The 1-5 UConn Huskies got a rare chance to step away from the football field during their bye week. The coaching staff hit the recruiting trails. Players did their best to rest and recharge. Running back Zavier Scott went to Six Flags with his family. In addition to the much needed R&R, the bye week is usually an optimal time to assess what the team needs to improve on in both the short and long term. But some startling news forced the Huskies to take a step back and reflect in more ways than one.
The University of Connecticut announced on Monday that junior linebacker Eli Thomas had suffered a stroke prior to a weightlifting session last week. Thomas had established himself as a leader in the locker-room for his tenacity on the field and his resilience to get back on it, already having undergone three separate knee surgeries in his college career.
“It’s really sad and it hurts because that’s a guy that gives 100 percent all the time,” said wide receiver Tyraiq Beals. “He’s a real energy guy and for something like that to happen to him after everything he’s been through, it really does hurt us a lot.”
Safety Omar Fortt wore Thomas’s No. 22 at practice on Tuesday, and linebacker Santana Sterling will don the number during Saturday’s game against USF.
“He’s one of the guys that comes to our weekly recovery run and he obviously wasn’t able to make it this week, so we put his jersey out there,” said Zavier Scott. “He’s still with us.”
Thomas’s on-the-field absence is a major loss for a defense that has been struggling to keep opposing teams out of the end zone all season long. Forced to start eight freshmen, UConn’s defense averages 658.2 yards given up per game, dead last in all of FBS. Head coach Randy Edsall admits that no amount of coaching can fully make up the gap that UConn has in age with their competition.
“We’re playing against a lot of teams that are junior–senior oriented, which isn’t a good match-up for us,” said Edsall. “I can’t just push a button and make them 15 pounds heavier or make them bench press 40 pounds more or squat 50 pounds more.”
The team’s younger makeup is why Edsall said the team wasn’t going to dramatically change their schemes during the break.
“You’re not going to make wholesale adjustments, we believe in what we’re doing,” said Edsall. “You take a look at things, but I’m not going to panic or anything like that. I know what we’re doing and where we’re going.”
With recruiting for next season already underway, Edsall said that no roster spot is guaranteed for next year. If Edsall brings in a recruiting class that can help the Huskies compete immediately, he’s going to let those players play over some of the team’s current veterans.
“Nobody is guaranteed a fifth year,” said Edsall. “If we want to get to where we want to go, these are some of the tough decisions that are on my shoulders.”
According to Edsall, the program puts more emphasis on the quality of a potential player and how they would fit than the quantity of recruits they bring in. In Edsall’s mind, he would rather have 10 new freshmen that bleed Husky blue than bring in 30 that don’t buy into the team culture.
“We’ve got to find those guys that fit what we’re about,” said Edsall. “I’m going to do what I have to do to try to get this thing right as quickly as I can while doing it the right way and doing it with the right people.”
The Huskies will face USF this Saturday at 7 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium in Florida.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.