When the UConn athletic department hired back Randy Edsall as head football coach last offseason, it was generally understood that the expectations were not high for the man who oversaw their transition from Division 1-AA to the FBS subdivision.
He would be stripping the car down to bare metal, undertaking his most ambitious rebuilding project since 1999, undoing all of the damage caused first by Paul Pasqualoni, then by Bob Diaco.
His first season was predictably rough, as the 2017 version of the Huskies went 3-9, rising a modest four spots to 119th in S&P+, but there was a glimpse of what the new, improved Edsall-ball could be, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
If Rhett Lashlee’s new look offense did one thing, it put some points on the board. The Huskies rose from 120th to 82nd in yards per play, and especially revived the career of senior quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who ended the season ranked 14th (!) in yards per pass thrown.
Now Shirreffs has graduated, Lashlee left to join fellow air raid guru Sonny Dykes in SMU, and new offensive coordinator John Dunn has to pick up where he left off.
Dunn was a tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator under Edsall, who speaks highly enough of Dunn to convince anyone that he’ll be the key to continuing the Huskies’ offensive improvements.
“Having John join our staff as offensive coordinator/quarterback coach will enhance our staff tremendously, as he has a wealth of knowledge in different schemes and has learned and coached under some of the best offensive minds in the game,” Edsall said.
Edsall and Dunn both made a big deal about going from last year’s up-tempo offense to an attack can both speed it up and slow it down, which is really coach-speak for calming down Lashlee’s frenetic approach.
Dunn will work with senior David Pindell as starting quarterback announced last week. Pindell was named last year’s starter at the onset of the season as well, so Edsall certainly does have confidence in the Maryland native.
He’ll have to prove it on the field, of course, something he did not do last year around this time. Pindell started four games last year, completing just 53% of his passes for 937 yards on the year.
The good news is, he’ll have a plethora of big targets to throw to, including 6’3” No. 1 receiver Hergy Mayala, who had 43 catches for a team-leading 615 yards last year, and 6’5” wide receiver-turned-tight end Aaron McClean, who leads all returning skill players with 15.9 yards per catch.
Now for the less positive part of the offense: UConn had an absolutely brutal running game in 2017, ranking 106th in yards per rush attempt, and that was before losing star running back Arkeel Newsome to graduation.
The Huskies seemed to have a backup plan, however, in the form of sophomore Kevin Mensah. The Worcester native led the whole backfield with 4.45 yards per carry in 2017, and figures to be the feature back going forward.
Then over the course of the offseason, they lost their second-leading rusher among running backs in Nate Hopkins, who left the team due to concerns about his usage this year.
Next Donovan O’Reilly, a walk-on who had just received a scholarship and was taking reps with the first team offense, tore his ACL in a specials teams drill and saw his season end before it even began.
That leaves the following to back up Mensah on the ground:
Zavier Scott, a former wide receiver from Germany who redshirted last season, as Edsall and co. found out the best way to use him.
Khyon Gillespie, a freshman out of Capital Prep who earned all-state honors twice, and Dante Black, a freshman from Lilburn, Georgia and UConn’s highest-rated recruit of 2018.
Whoever is running the ball will do so behind an experienced, if not amazing, offensive line. The big uglies will be anchored up front by two veteran 6’7” tackles, junior Matt Peart and sophomore Ryan Van Demark, as well as senior center Matt Peart.
The Huskies will have to deal with even more roster turnover on the defensive side of the ball. A less than ideal situation for a group that let up the most points in program history last year. UConn’s defense will be without eight of their starters from their last season. Among the departures are four of the Huskies’ six leading tacklers from last season. Tyler Coyle and Marshe Terry are the sole players returning who managed to rack up over 50 tackles in 2017.
Heading into his sophomore season, Coyle is a grizzled veteran compared to the fresh faces around him. Coyle’s two interceptions in 2017 led the team and the Windsor-native finished third on the team in tackles. His fellow starting cornerback could also be his classmate. Tahj Herring Wilson started two games in 2017 and seems to have the inside track on the starting job in 2018 after an impressive camp. Omar Fortt is also a candidate to see time in the secondary. Despite his roster designation as a linebacker, Fortt has played safety in training camp. Head coach Randy Edsall also announced earlier this month that freshman Keyshawn Paul would round out the quartet of starting DB’s.
The loss of linebacker Junior Joseph, the Huskies’ leading tackler and all-conference honorable mention, leaves a sizable hole in the middle of UConn’s front seven. The hope is that redshirt junior Marshe Terry will bring leadership and the tenacity that made him one of UConn’s leading tacklers in 2017 as he switches from safety to linebacker. Freshman linebacker Kevon Jones has also impressed this summer and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the East Hartford-native in the starting lineup on opening night.
Maybe no position was more depleted this summer than the defensive line. With Cole Ormsby, Folorunso Fatusaki and Luke Carrezola out of the program, UConn has a definite need for veteran presence in the trenches. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a deficit of talent. Defensive lineman Travis Jones is a true freshman who could be a true difference maker on defense. At 6’5” and 350 pounds, Jones has the size to immediately grapple with players older than him and that have spent more time in a college training program. Caleb Thomas, who sat out last year as a redshirt, could make an immediate impact as well. Ryan Fines, a graduate transfer from Miami, also adds some depth on the defensive line.
After allowing a program record 37.9 points per game in 2017, it’s clear the Huskies can’t rely on just another year’s experience and familiarity to spur their improvement. They will need their newcomers to hit the ground running and contribute immediately if UConn is going to inch back toward football respectability in 2018.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.