Football: UConn faces defending national champions in season opener

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David Pindell (#5) drops back for a pass during the 2017 season. Pindell will be leading the Huskies offense from under center this season. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

If there was any one moment that signaled to UConn football fans what the 2018 season would entail, it would have been this past Sunday, when head coach Randy Edsall announced the depth chart for the Huskies’ first game of the season.

Eleven freshmen, both true and redshirt, are listed on the two-deep for UConn’s season opener against UCF at 7 p.m. on Thursday against UCF (televised on ESPNU).

“It’s a unique situation, I don’t know if I’ve ever had this many freshmen who are in the mix to play,” Edsall said in Sunday’s press conference.

Edsall is adamant that he isn’t going with this young of a lineup out of desperation, however.

“You hope…that doesn’t happen where they have to play because of necessity, because of where you are, because with your depth and everything else,” Edsall said. “They should have to play because they’re ready to play.”

Whether they’re starting out of necessity or not, the young bulls are going to have to grow up quickly Thursday night when they take on the defending national champions at Rentschler Field.

There isn’t much to say about UCF’s 2017 campaign that hasn’t been disputed heatedly by SEC message board denizens, discussed with mild amusement by casual college football fans, and gloated over by those who follow other schools that haven’t gotten a fair shake in the current system.

The Knights didn’t lose a game all season, and played in two instant classic games to end the conference schedule in the War on I-4 against USF and the American Championship Game against Memphis.

They then made the trip to Atlanta to face SEC powerhouse Auburn in the Peach Bowl, a game they came out victorious by a score of 34-27. The national champions moniker was introduced the next week.

After the season, they lost their head coach Scott Frost, the architect of their dream 2018 season, back to his alma mater Nebraska, replacing him with former Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, but they brought back so much more.

The last time the Knights’ firecracker quarterback McKenzie Milton came to East Hartford in 2016, he showed out, completing 29 of 45 passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns, both career highs, in a week eight win against the Huskies.

It turned out that performance was just a taste of what Milton was capable of, as he smoked through the American in 2017. Milton was top of the line in efficiency through the air (10.2 yards per pass thrown, second in FBS) and on the ground (7.06 yards per carry, fifth among quarterbacks).

With another year of experience under his belt, Milton could absolutely improve, but it still remains to be seen how he will deal with Heupel calling the plays.

Milton lost his leading target Tre’Quan Smith to the NFL last year, but retains leading rusher Adrian Killins, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry in his own right, as well as wiry speedster Dredrick Snelson, who averaged 11.2 yards per target in 2017.

After a miserable 2018 in which UConn’s opponents completed 67 percent of their passes for over 4,000 yards against their secondary, this will be the matchup to watch as defensive coordinator Billy Crocker attempts to find a successful combination in the “five” section of his 3-3-5.

Crocker will likely turn to Tyler Coyle, the only member of the unit with significant playing time under his belt, to anchor UConn’s secondary, but his biggest worries will lie in the brand new front six. Populated entirely by first and second-year players, they will be tasked with keeping Milton and Killins near the line of scrimmage.

Maybe the most shocking part of UConn’s starting lineup for Thursday comes at Crocker’s hybrid linebacker/safety “Husky” position, where redshirt freshman Ian Swenson supplanted veteran Marshe Terry, who was the Huskies’ second leading tackler in 2017.

If the Huskies want to keep this game interesting, the answer will lie on the offensive side of the ball. UCF lost two of their greatest defensive players in history to the NFL last year, linebacker Shaquem Griffin and cornerback Mike Hughes.

Now veteran defensive coordinator Randy Shannon will have to pick up the pieces. Steady sophomore Brandon Moore is back, and if Shannon can get Moore and Alabama transfer Aaron Robinson up to speed, he could have the tools to create another above-average defense.

Senior quarterback David Pindell gets a new beginning after a sneakily respectable 84 completions and 937 yards passing through four games as a starter last year, and will have to take advantage of UCF’s less-experienced secondary with his weapons, tight end Aaron McClean and No. 1 wide receiver Hergy Mayala, among others.

The baby Huskies will have to grow up quick in the first two games of the season, and Thursday is just the start of a long season, during which Edsall and co. will figure out what pieces they ca count on for 2019 and beyond.


Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at luke.swanson@uconn.edu.

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