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UConn Football Preview 2011: Huskies Looking To Build Off Conference Title

It was a dream season in Storrs, Connecticut in 2010. Led by head coach Randy Edsall, the Huskies became the first team from New England to win its conference and take part in a BCS Bowl Game. This time around, it will be a different story.

It was a dream season in Storrs, Connecticut in 2010.  Led by head coach Randy Edsall, the Huskies became the first team from New England to win its conference and take part in a BCS Bowl Game.  Led by reliable running back Jordan Todman (1,695 yards, 14 TD’s) and a vicious defensive line, the Huskies were able to grind the tempo of games way down and physically punish teams in the trenches.

The season didn’t start out very promising though, as they absorbed ugly losses to Michigan, Temple, and Rutgers. The turning point of the season came in Week 8, when the Huskies were demolished by Louisville 26-0 to drop their record to 3-4.  During a closed door meeting following that loss, a number of the veteran players stood up, questioned whether everyone was giving their full effort and challenged the team to start playing to its potential.

The following week the Huskies won an ugly, turnover filled game against West Virginia, their first ever win over the Mountaineers. The win might not have been pretty, but it was the type of game that UConn hadn’t been winning up to that point and it set the tone for the rest of the season. 

The Huskies wouldn’t lose another game until the Fiesta Bowl, rolling through Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and a dramatic road win at South Florida to win the Big East Championship.  In Tempe, Arizona at the Fiesta Bowl the magic ran out though when they tangled with a powerful Oklahoma Sooners squad that took them apart to the tune of 48-20. 

Despite the loss to Oklahoma, and the minor embarrassment that was caused by the poor fan turnout, the season was a great success. The school won the Big East Conference, beat rival West Virginia for the first time, and took major steps toward becoming a nationally respected football program.

The off-season though was not nearly as glamorous. Coach Edsall took off a mere 48 hours after the Fiesta Bowl for perceived greener pastures at Maryland, Jordan Todman announced he would forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft, and then there was the drama with the schools top booster trying to get his millions back after not being consulted during the coaching search.

The time has come though to turn the page to the 2011 season. Former Syracuse head man Paul Pasqualoni and an almost entirely new staff will replace the departed Edsall and the Huskies will try to replace a great deal of talent on offense in their quest for back-to-back conference championships.

OFFENSE

The quarterback position has always been a struggle at UConn and last year was no exception. The departed Zach Frazer (1425 yds, 5TD/6INT) was very limited and was mostly relied upon to successfully hand the ball off to Todman.

As for Frazer’s replacement, the only other QB on the roster with game experience is redshirt sophomore Michael Box, but Box left the team earlier this week and is expected to transfer.  That means that the Huskies will find themselves in the same predicament that their I-95 rivals Boston College were in a few years ago.  They have a trio of QB’s (Johnny McEntee, Michael Nebrich, and Scott McCummings) without a single snap of experience who will all audition for the job during the early weeks of the season. 

While the quarterback situation has always been a problem at UConn, the same cannot be said for the running back spot where the school continues to churn out 1,000 yard rushers.  With the departure of Todman, that responsibility will likely fall to USC transfer DJ Shoemate who ran for over 100 yards and a score in the spring game.

Shoemate will be running behind another strong, veteran offensive line for the Huskies that features four seniors including LT Mike Ryan (6’5", 355lbs). Depth is a concern along the line though where a number of underclassmen will compete for time including redshirt freshman Gus Cruz (6’4", 288lbs).

The wide receivers are another deep and experienced bunch led by all around senior playmaker Kashif Moore (5’10", 175lbs). Isiah Moore and true freshman standout Tebucky Jones round out the starters opposite Moore.

DEFENSE

Defensively, the bread and butter for the Huskies will continue to be their defensive line. They were the top team in the Big East against the run last season and led by junior Jesse Joseph (8.5 sacks) on the outside, they should be near the top of that category again this season. Joseph is joined by All-Big East defensive tackle Kendall Reyes and should form a terrific tandem.

The only real question mark defensively for the Huskies is at the linebacker position where veteran standouts Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson have graduated and moved on. Only junior Sio Moore played and had an impact last season at linebacker, but he will be flanked by four freshmen listed on the depth chart, the most promising of which is Worcester, MA native Yawin Smallwood who will get the start on the outside.

In the secondary, the Huskies return all four starters including star safety Jerome Junior. Dwayne Gratz will man one of the corner positions and is best remembered for his pick-six in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, possibly the lone highlight of the night for the team. The unit was generally considered a liability last season, but they improved steadily throughout the year and should provide a steady hand this year.

OUTLOOK

The 2010 Big East Champions face a long road back to the top of the conference. A friendly non-conference schedule that includes Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Buffalo and Western Michigan will give way to the meat of their conference schedule beginning with a trip to Morgantown (where the Huskies have never won, and hardly even come close) to battle the new look Mountaineers of West Virginia.

The following week the Huskies will take on BJ Daniels and South Florida, who is expected to be improved significantly from the team that nearly ruined UConn’s dream season on the final day. Next up will be perennial conference power Pittsburgh and then a home tilt with coach Pasqualoni’s former team, the Syracuse Orange. 

That four week stretch is likely to determine the postseason fate for UConn. They made their mark last year by winning close games with Pitt, WVU, and USF (all by a field goal or less). History says that a team that gets a number of favorable bounces in one season is likely to see that anomaly even out the next.  While it’s possible that UConn could win the conference again with a one dimensional offense and some fortunate bounces, it’s not overly likely.

Prediction: 8-4 (3-4 Big East)

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