First, I'll say what most of us are thinking right about now: It's already mid-f**king August?
Seriously, at some point we have to decide that summer lasts a little longer, right? Or maybe that's why people move to Arizona, so that summer temperatures (at least temps we consider summer here in the Northeast) are pretty much year-round averages.
The point is, UConn's return to the playing field is now only a few short weeks away.
Welcome, year three of the Paul Pasqualoni era, or as I like to call it....baarrrrrrffffff.
Welcome, American Athletic Conference, or as I like to call it...WTF?
Welcome to ESPN relegating AAC games to ESPN 8 (the Ocho) and Mike Aresco telling us how much good that “exposure” is doing for everyone.
In other words, welcome to the 2013 American Football Season baby...catch the fever (if you do, immediately take a handful of whatever antibiotic you can get illegally over the Internet from Vietnam, because you need powerful stuff to kill that infection).
All jokes aside, I'm rather interested to see the Huskies back in action. It's the curse of being a fan...you always have hope, even when you push it down with enough cynicism to sink an aircraft carrier. My mind is telling me to buckle up for a dumpy ride on the S.S. Pasqualoni, with little chance that year three looks any better than year one or two, and the likelihood that it looks a whole lot worse.
Yet, my heart is there to whisper words of encouragement to my brain.
“Hey, it's year three of Coach PP. Maybe, with more of 'his' players on the roster, they will improve.”
“Hey, some guy not named George DeLeone is going to be calling offensive plays this year, which means there's a chance for UConn to score double digit points, occasionally.”
“Get excited cause UConn has a chance to make its mark on the national football stage once again with a game at home against Michigan. You never know, right?”
“Remember, we're in the AAC now. That's GOTTA be worth two extra wins a year, right?”
Not sure how persuasive my heart is, but I'll admit, I've been listening.
So, I figured in lead up to the football season, I would do an “excitement-level” post about the upcoming year. The things that have me all tingly in my nether regions when it comes to the 2013 football season? Well, okay, maybe “excitement” isn't the perfect word. Maybe it's more like “mildly curious,” but whatever... here are the things I'm most interested in seeing this year.
Yawin Smallwood For Super President
Quietly, UConn's had a nice little run of producing top-quality defensive players recently. A lot of people consider Kendall Reyes a rising star with the San Diego Chargers, Mel Kiper, Jr. gave the Oakland Raiders a high mark for their 2013 draft based primarily on them getting “sleeper” Sio Moore in the third round, and the Huskies marked a school record with five players taken in this year's draft.
Next up: Yawin Smallwood.
He might just be the best of the bunch.
Forget the fact that Kiper, Jr. has him ranked #45 on his Top 50 players coming into the season. It's the natural ability that dictates this kid could be special.
He's 6'3”, 244 pounds, and fast enough to record 120 tackles and four sacks last year. He's exactly what current NFL teams are looking for out of linebackers these days: big enough to get to the QB and take him down, but fast enough to cover the new athletic tight ends that seem to be popping up all the time.
In his sophomore year, Smallwood was arguably UConn's best defensive player. That's saying something, considering the defense was really the only bright spot of the team, and was stocked with, as mentioned before, five future NFL draftees. In the Edsall Bowl against Maryland, which meant more to UConn faithful than a lot of people realize, Smallwood was utterly sensational with 14 tackles, 3.5 for a loss, and 2.5 sacks. Not much more you can do on defense. He also recorded 11 big tackles against Louisville during the team's best win of the season.
I'm legit excited to see Smallwood improve this year. I have no idea how the defense is going to look after so much turnover, but Smallwood should be a bright spot no matter what. This could be the best UConn has produced yet. That's exciting stuff, right?
Free Chandler Whitmer
This is where we move from “excited” to “curious” when it comes to the 2013 football season. Quick transition, huh?
Honestly though, I'm interested to see what Chandler Whitmer actually is, aren't you? Trust me, I don't think this is Brett Favre laying in the weeds, ready to pounce onto the national scene like a starving Puma, but I just get the sense there is more to him than the nine touchdowns to 16 interceptions he racked up last year. Granted, there were a lot of bad, bad, bad throws that resulted in costly turnovers at inopportune times, but I'm not sure how much of that can be laid solely at Whitmer's feet.
After all, his offensive coordinator seemed to be paid by how many run-up-the-middle plays he could call in one game, meaning Whitmer was forced into a lot of third and long situations. Even for experienced quarterbacks, that's a difficult spot in which to be put.
Add in the fact that UConn's offensive line was atrocious and no running game ever got going and it wasn't ideal for any QB.
The one thing I did like about Whitmer was that, after a few years of watching UConn QB's struggle to get the ball more than 15 yards down field, he seemed to have a decent down field arm. Again, he's not making anyone forget about John Elway, but there were a couple of long completions/touchdowns that had me salivating for a more creative approach to offense.
Maybe, with the noose loosened and the playbook opened up, Whitmer will look like a legit winning college QB. Or, maybe he'll throw up another nine to 16 touchdown to interception year. All I know is, I'm interested to see which it is.
A Guy Not Named George DeLeone
TJ Weist, are we happy to see you.
That's UConn's new offensive coordinator, and he's a sight for sore eyes (and vocal chords, which were worn out screaming at former OC George DeLeone).
Weist was on the Cincinnati staff last year and has spent most of his career as a wide receivers coach. His bio proudly announces that he's mentored 14 NFL wide receivers in his time, and he has coached for schools like Michigan and Alabama in the past.
Weist's only time as offensive coordinator came at Western Kentucky University, where his offenses ranked fairly high nationally each year he was there.
It's hard to know exactly what the offense will look like under Weist, but what's clear is that he seems to like offense. That's going to be welcome relief after having been subjected to the holy war DeLeone waged against offensive productivity the last two years.
I'm just interested to see what UConn's skill players can do in a more imaginative offense, and all indications are that Weist wants to be at least somewhat unpredictable when it comes to how the team scores points. Maybe we'll see a play action pass down the field for more than 10 yards? The world is your oyster when you're not running the best of Red Grange every week.
Home Sweet Home
Four of the first five games are at The Rentsch.
Aside from offering me a chance to see at least one game live and in person during that time, it also means a legit chance to get off to a good start.
Of course, the big fish on the home menu is Michigan. I'll admit, I haven't done my homework on Michigan this year so I'm not sure if their a legit good team or just bringing the brand to Hartford. Either way, they'll be heavily favored and should be, pound for pound, a better squad than the Huskies. If UConn were to win that game, it would be arguably the biggest victory in program history.
Why do I say that? Why would it be bigger than beating USF to go to the Fiesta Bowl, or beating Notre Dame at Notre Dame?
Mostly because of where UConn's at right now.
The Huskies are widely regarded as the biggest losers in conference realignment and there's been almost universal negativity surrounding the AAC and UConn's involvement in it. Many a not-so-bright columnist have already predicted the demise of UConn's football and basketball programs because of their demotion from the now-defunct Big East to the American.
A win against Michigan would flip the script, at least for a little while. It would thrust UConn into the spotlight and, even though it would be billed as an unforgivable loss for the Wolverines, it would provide some credibility to a burgeoning conference in desperate need of positivity.
Do I expect a win against Michigan? Of course not, but I'll be watching and praying. It will definitely get my attention.
I'd like to say there's a lot more peaking my interest as we approach the first game but, honestly, there just isn't. I'm hopeful, not expectant. I'm prepared for the worst, dreaming of the best.
All I know is, if Paul Pasqualoni has something up his sleeve, now's the year to use it. It's not just his job on the line anymore. Considering all UConn has been through the last year, a surprising season in football would go a long way to easing the pain.