarterback and he has the ability to escape the pocket when the opportunity presents itself. With a shaky offensive line in past years, the quarterbacks haven’t been able to do that. The offensive line has improved, but Shirreffs has been sacked 12 times in four games.
If the Huskies want to win more games they’re going to have to put up more than 20 points. It starts with execution.
Dan: Compared to last season, this offense looks light years better. Compared to normal college offenses, it’s just okay, but it’s still a step in the right direction.
Like Matt said, that first drive of the season was nothing short of magical, and while it hasn’t happened on every drive this year so far, it shows that Diaco’s offense has the potential to be an effective offense.
The biggest improvement has come with the receiving corps. Noel Thomas has done pretty much all he possibly could so far to back up Diaco’s bold statement at the beginning of the year saying that he was one of the top wide receivers in the country.
Thomas has been one of Shirreffs’ favorite targets so far, leading UConn with 19 catches for 286 yards. Alongside Thomas, tight ends Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom have taken on bigger roles in the offense, as well as true freshman wide receiver Tyraiq Beals and Thomas Lucas. Beals is second behind Thomas with 13 receptions for 132 yards.
Like Matt said, the offensive line has shown improvement. While they’ve allowed 12 sacks to Shirreffs already, some of those are due to him looking to extend plays with his legs and remaining in the pocket for a long time.
The biggest issue for the line has been in the running game, where they are only averaging 2.9 yards per carry, even worse than their 3.3 yards per carry average last year. As running back Arkeel Newsome gets more touches, run blocking will need to improve to open holes for the smaller, more speed-oriented running back.
Matt: The defense is why UConn has started the season 2-2. And they very well could be 3-1.
They held Missouri, a SEC powerhouse, to just nine points.
The Huskies are 21st in the country in total yards allowed per game (295) and sixth in passing yards allowed (125).
They are led by senior captain Andrew Adams, who has a team-leading two interceptions and 34 tackles. He had a career-high 17 tackles vs. Navy.
But in all seriousness, if not for the defense — and this was the case last year, too — the Huskies wouldn’t be in a lot of games just because of how the lack of offensive production.
Most of the starters were back from last season, so this group is experienced. UConn is just beginning its conference schedule, and they will play Cincinnati and Houston, two teams that are ranked in the Top 10 in the country in total yards per game, this defense will have its work cut out for them.
Dan: As usual, the UConn defense is as stingy as ever. The Huskies have always been known for having a top-notch defense, and this year has been no different. While Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds torched UConn for four touchdowns en route to a 28-18 win for the Midshipmen, the Huskies still held Navy to nearly 100 yards below their 393 yards of total rushing, the highest total in the country.
Other than the Navy game, the defense has done well, using their size and speed to their advantage in wins over Villanova and Army, and holding back-to-back SEC east division champion Missouri to just nine points.
A big benefit for this defense is the improved offense. With the offense showing signs of life and sustaining long drives, the defense is on the field less and not getting overworked like last year. While it has already paid off so far, the dividends will be even bigger as the season goes on and the defense has less wear and tear.
Not to mention, the Huskies have both experience and talent on this side of the football. Linebacker Graham Stewart has been racked up 20 tackles, and fullback-turned-linebacker Matt Walsh has been a huge success filling in for an injured Marquise Vann, ranking fourth on the team with 21 tackles. Sophomore Luke Carrezola has been a monster with 16 tackles, four of which have been for loss.
As Diaco expected prior to the season, the play of the safeties has been solid. Adams has demonstrated his superb talent, leading the team in tackles and picks, and Obi Melifonwu hasn’t been far behind, racking up 23 tackles and breaking up two passes.
Matt: UConn has had three extra points blocked in the first four games of the season. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
They also haven’t had a lot of touchbacks. Opponents have returned 14 kicks against UConn this year for 257 yards. The Huskies have only returned six kicks for 85 yards.
Dan: Matt pretty much said it all. Puyol started the season having a PAT blocked in the first games, but snapped the streak against Navy. Diaco attributed the issue to a lack of blocking, but it seemed like more of a trajectory issue from Puyol’s kicks. Either way, it looks like it might have been fixed, at least for the time being
The lack of touchbacks hasn’t hurt the Huskies yet, but could come back to bite the Huskies if they have to kick off to a dangerous return man. Kickoff man Michael Tarbutt has a big leg, so once he acclimates a little more to this level, he may show some improvement.
Perhaps the lone bright spot on special teams was Justin Wain’s fake punt against Missouri, where he ran for 13-yards and a first down. Other than that, punting has been a weak point too. While only one punt has been blocked, Wain ranks 114th out of 123 punters in average punt distance with 38.1 That needs to be improved if the Huskies want to have a chance at making a bowl appearance this season. Special teams is more important than it gets credit for.