Posted by Chip Patterson
College Football has no offseason. Every coach knows that the preparation for September begins now, in Spring Practice . So we here at the Eye on College Football will get you ready as teams open spring ball with our Spring Practice Primers . Today, we look at Connecticut , who starts spring practice Tuesday.
Connecticut had their best season in program history in 2010. Can they continue that success with a brand new look in 2011?
After a bumpy start that included losses to Michigan, Temple, Rutgers, and Louisville, it looked like it might be another frustrating season for Randy Edsall and the upstart Connecticut Huskies. Sure, Connecticut had made plenty of rapid upgrades to the program since joining the FBS in 2002 and the Big East in 2004. But as October 2010 was drawing to a close, no one had Connecticut penciled in as their Fiesta Bowl pick.
Then something happened on a Friday night against West Virginia. Running back Jordan Todman ran 33 times for 113 yards and a touchdown, providing just enough of an offensive spark to compliment a Huskies defense that forced seven West Virginia fumbles. Connecticut recovered four of those fumbles and won 16-13 in overtime, their first victory against the Mountaineers.
That game seemed to change the entire path of the season. With new focus and determination, Connecticut finished the season with five straight conference wins and earned a share of the Big East regular season title, as well as the conference's bid to the Bowl Championship Series. It wasn't always pretty, but running on the shoulders of Todman and a playmaking defensive unit the Huskies found ways to win late in the season. It was the perfect year to steal the conference from perennial favorites like Pittsburgh and West Virginia, and that is exactly what they did.
Then we rang in 2011, sang Auld Lang Syne, and then it all changed for Connecticut.
Connecticut looked unimpressive in their 40-28 loss to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on New Years Day. While their arrival onto the BCS scene should have been celebratory, instead the media focused on the Huskies inability to move their allotment of 17,500 tickets. With a final estimation that the program actually lost $1.8 million on the trip to Glendale. To make matters worse, Edsall opted not to travel home with the team. The worst suspicions were confirmed in less than a day, Edsall was leaving to become the head coach at Maryland.
So now it is time to reload and reboot.
Edsall was the only coach Connecticut hired during their journey into Division I and eventually the Big East. With such a young program, they could not afford to take chances on their next head coach - they needed a sure thing. Connecticut got that by bringing in one of the most seasoned Big East coaches on the market. Paul Pasqualoni spent 14 as the head coach of the Syracuse Orange. In that time he was 107-59-1 with a 6-3 bowl record. But there will be no confusion as far as allegiances go, Pasqualoni is an in-state native, and this is a job he is taking personally.
Pasqualoni brought in George Deleone (Miami Dolphins) to serve as the new offensive coordinator, and Don Brown (Maryland) will coach the defense. With a new coaching staff in place, one of the challenges for spring practice will be learning new schemes and getting used to a new practice routine. Spring will also be a time to identify players to fill position needs, because there are plenty. None more obvious than the running back position. Not only has Todman, the Big East rushing leader, taken his talents to the next level, but backup running back Robbie Frey decided to transfer. Those two backs combined for 2084 of the 2271 team rushing yards in 2010.
"Obviously this spring is going to be a big, big spring for a lot of areas, and one of the big concerns on offense is the tailback position," Pasqualoni told The Hartford Courant in February. "We're going to work as hard as we can work in that area, try to evaluate all the potential that we have there with the skill guys on the offensive side of the ball. We've got two guys coming in. One [Max DeLorenzo] is a downhill, can-make-yards-after-contact guy. The other guy [Deshon Foxx] is a little bit smaller, puts his foot in the ground, makes a cut, makes people miss and outruns people because he's just got flat-out excellent speed."
But tailback isn't the only big-time position with a lot of question marks. Actually, the quarterback spot on the depth chart might as well be a big question mark. Spring practice will start with a wide-open race between four quarterbacks who combine for only one collegiate start (Michael Box). Box is competing against newcomers Scott McCummings, Michael Nebrich, and Johnny McEntee, of YouTube "Trick Shot" fame. With Nebrich enrolling early, he will join the Huskies in spring practice and the quarterback battle should begin from day one. For no other reason than experience, many are giving Box a slight edge in the battle. But there are no guarantees that he will be the starter in September.
One of the ways to gain an edge heading into the season will be developing a connection with Connecticut's wide receivers. The Huskies return all of their starters, and while they did little to impress anyone in 2010, they might be one of the most stable units on the field right now. The group will be led by Kashif Moore. Moore anointed himself as one of the leaders of this team when Edsall bolted for College Park. It was Moore who was texting the players, telling them things were going to be OK. Desmond Conner, of The Hartford Courant, also points out that Moore has decided to wear Jasper Howard's No. 6 this season. Which as you can assume, takes on far more meaning than just the number change.
On the defensive side of the ball, new coordinator Don Brown will have to find a way to replace senior linebackers Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson. They acted as the point-guard's of this playmaking defense, swarming to the ball and directing their teammates on the field. Instead of the leadership coming from the linebacking position, Huskies fans might see it come from up front.
Seniors Kendall Reyes (a captain in 2010) and Twyon Martin will anchor a defensive line that might be the most promising aspect of the defense. Rising juniors Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams are both returning from productive sophomore campaigns, and will be counted on for quality minutes as well.
While the end of spring practice may not give us all of the answers to the many questions for Connecticut, it is still arguably one of the most important springs for the program. Connecticut has a lot of holes to fill, and a lot of questions to answer in order to defend their Big East crown in 2011. It will come down to how quickly and effectively the team can buy into the new coach, and new systems in Storrs. One thing that the Huskies do have going for them in 2011? One of the easiest non-conference schedules in the league. Connecticut's only BCS opponents are Vanderbilt and Iowa State, so there should be plenty of opportunities to pick up the extra wins necessary to return to the postseason.
Paul Pasqualoni started his Syracuse career with a bang, going 20-4 in his first two seasons. Now we see if he can do it again, a decade later, with the flagship university of his home state.
Connecticut begins spring practice Tuesday March 15
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