The Coleumn: The Spring Showcase highlighted the early stages of the Reload

12-19-2022 Myrtle Beach Bowl FB v Marshall by Izzi Barton. UConn Football falls to Marshall University 14-28 at the Myrtle Beach Bowl on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, at Brooks Stadium at Coastal Carolina University. This was UConn’s first appearance in a bowl game since 2015. They end their season with a 6-7 record.

On April 22, the UConn football team hosted their second annual Spring Showcase at Joseph J. Morrone Stadium. This showcase, once again occurring during Spring Weekend, served as the opening act of a new college football season as fans learned more about the team heading into the fall. With not enough players to make two full teams, the Huskies used the showcase to highlight competitive situations and have players display their talents rather than run a regular scrimmage. 

After earning bowl eligibility in 2022 and becoming one of the nation’s best feel-good stories, head coach Jim Mora has changed the team’s mindset from the Husky Revolution to the Reload. While the confidence and comfort of the system are significantly different from last year, some of the newer players who invested in the Reload really stood out to me in the reps that they did get. 

With Ta’Quan Roberson still recovering from a torn ACL, the quarterback competition has come down to Zion Turner and Joseph Fagnano. Zion Turner has a year of starting experience under his belt, but Fagnano worked with Offensive Coordinator Nick Charlton as he played under him for three years at the University of Maine. The senior quarterback had a strong passing season in 2022, starting all 11 games while throwing for 2,231 yards and 15 touchdowns. 

“The quarterback competition has been really healthy, and I think that has elevated everyone on our whole offensive team,” Mora commented before the Spring Showcase. “I think our passing game has really improved a ton.” 

In addition to the two signal callers, incoming freshman, Tucker McDonald, showed flashes of brilliance when he took to the field. While I could not find any stats from his senior campaign, he ended his Wachusett Regional High School career with a bang as he threw for six touchdowns and rushed for another against Shrewsbury High School. 

Wide receivers play an important role in making the passing game a success, but despite the competition of the quarterbacks, Mora mentioned how he had a slight concern at the receiver position, especially since Aaron Turner, Keelan Marion and Nigel Fitzgerald all entered the transfer portal. Despite the mass exodus, incoming freshman Jackson Harper showed the greatest potential amongst all receivers, especially given his strong performance in a simulation of the NFL Draft combine created by Mora. During his senior season at Avon Old Farms, Harper caught 37 passes for 898 yards and 11 touchdowns, taking home First Team All-Founders League and Co-Offensive Player of the Year honors. 

“Jackson came in as a kid who is supposed to be in high school and put up phenomenal numbers,” Mora said about Harper. “He is a guy that can certainly contribute [in 2023].” 

12-19-2022 Myrtle Beach Bowl FB v Marshall by Izzi Barton. UConn Football falls to Marshall University 14-28 at the Myrtle Beach Bowl on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, at Brooks Stadium at Coastal Carolina University. This was UConn’s first appearance in a bowl game since 2015. They end their season with a 6-7 record.

While Harper has the most hype around his name, Zack Drawdy had the best performance at the Showcase, especially with his abilities on deep passes. Across a four-year career at Yulee High School in Florida, Drawdy caught 170 passes for 2,297 yards and 22 touchdowns, earning First Team All-Area Wide Receiver honors in 2022. 

“They are probably going to have to see time [in 2023],” linebacker Jackson Mitchell said about Harper and Drawdy. “They are really good players, and they will be ready for their moment when the time comes.” 

Similar to the receiving department, the linebacker corps took a significant hit as Ian Swenson, Brandon Bouyer-Randle and Marquez Bembry all declared for the NFL Draft. Despite Mitchell, who finished 2022 fourth in the nation in total tackles, coming back, Mora highlighted linebacker depth as one of his concerns. 

Eriq Gilyard is the name that stands out amongst those added from the portal, and his winning experience could make him a Week 1 starter. During his redshirt senior season with the Kansas Jayhawks, who made their first bowl game since 2008 last year, the Florida native recorded 24 total tackles, an interception, and a deflected pass. 

Although not a concern, Mora added pieces in the secondary that will reduce the 210.77 passing yards allowed per game. Zakhari Spears, a rising sophomore from Washington University, could take snaps at both defensive back and on special teams after not seeing any action in 2021 and 2022. With a strong 2023, Spears can showcase the talent that had multiple Power Five schools giving him offers. Alfred Chea had the best play of the showcase with a pick-six on the first play in the two-minute simulation, but there was one defensive back that really stood out to me. 

From what I saw, Mumu Bin-Wahad is someone who will fill the hole left by Tre Wortham. The West Virginia transfer displayed his ability as a tough-hitting lockdown corner during the showcase, but I really like the energy he exerts on the field. That energy, which included being fired up after multiple incomplete passes, fits right in with the team culture Mora has instilled over the last two years and could mesh well with Durante Jones in the secondary. 

As for the offensive line, Christian Haynes returns for one final year following an All-American season as an offensive guard. With Jake Guidone going pro, however, expect the Maryland native to take regular snaps at center as he further increases his NFL Draft stock through his versatility. 

“Christian is an NFL guard and an NFL center,” Mora said about Haynes. “When you see him snap the ball and the quickness off the ball, it is amazing.” 

Although the roster is far from complete as more incoming freshmen are on the way, the Spring Showcase provided fans with the chance to see those who have already joined the Reload in action. Following their first bowl game since 2015, the bar has been raised for Connecticut as Mora continues to put the program back on the FBS map.  

“They tasted a little bit of what success tastes like last year, and they want more of it.” 

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