Folks, it’s now time for the sexiest article you’ll ever read.
Below is a piece on all of the grisly, 300-pound men who will man the offensive and defensive fronts for UConn over its 2013 campaign. Referred to as "big uglies" or "hogs" simply for the positions they play, it will be the job of these men to push away or push by the other sweaty, burly 300-pounders suited up for opponents. These players are the cogs that can make or break any football team on any level on any given play.
So, pay good attention.
On the surface, the Huskies should have similarly capable, productive units on both sides of the line of scrimmage in 2013. Yet, there are vast differences as to how each group has presumably arrived to this point.
In 2012, the offensive line endured numerous struggles, especially towards the end of the season. Over their first four games, the unit had a difficult time protecting up the middle, until the larger Tyler Bullock replaced Alex Mateas at center. But, the ship kept leaking; specifically against Syracuse when Chandler Whitmer was used as a punching bag by the Orange defense. The line then allowed eleven sacks over the final four games, including four in the season finale, when the boat ultimately sank.
Fast forward, and there ought to be improvement from this group given their great deal of continuity and experience. Whether the five grow into a team strength remains to be seen, however, there’s very little chance they become the liability they were at times a year ago.
As we flip sides of the football, we also switch from the idea of inevitable improvement to unavoidable decline. The UConn defense watched its all-time sack leader Trevardo Williams and the versatile, relentless Ryan Wirth leave behind two starting spots last spring. Luckily, the Huskies have good depth in their defensive front and will still be able to change between three and four-man lines. Jesse Joseph and Shamar Stephen return as the other first-teamers from 2012.
The big headliner here is that the unit welcomes back all five starters from their final five games in 2012. The only significant loss was right guard Adam Masters, who sustained a season-ending leg injury against Syracuse last October and graduated in May. 6’ 9" left tackle Jimmy Bennett stands in once again to protect Chandler Whitmer’s blind side. Very rarely was Bennett at the core of the issues the line faced, and he should do a respectable job once again in pass protection and run blocking.
To his immediate right will be team captain and left guard Steve Greene. Greene is the team’s second best offensive lineman behind right tackle Kevin Friend. The Ebensburg, P.A. native is also the second-most experienced Husky behind Friend, as he’ll make his 21st career start on Thursday.
Between Greene and right guard Gus Cruz is where things could get rocky. At center, Mateas will begin the year as the team’s starter, though that title is likely tied to the fact that Bullock missed time in summer practice. A review of the tape from the first few games of 2012 showed the Penn State transfer getting tossed around a lot, specifically against N.C. State. Though, he was not entirely at fault as according to a source, prior to Bill O’Brien’s hiring in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions’ lifting and conditioning programs severely lacked under the late coach Joe Paterno.
Mateas has put on weight since last season, and he’ll of course now look to hold onto his starting job in 2013. In fact, Mateas may even have a head start on Bullock with the scheme change. When running the ball, offensive coordinator T.J. Weist has historically favored zone-blocking, which typically utilizes lighter, more athletic linemen.
Further down the line is the right guard Cruz, who stands at 6’ 4" and 309 lbs. The Manchester, N.H. native enters his redshirt junior season and will be making just his sixth career start in the opener. Should Cruz do even a serviceable job in run blocking, the team will have a formidable duo on the right side for Lyle McCombs to run behind. Friend, who is on the radar of NFL scouts, returns for his redshirt senior season after starting 23 of the team’s previous 24 games.
Early in the team’s summer practices, this was the unit to watch. Stephen and fellow tackle Julian Campenni were repeatedly setting up camp in the backfield. Defensive ends Joseph and Tim Willman continually whipped around the line of scrimmage in a blur. Even back-up ends Angelo Pruitt and Elijah Norris took their turns sprinting through what seemed like a revolving door. Now, none of them will be able to individually match Williams’ production from a year ago, but collectively they should generate a sufficient pass rush.
Now, no matter whether it’s rushing the passer or stuffing the run, everything up front starts with Stephen. The redshirt junior is a mountain of a man at 6’ 5’ 317 lbs, who is difficult to both move and keep still when you’re attacking a gap to his right or left. Stephen’s ability to eat up blockers is the key for fellow linemen to garner one-one one matchups and penetrate in the backfield this season. Jesse Joseph is the lone Husky lineman who has experience consistently defeating blocks.
While the unit as a whole dominated earlier this month, Campenni individually remained as a consistent storyline. He filled out his six-foot frame to nearly 300 lbs. in the off-season, and used it to push practice pockets regularly. The third-year tackle possesses tremendous strength in his lower body, which is a perfect complement to his smaller stature that always him to gain an inherent, critical edge when fighting for leverage against blockers.
Pruitt and B.J. McBryde are the most experienced back-ups on the two-deep, after both saw time in the rotation a year ago once Joseph and Stephen were bit by the injury bug. Pruitt plays with better quickness, which allows him to bounce back and forth between end and tackle; though McBryde has 20 pounds on the Cincinnati native. Converted fullback Reuben Frank has worked his way up to assume back-up defensive end duties behind Tim Willman. Other non-starters who could see time include Norris, Kenton Adeyemi (who was lauded for his pre-season efforts by defensive coordinator Hank Hughes) and freshman Folorunso Fatukasi.
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