UConn football focused on gaining respect
Playing the role of underdog is getting old for the UConn Huskies.
A nine-win season, a share of the Big East title and a bowl game for a team expected to finish second-to-last certainly sounds like a smashing success. What kind of respect did that earn UConn?
Now they are predicted to finish third-from-last.
As the season began Thursday at Rentscheler Field against Hofstra, the only way UConn can make believers out of the naysayers is to do what they did last season: Win.
The motivation is certainly there.
“Once you’ve tasted some success; gained a share of the Big East championship, going to a bowl game — not winning the bowl game,” coach Randy Edsall said. “What’s happened is you see that and you knew what it was like and what it felt like to get to that point. Now what you want to do is achieve at least that or more this year. Our guys weren’t happy with how we ended last year. I think that is fueling them a little bit more.”
One of the ways the Huskies’ coaching staff has attempted to satisfy that lust for success is to improve the team’s speed.
It’s not simply a matter of having faster players, but having players who can play the game fast. That is, they don’t have to think twice about what they are doing in game situations. In at least two of the team’s four losses, the speed differential played a critical role in UConn losing.
“Speed kills,” cornerback/kick returner Darius Butler said. “When you play certain teams like West Virginia and Cincinnati — teams that are fast — you need speed. That’s the bottom line.”
Speed is most evident at the Huskies’ biggest strength — the running game — which looks even better than last season. Led by Donald Brown and Andre Dixon, the lethal one-two punch has proven difficult to stop. Brown is fast in his own right, but plays more of a power game, while Dixon is the shifty change-of-pace back.
Aided by Meme Wylie, Robbuie Frey and true freshman Jordan Todman, UConn may possess the greatest depth at tailback in the conference.
On the attack
Offensively, UConn was frequently a one-dimensional team. Just once last season did the Huskies throw for more than 213 yards. Conversely, they only rushed for fewer than 150 yards four times.
Because of that disparity, the receivers were faced with much scrutiny. Last year’s top wideout, Terence Jeffers, transferred to Vanderbilt, creating an even bigger void. Not helping matters is another starter from last season, Brad Kanuch, will miss the start of the season with a leg injury.
The Huskies have been impressed with the work of redshirt freshman Kashif Moore and oft-injured senior Ellis Gaulden. Both secured starting assignments at least until Kanuch returns. Senior captain D.J. Hernandez will be the team’s slot receiver and will be joined by true freshman Mike Smith. Even without Kanuch, the unit’s speed should be much improved.
“The best part of my game is I can catch the ball and what I can do after the catch,” Gaulden said. “I can make people miss. In practice, I make a lot of people miss and they know about it. The thing is, I make a lot of people miss in practice and they see me do it every day. But the people who don’t see me practice at all and they don’t know what I can do, when I get on the field, I’m just going to make them look bad. I’m going to make them look real bad.”
Replacing Dan Davis, Danny Lansanah and Tyvon Branch, who have each moved onto the NFL, is a near impossible task. What each brought to the table in skill and leadership was immeasurable.
Stepping in, stepping up
With Alex Polito stepping into Davis’ spot at defensive tackle, Greg Lloyd at middle linebacker for Lansanah, and Jasper Howard at corner, the Huskies feel that all three sophomores provide long-term stability with great upside at those spots.
“What we want to do is take our defense to another level,” Edsall said. “We lost three good football players.
“At linebacker we have young kids who have ability (Lloyd, Scott Lutrus, Lawrence Wilson) that might not have the experience of Danny, but talent-wise, will be at least as talented as he was.”
The schedule, tougher than a year ago, has its ups and downs. Three of the four toughest games of the year (West Virginia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) are all at the home stadium. UConn also benefits from three bye weeks, allowing the players multiple chances to rest and lick some wounds through the course of the season.
Of course, the difficult stretch starts in late September, when over a four-week period, the Huskies have three consecutive road games (Louisville, North Carolina and Rutgers).
Logic says a team that goes 9-4 and wins a share of its conference title is either very lucky or on the rise.
While most prognosticators give Pittsburgh, coming off a losing season, a better chance of winning the Big East than UConn so much as sniffing its success of a year ago, tells you what the majority believes.
Take one look at the Huskies’ slightly tougher schedule and consider the vast majority of last year’s team intact, despite 11 players on the two-deep cart yet to play a down of college ball, there’s no reason UConn can’t at least approach its success of 2007.
“I think some of the similarities, to begin with,” Lorenzen said. “We still have a chip on our shoulder. We expected a lot last year and we were able to succeed a lot higher than a lot of people thought we were capable of. Maybe a few more people expect we can do some stuff they didn’t believe we could do last year. There’s still a majority out there that believes that we can’t. I think we believe we can do some great things.”