With an earlier-than-usual spring schedule, and a new strength coach, UConn football is undergoing a culture shift in year three of Randy Edsall’s second stint in Storrs.
“Having the schedule that we had, I think it’s been very beneficial to us. You can see it, their bodies, they’re getting stronger,” Edsall said. “That was one of the objectives that we had by moving spring practice up as early as we did, so we can get more time in the weight room.”
With the team coming off a historically bad season, due to a large number of undersized and untested freshmen getting a lot of first team reps, strength was a priority. Thanks to the program’s new strength coach, Matt King, the results speak for themselves.
“That’s the other thing. That’s made a world of difference. Matt King, our strength coach—ton of difference,” Edsall said. “Matt and his staff, and Marcus, have done a tremendous job. You can just see the difference, and feel the difference and the energy. And that’s where it all starts: The weight room.”
The season starts and ends in the weight room. Bonds are built and trust is earned. And thanks to a one million dollar donation from program booster Chris Fraser, both the weight room and the locker room are set to be completely redone within the next few weeks, Edsall confirmed.
No matter how modern and well-done the weight room may be, the results remain priority number one. For linebacker and tri-captain Eli Thomas, King, the former Washington strength coach, has connected with the team in a way that makes the hard and gritty work fun again.
“Oh my gosh, 100 percent. Coach King is doing a great job,” Thomas said. “He makes us love to be here and love to workout. We have so much fun. It’s not like we didn’t have fun, it’s a different level. We can understand him and he can understand us.”
And that’s another sign of things shifting within the program: Captains are back. Gone are the days of Edsall’s 10-man Leadership Council, a group of captain-esque players who were in charge of their position groups, leaving game captains to be determined on a weekly basis. Now, the team has three captains: Thomas, offensive lineman Matt Peart and punter Luke Magliozzi.
“I didn’t think we had strong enough guys to lead a team. Guys didn’t deserve to have that ‘C’ on their chest and probably didn’t understand what the expectations were for our program,” Edsall said, explaining the revert to traditional captains.
“Nobody asked to be a captain. They just do it, that’s how they are,” Thomas said. “I think just the way that I’ve kept going and pushing through things, I think people understand like “Whoa, if Eli can come back after three ACLs and a stroke, then maybe it’s not too bad” and that’s what makes me keep going.”
Thomas has gone through an awful lot to get to the position he’s in today. After battling three torn ACL injuries, Thomas suffered a stroke a season ago. He spent 10 days in the ICU and another six regaining his motor skills before being named captain. Even with his playing future in jeopardy, Thomas, who once said when life gives him lemons, “I make grape juice,” wants to remain a leader and a presence amongst his teammates, while only asking for one thing.
“I just want people working.”
Edsal said these young men have done things for the program “that hadn’t been done in two years.” Now, guys are pushing each other harder in the weight room and on the field. Peart noted how guys are pushing for every guy to give the extra effort and go for bigger weights, with some going for an extra set if a teammate out-lifts them. Magliozzi said the energy is so great, guys are ripping off shirts during workouts.
“When it starts coming from those guys, that’s when you have a chance,” Edsall said.
Edsall stressed the notion of player accountability, an aspect of the program already being demonstrated in the weight room. But the weight room is not far enough. A “player driven” mentality, teammates playing for the sake of their brothers and not the coach, is what builds winning football programs.
“Most definitely. I feel that guys are buying into the whole idea that for us to be successful, it has to be player driven,” Peart said.
“We do it for our brothers, not for the coaches. For each other. Like I’m doing it for the guy next to me,” the redshirt senior offensive lineman added.
Last season, described as “lackluster” by Peart, is not totally in the rearview mirror. Peart says he uses it to push guys harder, as a sign of where the team cannot return. Thomas commented that the team “can only go up” from where they were a year ago. With a pair of disappointing seasons to kick-off Edsall’s return to the program, one thing remains clear about year three.
“The enthusiasm, the effort is better than it’s ever been since I’ve been back,” Edsall said.
Kevin Arnold is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.