Here's the thing about question marks in football: not knowing anything is way better than knowing you're bad, but it's also not nearly as nice as knowing you're good. Basically what I'm trying to say is I'm optimistic about UConn's chances this year, but a whole lot can go wrong because with UConn's offense almost everything is a question mark. Which brings me to the song above, ? And the Mysterian's (Yep, that's their name. The 60's were weird.) 96 Tears.
? starts the song crying (perhaps because he was embroiled in a five-man QB competition -- it's not clear) but ends it by promising that:
You're gonna cry ninety-six tears
You're gonna cry ninety-six tears
You're gonna cry cry, cry, cry, now
You're gonna cry cry, cry, cry
That's a whole lot of crying -- the only problem is that it's never clear who "you" is. Is "you" us, as in Husky fans? or is it the rest of the Big East, which is once again projecting the Huskies to be a bottom dweller. I have no earthly idea. Let's take a look at why.
We'll lead off with UConn's strongest point: sophomore running back Lyle McCombs. McCombs shocked everyone last year, coming out of nowhere to rush for more than 1,150 yards. That was great, but he was also coming out of nowhere and his numbers dropped in UConn's final three games, where he only put up 170 yards on 71 carries. To be fair to McCombs that was around the time that it became abundantly clear that UConn did not have and would not be establishing a passing attack, so if this year's Huskies can find any aerial success it should help him.
The other player that should be a sure thing is senior tight end Ryan Griffin. Griffin is a beast who can both block and catch and he is probably the best NFL prospect on the roster. So what's wrong? Take a look at this depth chart and see if you can guess. Griffin has inexplicably been dropped to No. 2 behind fellow senior John Delahunt. Now, Delahunt isn't a bad player in his own right, but there's a reason Griffin has been taking the snaps for the past couple of years. Paul Pasqualoni has said that both guys will play tonight, but it still raises questions. Has Delahunt improved? Has Griffin slipped? We'll have to wait and see.
Anyway, those are the two positions that should be a strength. Everything else? I have a lot more doubts.
You can start with the offensive line, which was abysmal last year despite high expectations. They slipped in both run protection and pass protection and gave up one of the highest sack rates in the nation. Oh, and the two best players from that unit were Moe Petrus (1st team Big East) and Mike Ryan (2nd team Big East) are both gone now. Replacing them are the injury-prone Jimmy Bennet at left tackle and redshirt sophomore Alex Mateas who transfered from Penn State after 2010. The good news is that everyone but Mateas has experience starting and right guard Adam Masters should be a standout player. The bad news is that a troubled unit is being asked to improve while replacing its two best players in the two most important positions. Improved quarterback play would certainly help -- and it would definitely reduce the sack totals -- but that requires good quarterback play.
So we might as well talk about that. All eyes will be on Chandler Whitmer tonight as the Illinois-transfer makes his first college start. There is certainly potential in Whitmer, a former four-star recruit who shined in the spring before being named the starter in August. That's a big improvement over last year. I know now that all anyone remembers is Johnny McEntee but go back and read our quarterback preview from a year ago. It wasn't clear if McEntee or Michael Nebrich would be the starter and Michael Box was also prominently mentioned. Knowing that UConn has one and only one quarterback is a big step up. But being named the quarterback is different from playing quarterback as everyone under center since Dan Orlovsky left has shown. You really can't overstate how important Whitmer is. If he's effective it will take some pressure off the line and open the field for McCombs. If he's not we'll see a lot of eight men in the box defenses that will literally rip McComb's 5'7" body to pieces. No pressure.
Finally we come to the receivers. Whitmer could be the best quarterback in the nation but it would not matter if he did not have players to throw to. So does he? I'm not sure. The senior pair of Kashif and Isaiah Moore are being replaced by even more question marks. We can start with Michael Smith, who put up some solid numbers in 2010 while serving as something like a deep threat (if you can call a guy catching a lot of long flukey passes a deep threat). Smith was academically ineligible last year, but he's the closest thing UConn has to a veteran wideout so he'll be called upon to put up another big year. On the opposite side of the field with be BC transfer Shakim Phillips. Phillips only appeared in four games at BC, but he did well in UConn's spring game and appeared to be on the same page as Whitmer, grabbing five passes for 55 yards. But UConn's biggest weapon might be converted kick returner Nick Williams who you should expect to see in the slot. Williams is lightning fast but he's going to have to show that he can catch the ball. For what it's worth Williams did grab six passes for 87 yards in the Spring Game, so there is reason for hope. It's also worth noting that the receiving corps already has had a bit of luck this year in the form of Bryce McNeal: McNeal announced he would transfer to UConn from Clemson, but he couldn't gain admission to the school so Louisville took him instead. Three days ago he left Louisville -- so at least that headache was avoided.
So what does this all add up to? I wish I had a better answer than "I have no earthly idea" but really, I have no earthly idea. There is talent on this team, or at leas there could be. I didn't touch on it above but it's worth noting that last year was everyone's first crack at a new offensive system and some of the rough edges should be ironed out the second time around. I'm optimistic about this team, but that's mostly blind-faith in Whitmer being better this year than McEntee and his merry band of sub-mediocre backups were last year. I hate to say it all comes down to the quarterback, but really it all comes down to the quarterback. In Chandler we trust. Here goes nothing.