Andy Lyons

Husky Hard Knocks

As every NFL team has now broken camp, we finish here at The UConn Blog with Husky Hard Knocks. Today, we preview the chances former UConn cornerback Dwayne Gratz has of making the Jacksonville Jaguars roster.

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Husky Hard Knocks: Dwayne Gratz

Here is the final part of our series that highlights the seven former Huskies entering their first NFL training camps this summer. Each day we’ve evaluated a single player’s individual prospects, likely fit with their new team and position competition. Today, we finish with Dwayne Gratz, who was the first UConn player selected in this year’s draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars at 64th overall.

Ten years ago, the script read exactly the same.

Act I: The Jaguars conclude a disappointing season.

Act II: The Jaguars let go of their head coach and general manager before searching for replacements.

Act III: The Jaguars fill those vacancies and use the word “rebuild” more than you’ll hear in a Great Depression documentary.

In one of the final scenes of Act III from this 2002-2003 off-season production, Jacksonville also selected a young cornerback in the early rounds of the NFL draft. The athletic cover man caught the eye of the new coaching staff with his physical skills and potential scheme-fit. He went on to start from day one and have a highly successful ten-year career.

Fast-forward, and that corner, former all-pro Rashean Mathis, is gone; much like many of the players from that one-time show in Jacksonville.

At present day, the Jags have washed their hands of last year’s headmen that led them to a 2-14 campaign and hired first-time coach Gus Bradley and rookie general manager Dave Caldwell. Caldwell stripped the roster down to the bone and since replenished it partially with a youthful corner from the third round of this year’s draft. The defensive back possesses excellent physical attributes and seems to be molded for the team’s new style of defense.

His name is Dwayne Gratz.

Now, Gratz and Rashean Mathis have likely never met. But, should the UConn product prove to be anything like Mathis was, a veteran with 30 career interceptions and a Pro Bowl designation, Jacksonville is in for a treat. Or perhaps, as fans hope for most, an entirely new kind of show in town.

A 38-game starter at UConn, Gratz is above all else a consistent, physical corner. Thus, he fits very well with the new pass defense that Bradley is installing— frequent, press man coverage to disrupt and follow receivers all over the field. At 5’ 11” and 201 lbs., Gratz has the size necessary to compete against larger pass catchers and stick with smaller, shifty receivers in this type of coverage.

The New Jersey native also boasts great strength for a corner, which he uses well to jam opponents off the line. Immediately following a receiver’s release, Gratz is very quick to jump short throws or shed receiver blocks in the run game— which he is extremely good at helping to defend. At times, this aggressiveness can be used against him, whether on double moves or pump fakes.

Gratz is not a burner, but he has very capable speed as shown by his 4.47 40-yard dash time. The All-Big east second teamer is almost always very sound in his assignments, which included blitzing off the edge quite often in his senior season. Finally, Gratz garnered 30 passes defensed and eight picks over his career in a Husky uniform. These kinds of ball skills are what led to a self-made declaration of being a “shutdown corner”.

While second-year Jacksonville owner Shad Khan may not exactly agree, he does admit it was Gratz’s performance when targeted by opposing quarterbacks that attracted him to his future third-round pick. Khan spoke to Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus nearly two months ago, discussing how Gratz rated highly in the Jaguars’ statistical-based approach.

“A lot of the metrics we used were applied based on the projections of who would be drafted. For example, for defensive backs, I had used a metric I called Passes Touched per Target, which was just (Passes Intercepted + Passes Defensed)/Passes Thrown at That DB. Dwayne Gratz fared well here among the pool of “draft worthy” players, particularly among the group of press cover corners with long arms we were targeting we were all very pleased when Gratz was available at that point.”

Last year, the Jaguars reeled in just a dozen interceptions as opponents completed 63.7 percent of their passes.

This lack of production and interference was part of the reason Caldwell jettisoned the team’s top three corners from 2012, Mathis, Derek Cox and Aaron Ross. Since Jacksonville mostly opted to keep its hands in its pockets during free agency, Gratz has every chance to start on the outside. His skills are best suited to play along the perimeter, where he lined up with the first-team defense in both mini and training camp.

Alongside Gratz for that time was journeyman Alan Ball, who signed a new deal this off-season after suiting up for the Houston Texans a year ago. Ball played just 57 defensive snaps for the reigning champions of the AFC South, where he stood out on special teams. Ball is tall, long and fast, but has struggled since starting all 16 games for the Cowboys in 2010.

The only other true veteran mixed in with this year’s group of cornerbacks is former Seahawk Marcus Trufant. Trufant lined up as the nickelback for Seattle last season, after giving way to stellar press-corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. The eleven-year cover man has considerable experience playing in Bradley’s system and is likely to be relegated to nickelback again if Gratz and Ball hold steady.

Otherwise, the third corner spot should be handed to Mike Harris, the Jaguars’ sixth round pick from 2012. Over his rookie season, Harris had the opportunity to play inside and out, which he did with mixed results.

Meanwhile, seventh-round picks Jeremy Harris and Demetrius McCray are the favorites to round out the depth chart. Harris only played one full season of college football at New Mexico State, which came under his current position coach Dewayne Walker, who used to lead the program at NMS. Harris stands at 6’ 2”, 181 lbs. and the coaches are very excited about his development.

McCray hails from Appalachian State and faces the most heat from the group’s undrafted competitors looking to make the team. Marcus Burley signed this April out of Delaware and Kevin Rutland continues to surprise after making the team as an UDFA in 2011.

The Jaguars kicked off their training camp two days ago at the Florida Blue Health & Wellness Practice Fields in Jacksonville. They open the pre-season at home against Miami on August 9th at 7:30 p.m.

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Husky Hard Knocks: Sio Moore

Here is part six of our new series that will highlight the seven former Huskies about to enter their first NFL training camps this summer. Each day we’ll evaluate a single player’s individual prospects, likely fit with their new team and position competition. Today, we continue with Sio Moore, who was selected in the third round of this year’s draft by the Oakland Raiders.

Sio Moore was pissed off.

He had just been taken 66th overall in the NFL Draft, handed financial security and given a promising career beginning.

There aren’t any Oakland Raider jokes coming here—Sio Moore was just plain pissed off.

Following his selection in April, Moore was on a conference call with local media. Over the phone, he described the hard-fought path he took even after his collegiate career ended, which included earning his way into the most prestigious post-season college all-star game, the Senior Bowl, after shining in a lesser event. He talked about working on special teams, playing with remarkable passion and the call that changed his life forever.

Then, he had an announcement to make.

Sio Moore was pissed off.

You see, in Moore’s wide, feverish brown eyes, he is the best linebacker to have recently entered the NFL from the 2013 draft class. Yet, ten teams apparently disagreed, when they picked nearly a dozen other ‘backers ahead of him. To be fair, from Moore’s point of view, it’s difficult to understand.

He registered top five at the combine amongst all linebackers in the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical leap and broad jump. He racked up an incredible 44 tackles for loss, 16 sacks and four interceptions over his UConn career. Moore even played defensive end, safety in addition to a little cornerback while at Rentschler Field—and successfully, too.

So, why was he passed over by so many clubs?

We’ll likely never know. To say the Liberian native should definitively have been selected in the first round or even top 3 for those at his position is a bit ludicrous. However, there is something we can say that isn’t farfetched at all:

Sio Moore will be an NFL starting linebacker someday.

There is more doubt to the sun rising tomorrow or Pit Bull standing and doing nothing in his next commercial than there is in that statement.

Moore’s physical ability is undeniable, and the holes present in his game add up to roughly the same amount you’ll find in a shot put. In fact, here are said holes: He’s slightly smaller than the ideal outside linebacker (p.s. Moore’s put on about 15 pounds since last September). Also, he needs to become more consistent in his ability to shed blocks. Improvement in this area comes about by adding weight (check) and improving hand technique.

The rest of any scouting report on the All Big East first-team linebacker will tell you primarily about his explosive athleticism. Moore possesses both superb short-area agility and sideline-to-sideline speed, which he once used to capably cover this year’s eighth overall pick, former West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin (who runs a 4.3 40-yard dash). His cover skills aren’t limited strictly to man coverage, however, as he’s equally adept at dropping into a zone.

Moreover, the rookie boasts a versatile, effective pass rush, which can come either as a posing defensive end or imposing, blitzing linebacker. His pressure presents mostly in the form of a speed rush, although he has been known to extend his long arms into larger linemen and drive them back. Moore also tackles extremely well, both from a technique and sheer power standpoint. He racked up over 270 stops over his career, including 15 and a half for a loss during his senior campaign.

Of course, Moore doesn’t become as versatile as they’re made and so productive in college solely with athleticism. He’s done it with discipline in regards to his assignments and off-field work ethic, which has afforded him impressive physical ability and football acumen.

Now, it’s important to note that all of these qualities, barring injury, should translate to the Oakland Raiders, but in time. The question is how long will that take, and specifically, how long is it before Moore is penciled into the starting lineup card with a sharpie? The main issues keeping the Sharpie cap on for now are a question of which outside linebacker position he’ll play, the fact he’ll endure typical first-year mistakes and his position competition.

In all likelihood, the Raider rookie will see snaps from both the strong and weakside. Entering his senior season, he was viewed as a player best fit for the weakside position, where linebackers are called to be lighter and faster. But, given his weight gain and extensive time spent playing defensive musical chairs, Moore is now capable of playing both spots, which he did in Oakland’s minicamp.

Linebacker is a group that currently appears like the Raider defense does as a whole: revamped. The team returns just three of its 11 starters from a year ago, including former Husky safety Tyvon Branch, who hosted Moore at UConn when he was a visiting high school recruit. Oakland will still work out of a 4-3 defensive front, where former Chicago Bear Nick Roach is expected to man the middle.

This leaves two spots for Moore, Kevin Burnett, Kaluka Maiava and Miles Burris.

Burris started 15 of 16 games last year for the silver and black, after being selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft out of San Diego State. He was one of the few bright spots on the gloomy Raider defense, collecting nearly 100 tackles a season ago. Despite the fact he is still somewhat recovering from January knee surgery, Burriss currently appears to be Moore’s primary competition.

Meanwhile, Burnett was another bright spot for Oakland, albeit during the off-season. The Dolphins cut the veteran a few months back, when Miami was working to get younger and faster at the position. He brings a wealth of experience to the youthful Raider squad and is better slotted to play the strongside. Behind Roach, Burnett is, for the moment, the man second-most likely to lock up a linebacking job.

Finally, there’s Maiava, who was another free agent signing this past off-season. The former USC product comes from Cleveland, where he starred on special teams for four years before signing a three-year $6 million contract in Oakland. At 6’ 0" 230 lbs., Maiava is likely solely vying for the weakside linebacker spot, but this could be jeoparadized by July 10th charges of assault and criminal property damages. He is believed to have beat up two men at a Hawaii bar with his older brother and could face up to a year in jail.

Long live and never change, Raiders.

Oakland kicked off their training camp yesterday in Napa, C.A., about 50 miles north from their stadium in the Bay Area. The team opens the pre-season at home against Dallas on August 9th with kickoff scheduled for 10 p.m.

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Husky Hard Knocks: Blidi Wreh-Wilson

Here is part five of our new series that will highlight the seven former Huskies about to enter their first NFL training camps this summer. Each day we’ll evaluate a single player’s individual prospects, likely fit with their new team and position competition. Today, we continue with Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who was selected in the third round of this year’s draft by the Tennessee Titans.

There’s bad, and then there’s worse.

You see, over here stands Miley Cyrus. But, over there tweets Amanda Bynes.

Now if you listen closely, streaming out of one speaker is Justin Bieber. But if you turn your attention to the other, there blares Nickelback.

And at this moment, on this late July day, down the street lives the guy who still has his Christmas lights hanging up high and proudly. But, then there’s the fella who can uncurl his fingernails simply because, as he tells you, he doesn’t have time to cut them.

Finally folks, there’s bad pass defense, and then there’s last year’s Tennessee Titans.

In 2012, the Titans had a front row seat to 31 touchdowns, nearly 4,000 yards gained and an opponents’ completion percentage of over 66 percent. Had those numbers been attributed to a single person, they would’ve made for one of the best quarterback stat lines in the NFL. Instead, it was a team effort amongst the leagues signal callers to shred Tennessee’s secondary better than a two-day old memo found at the office.

The Titans were to opposing passing games like black on rice.

Hence, we have the entrance of former UConn captain and three-and-a-half year starter Blidi Wreh-Wilson.

The 70th overall pick of last April’s draft has headed south after recording nine passes defensed and just a single interception over in his senior year. For the latter half of his collegiate career, Husky opponents largely avoided Wreh-Wilson. They simply refused to throw near the tall, athletic corner who possesses exceptional intelligence, as proven by his completed dual-degree and as told by his current coaches.

Scouts and coaches first noticed Wreh-Wilson for his ball skills, after he returned an interception for six points in back-to-back home games as a sophomore. While opportunities to do that again dwindled afterward, he continued to stick with opponents’ top receivers due to solid footwork, good quickness in short areas and above average speed. He also owns exceptional arm length (32.5 inches), which allows him to jam opposing receivers off the line in press coverage and fight for jump balls.

Yet, between the two main styles of pass defense, the twenty-three year old is actually best-suited for a zone scheme. By sitting back at the snap of the ball, he’s able to use his intelligence and field awareness to anticipate developing route concepts. Additionally, zone helps hide a slight stiffness in his hips that prohibits him from turning and running with receivers that fight well through tight man coverage.

This is a common issue with taller corners who also, like Wreh-Wilson, can struggle with their recovery speed. In regards to the rest of his game, the only other true inconsistency comes with tackling, which can be coached up. Overall, the Husky turned Titan offers a complete, scheme-versatile package as an outside cornerback with a slight favoring towards zone.

Interestingly enough, this is the exact opposite direction Tennessee appears to be headed.

This past off-season the Titans brought back former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (yes, that Gregg Williams) to help stop the defensive hemorrhaging. Given his coaching history, Williams’ presence seems to ensure that the unit will improve and do so via a more aggressive approach, which relies on man-to-man defense. During the team’s minicamp, coaches tried Wreh-Wilson out both at outside corner and nickelback within the new scheme.

At UConn, the Pennsylvania native played inside for about the same amount of time it takes you to say "Jonathan the Husky".

Simultaneously learning a new position and mastering a complicated playbook like Williams’ involves a lot of new information all at once, especially for a rookie. While Wreh-Wilson isn’t likely to play nickelback full-time, he still will have to pick up its nuances. First and foremost, he’ll have to grasp and practice how to consistently stick with smaller, quicker pass catchers. Then, he must be able to play with a great understanding of his teammates assignments, be cognizant of multiple angles and help a great deal with run support.

None of these issues crop up for an outside corner, where run support is simple, the angles are fewer and most times, he’ll be on an island. How often Wreh-Wilson sees time on the inside or on special teams will depend on the events of training camp and Tennessee’s pre-season games. If he wins a starting job, those totals should each register at zero minutes.

But, that’s a big "if", as cornerback should be the most interesting camp battle all summer.

Jason McCourty, the Titans’ best cover man by leaps and bounds, will be the most boring player in the competition because he should be guaranteed a roster spot. The man who lined across from him with the first-team in minicamp was Tommie Campbell, last year’s no. 2 cornerback to start the season. Campbell is a tall, fast corner at 6’ 3", who performed admirably in training camp a year ago and thus, earned him the starting job.

However, he lost his new gig after getting torched over the first few games on the Titans schedule. Little did the coaches know, the fire was just beginning. For the time being, Campbell is still probably Wreh-Wilson’s biggest competition to play on the outside in 2013. Now, let’s get to the man who replaced him last year.

Alterraun Verner, whose name very well may be stolen for a new character in the next Game of Thrones book, filled in for Campbell for the remainder for 2012. He’s a smaller corner, who boasts great versatility and as a result, may get moved to safety or nickelback for the upcoming season, since he too isn’t a great scheme-fit. Any move will hinge on how the Titan coaches feel about their depth at safety, and the development of second-year corner Coty Sensabaugh.

Sensabaugh lined up as the team’s starting nickelback in minicamp and can excel in man-coverage as a result of his outstanding athleticism. As told by his NFL.com scouting profile from over a year ago, the young corner still needs to refine his technique, since he was a late bloomer during his time at Clemson. Sensabaugh was picked by Tennessee in the fourth round of the 2012 draft.

The underdogs to securing a place in the team photo for 2013 are sixth-round pick Khalid Wooten, George Baker and Matthew Pierce. Wooten, out of Nevada, offers kick-returning ability as well, and could find himself on the practice squad.

The Titans opened training camp today at the Saint Thomas Sports Park in Nashville. They open the pre-season at home against Washington on August 8th with kickoff scheduled for 8 p.m.

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Husky Hard Knocks: Trevardo Williams

Here is part four of our new series that will highlight the seven former Huskies about to enter their first NFL training camps this summer. Each day we’ll evaluate a single player’s individual prospects, likely fit with their new team and position competition. Today, we continue with Trevardo Williams, who was selected in the fourth round of this year’s draft by the Houston Texans.

It happens every snap.

The race.

The most re-run, unusual sprint you’ll ever see.

Starting not with a resounding gunshot, it begins rather with an abrupt bark. The bark signals not only for participants to fire off the line, but for the ball to simultaneously be fired backwards. The runners competing aren’t lean, speed-machines rushing along parallel lines. Instead, they’re snarling, mountainous men up to 350 pounds facing one another head on.

And the race begins with these behemoths taking a single step straight into their opposition.

Then, the race is won.

Not by a first place finish, but by a third step landing. On nearly every play, whichever offensive or defensive lineman can gain the third overall step between he and the man across from him essentially wins. He claims ground, leverage opportunity and an initial edge on his opponent. Whether rushing quarterbacks, stepping back to anchor in pass protection or clearing space somewhere in the running game, the third step is critical.

Of course, this isn’t all that winning a battle in the trenches entails (and truly its not even close). Otherwise, the best sprinters would make the best lineman.

However, in the case of Trevardo Williams, he was the best sprinter of any defensive lineman in the 2013 NFL Draft with a 4.59 second 40-yard dash. He was also the best sack-artist ever to don a UConn uniform, and now will put on pro pads for week one of the NFL season. And this is in small part, no coincidence.

The speedy Williams whipped Big East offensive tackles into human turnstiles the last two seasons, racking up 24 sacks and All-Big East team selections. A former high school state champion sprinter, Williams chose to play defensive end full-time upon arriving in Storrs in 2009. Now, four years later, Williams will have to make another transition from end to outside linebacker for the Houston Texans.

The 6’ 1.5" 241 lbs. rookie has great foot quickness, which leads to his exceptional long speed and short-term acceleration. Pass rushing is far and away Williams’ greatest strength, and his favorite move is to simply get up and around opposing tackles, utilizing his swiftness and flexibility. He also employs a good counter move to blow past blockers that slide too far upfield when anticipating his rush.

Unlike some athletic ends, Williams is also a very proficient tackler. He provides a certain "pop" at immediate contact that almost always ends in his target being brought down. When coming around the corner for unsuspecting quarterbacks, he is very adept at swiping for the football to try and cause a fumble. Furthermore, Williams has the versatility to create this kind of pressure from both ends of the line. Finally, the three-year UConn starter plays with a consistently high level of energy, which can, and did, wear down opponents over the course of a game.

As with most things in Texas, Williams’ responsibility to his new team will be much bigger. As an outside linebacker, he’ll have to play man and zone coverage, rush from a two and three-point stance and finally, learn an NFL-sized playbook. Fortunately for the Bridgeport, C.T. native, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips draws his Xs and Os with outside ‘backers rushing on nearly every snap, so he’ll be permitted to chase quarterbacks quite often.

But, Williams will have to shore up some of the question marks existent in his scouting report. Due to his smaller stature, he’s a liability in the run game, where his new duty to steer large lineman and tight ends in order to set the edge is paramount. This means adding strength in his lower body. Furthermore, he’ll have to become more apt at covering receivers in short space, something he hardly did during his time at UConn.

Blowing coverage on a 3rd and medium or 3rd and short play as a rookie will be about as enjoyable as an afternoon spent bra-shopping with Mom.

In addition, as much as his speed and athleticism did the trick in college, Williams will have to grow a full arsenal of pass rush moves to get by NFL-quality offensive tackles. But, his athletic ability will serve him immediately on special teams, where he’ll likely be delegated to cover kicks and punts.

At this stage, reports of the Houston Husky’s attempts at trying out his new responsibilities are favorable. In fact, head coach Gary Kubiak believes that Williams is ahead of fellow rookie Sam Montgomery after mini-camp. The duo is amongst a handful of linebackers looking to help replace Connor Barwin, who left in free agency for the Philadelphia Eagles. The starters currently entrenched outside are Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, recent draft picks who have developed well in Phillips’ scheme.

Montgomery, selected one round ahead of Williams, is a two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than his Connecticut counterpart. According to his NFL.com scouting profile, Montogomery is a high-motor player with great aggression and good quickness. The LSU product tallied 17 sacks his last two years playing in the SEC, which he parlayed into a third-team All-American selection. He’s almost guaranteed to make the team.

Further down the food chain is fan favorite Bryan Braman. Braman enters his third year in the league after leaving West Texas A&M University as an undrafted free agent. Aside from his underdog story, Braman has earned fans’ affinity by blocking multiple punts as a star special teams performer. Back in 2011, he also smashed Tennessee Titans returner Marc Mariani head-on— after his helmet had fallen off. He should carve out a role for the team’s 2013 campaign.

At the bottom of the barrel are undrafted rookies Willie Jefferson and Justin Tuggle. Both are athletic, physical specimens who switched positions and sides of the football less than three years ago. Jefferson posted eight sacks last season for FCS school Stephen F. Austin, while Tuggle picked up three quarterback drops for Kansas State when the Wildcats took on Miami, Oklahoma and Texas.

Only one of Jefferson and Tuggle should make the roster.

Should Williams or any members of his competition produce enough in camp, one could actually earn a starting spot. Rumors currently have it that Reed may get kicked inside to pair with Brian Cushing, which would leave an opening opposite Mercilus.

Yet, no matter how fast Trevardo is, there is still a long way to go as training camp has yet to even begin.

He’ll get his first crack at taking that third step in practice this Friday when the Texans kick off camp. They open the pre-season with Minnesota on August 9th at 8 p.m. in Minneapolis.

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Husky Hard Knocks: Ryan Griffin

Here is part three of our new series that will highlight the seven former Huskies about to enter their first NFL training camps this summer. Each day we’ll evaluate a single player’s individual prospects, likely fit with their new team and position competition. Today, we continue with Ryan Griffin, who was selected in the sixth round of this year’s draft by the Houston Texans.

Before we get into our next installment today, I’d like to run a quick blind resumé test with you. Below are a pair of players after their final seasons of college football. Take your pick between the two as if you were a drafting GM.

Player A stands at 6’ 5", 247 lbs. with a 36" vertical leap. He finished his year with 44 receptions, 5 touchdowns and a 15.9 yards/rec. average. His team concluded its season 6-6 and scored just shy of 32 points per game.

Player B stands at 6’ 6", 247 lbs. with a 34.5" vertical leap. He finished his year with 28 receptions, 6 touchdowns and a 16.7 yards/rec. average. His team concluded its season 5-7 and scored just shy of 18 points per game.

Whichever your choice, simply based on those individual measurements alone, the differences between the two appear negligible, no?

Each tight end looks to be an athletic receiving threat who can gain good chunks of yardage on any play. While Player A caught more balls, (likely in part because he played in a more successful offense) each gained an impressive near sixth of the field every time they touched a pass. The two also seem to be a pair of dependable red zone targets not only due to their height, but superior jumping ability. In fact, while Player’s B vertical leap does fall an inch and a half shorter than Player A’s mark, 34.5" still would’ve placed top-five in his draft class, had he been invited to the combine.

Now, somewhat predictably to this point, I’ll tell you that Ryan Griffin is Player B.

Any guess as to who Player A is?

Try A+ tight end, all-time player, person and surefire Hall of Famer—

Tony Gonzalez.

Yes, the best tight end in NFL History posted numbers in his last year at Cal not far off from those that belonged to Griffin this past fall. This is by no means to say the two will have similar careers or incur any further comparison. But, this is to create pause for consideration because Griffin, despite the low-level of attention he has garnered, has a chance to surprise folks at the next level.

The first thing you’ll notice about Ryan Griffin in person or on tape is his size. He possesses ideal height and frame for a tight end, which he uses in the passing game to shield away defenders and demonstrate a wide catching radius. A basketball background (mainly high school star and active pick-up player with this year’s women’s basketball national champs) helped cultivate his second biggest asset, above average athleticism, which you can see on display here.

While this reach and athletic ability allows the New Hampshire native to compete for balls in traffic, it is an understated toughness that allows him to come away with them. Whether on short or intermediate routes, before or after the catch, Griffin is willing to go over or through defenders to get where he needs to go. In difficult spots his hands are without a doubt good, but on the whole they’re rate at above average.

In the running game, Griffin is a willing, physical blocker. Similar to when he’s running routes, the UConn product is capable of blocking either in-line or on the outside. However, he is a bit light for his 6’ 6" stature, so sometimes his physical ability doesn’t match the willingness to push defenders back. This struggle to gain ground against defenders will only become worse in the NFL, unless he bulks up.

Additionally, like most rookies, Griffin has to develop more consistency in his game. Last season, he complied 84 receiving yards against Pittsburgh, 85 opposite Cincinnati and two other 60-plus yard games versus Syracuse and Temple. Yet somehow, the then senior also picked up a combined six yards against Maryland and North Carolina State. Furthermore, he hauled in a total of seven balls when the Huskies took on Rutgers, Buffalo and Western Michigan.

The tools are in the shed, but sometimes you can’t even see that they’re there.

Now, his fit with Houston is a simple one. He’ll play tight end and there won’t be any discussions otherwise—period. Depending on how the Texans deploy their special teams, his back-up offensive role could also mean a starting spot covering kicks or on the punt and field goal protection units.

Luckily for Griffin, head coach Gary Kubiak believes he can become a very good player. The front office holds similar faith, as they view him to be a "developmental-type prospect". These beliefs stem from Griffin’s package of physical tools that we mentioned earlier and his potential to grow them further, by adding functional weight and getting faster. Thus, the typical rookies mistakes he’s made so far in mini-camp have been excused. The key will be making positive, consistent strides this summer.

In training camp, Griffin will have the opportunity to learn from Pro Bowler Owen Daniels and fourth-year player Garrett Graham. Both of their jobs are safe, after Daniels has been a key part of the Texan offense for years, and Graham started to come on a season ago. The team usually likes to keep three players at the position, so Griffin will fit in on the third-sting.

The players he’ll be battling with for the final spot are both undrafted free agents from a year ago. Phillip Supernaw, out of small Ouachita Baptist University, spent the first six weeks of Houston’s 2012 campaign on their practice squad, before hurting his foot. He stands at 6’ 5" 250 lbs, can block, catch, run and is still currently recovering from the injury. When healthy, he’s a bit faster than Griffin.

Meanwhile, Jake Bryne is a one-trick pony who specializes in blocking so much so that he can hardly catch a cold. Byrne recorded only six passes caught during his final two seasons at Madison and was released last summer by the Saints after signing with them two Aprils ago. Since then, he’s worked out for multiple NFL teams, before finally settling in Houston.

From this view, Griffin has every reason to make the team provided he’s dedicated to gaining good weight and honing his craft. This entails improving his hands, getting a bit faster, growing stronger and refining his route running. But, unlike most late-round rookies, Griffin has support, a good system around him and few standing in his way.

Not to mention perhaps the most interesting aspect of his situation, which is that Graham is currently entering the final year of his contract and Daniels holds a large salary number after this season.

Meaning, that depending on how much Griffin can improve from his days wearing blue and white, he could find himself a starter with battle red and blue in a couple years.

The Texans open training camp this Friday at their team facility in Houston. They open the pre-season with Minnesota on August 9th at 8 p.m. in Minneapolis.

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Husky Hard Knocks: Nick Williams

Here is part two of our new series that will highlight the seven former Huskies about to enter their first NFL training camps this summer. Each day we’ll evaluate a single player’s individual prospects, likely fit with their new team and position competition. Today, we continue with wide receiver/returner Nick Williams, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Redskins.

One steamy afternoon last September in D.C., the Washington Redskins were putting the final polish on their game plans for a week two matchup with the St. Louis Rams. The ‘Skins had just started their season 1-0 after outgunning the New Orleans Saints in a shoot-out the previous Sunday, 40-32. The Rams currently posed a different challenge, however, boasting a stronger running game and more rugged defense.

Meanwhile, just 11 and a half miles away, a tenacious young playmaker was unknowingly working his way into the Redskins’ future plans. Midway through the second quarter of a scoreless UConn/Maryland contest, Nick Williams stared skyward and hauled in a perfectly average punt from Nick Renfro.

Then, he took off in exceptional fashion.

Zigzagging his way upfield, Williams torched the Terrapins for 58 yards before coasting into the end zone for six points. The senior captain invigorated his team and laid the groundwork for a 24-21 Husky victory that day over old coach Randy Edsall. His ability to create those plays has since laid the groundwork for a potential career as an NFL player, which will soon begin just down the road at Redskins Park.

A native of East Windsor, N.J., Nick Williams has been the headliner of the successful UConn special teams units in recent years. After this past season, Williams stood as the only Husky ever to return two kicks and a pair of punts for touchdowns over a career. When head coach Paul Pasqualoni was hired in 2011, Williams was granted a greater offensive role as the team’s slot receiver. Since then, he accumulated 41 catches, 570 yards and a couple of touchdowns.

While Pasqualoni often referred to Williams as a “Wes Welker type”, the Redskin rookie has a ways to go before enjoying any similar success his fellow undrafted free agent currently benefits from. Measuring in at around 5’ 9” 184 lbs., he will be undersized for any position he plays and often subject to physical bullying by his opposition. Yet, there’s a reason the four-year letterwinner left school as the all-time leader in kickoff return yards.

When in the open field, Williams plays with above average quickness and a keen ability to consistently gain maximal yardage. This knack stems from excellent vision, tenacity and toughness, which he sometimes used to fight for and win back loose balls at the bottom of pile-ups. While his sample of playing receiver is small, and diluted by playing with struggling teammates, Williams also possesses decent hands and ability to separate in short spaces.

His speed for the next level is average, and he must improve on breaking from press coverage. Due to his split focus at UConn between returning and receiving, Williams must also work further to master many of the smaller nuances of playing out wide. Thanks to all these things, he will simply have to practice harder and learn faster than almost everybody this pre-season, in order to break in with Washington.

Thankfully for Williams, the Redskins were the epitome of ordinary when it came to returning the football last year. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where he’ll make his money. The team finished 16th in kickoffs, 17th in punts and never returned any kick back for a score. For the immediate future, the Husky hopeful is best-suited returning punts, since he’s more quick than he is fast.

In time, Williams could possibly develop as a slot receiver, especially given that the most popular formations in the league today feature three wideouts, one tight end and one running back. Washington placed him at receiver for many snaps during mandatory team mini-camp and off-season workouts. In fact, he’s made his presence felt already, by converting a simulated, pressure fourth down play in a mini-camp sequence.

The teammates who stand in Williams’ way of making his first NFL team are those who will also be gunning for the returning jobs. Now, the Redskins aren’t exactly stacked with world-beaters at wideout, but don’t expect their top-four receivers to be waving good-bye to the capital anytime soon. Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson and Pierre Garcon should all be lining up week one on Monday night to take on Philadelphia.

However, given his escalating age and thus declining physical abilities, Moss could well lose the punt returning duties he’s currently vying for. The 34-year old stood back deep with Williams and two others in mini-camp, after the release of last year’s returner Brandon Banks. Moss hasn’t returned anything but ill-fitting pants since 2009, when he reeled 11 punts for the Redskins and gained a measly average of 4.7 yards.

The other potential Redskin returners include second-year cornerback Richard Crawford and undrafted rookie wide receiver Skye Dawson. Crawford came out of SMU a year ago and played only in weeks one through five last season, before collecting five tackles and an interception in the team’s final two games. Dawson is from TCU and is known as a speedster, who holds similar aspirations to Williams. He finished top-five in punt and kick returning for the Big 12 conference a year ago and is likely to make the team in that capacity.

Ultimately, Williams will have to prove his worth to the Redskins as both a returner and potential slot receiver to make the 53-man roster on opening night. The competition is small in quantity, but does not lack for talent as Crawford raised some eyebrows last season with the ball in his hands. From this view, should Williams prove his versatility, he’s likely to land on the practice squad.

And he’ll certainly have an opportunity to do so in week one of the pre-season, when Washington takes on Tennessee, who finished fourth to last in covering kicks and in the bottom 12 for covering punts a year ago. Kickoff for that game is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, August 8th.

The Redskins open their training camp on Thursday, July 25th, at the new Bon Secours training center in Richmond, V.A.

Continue

Husky Hard Knocks: Michael Smith

As NFL teams begin to break training camp all over the country this weekend, we begin here at The UConn Blog with a new series: Husky Hard Knocks. Today, we preview the pre-season chances former UConn wide receiver Michael Smith has of making the Houston Texans roster.

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