We Came, We Saw, They Practiced

Andrew Callahan

The UConn football team has nearly concluded its first full week of pre-season. We stopped by at their first of three practices open to the public to check in on their progress.

Lots of chasing, lots of hitting and the kind of screaming Mom would hate to hear.

Typically reserved for your nearest neighborhood playground, this was instead the scene set for UConn football practice no. 5 of the their 2013 campaign.

Lasting just over two-and-a-half hours, the session featured a lot of work done in the red zone and on special teams. The Huskies strapped on full pads for the first time this summer, and will have two more practices open to the public before their opener against Towson on Aug. 29th.

Below is a full breakdown borne from my myriad of notes taken to bring a depth chart into focus, highlight players who had good days, players who had bad days, pieces of the playbook, and offer a few things.

But, let's get to our first order of business:

Almost all the information listed here should be taken with a serious grain of salt. Similar to the games we watch, every player is bound to seen at some point having a bad practice; just because you saw Tom Brady in the Super Bowl against the Giants doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see him with a bust in Canton later.

So, with that in mind, Chandler Whitmer had a pretty bad day.

Here’s the rest of what I can tell you about yesterday:

Special teams

In the first half-hour, before the team stretched and broke into a more standard practice, almost all players participated as a part of the punt team units. Each play repetition involved a live kick, coverage of said kick and an awaiting return man in the distance. The session gradually grew towards game-like situations as more contact was allowed and returners ran both harder and farther.

Cole Wagner regularly sent kicks high and far, while his back-up, freshman Justin Wain, boomed a handful of punts, but was fairly inconsistent. The coverage teams seemed to get the best of the blocking return units overall.

The Huskies seen fielding punts included Taylor Mack, Deshon Foxx, Shakim Phillips and back-up receivers Kamal Abrams and Brian Lemelle.

Simultaneously, the quarterbacks practiced red zone throws and roll outs with McCombs and freshman fullback Jazzmar Clax. The five signal callers were Whitmer, Casey Cochran, Richard Lagow, Tim Boyle and Kivon Taylor.

Offense

Following the team wide stretch, the Huskies broke off into red zone work and positional drills. When together, the offense operated at a high-tempo with new offensive coordinator T.J. Weist running from sideline to sideline making calls and barking advice. He frequently called for attention to detail and, along with Chandler Whiter, occasionally corrected some of the skill position players on where they were lining up.

The primary personnel group included three wide receivers, a tight end and one running back. As expected, Phillips and Geremy Davis manned the perimeter, while junior wideout Deshon Foxx played the slot. There were no changes to the first-team set of receivers at any point in practice. Foxx made a nice catch on a bullet throw from Boyle down the seam during a drill that pitted the receivers against defensive backs.

Boyle’s strong arm shone throughout the day, but he was horrid in 11-on-11 play, throwing an easy interception to back-up safety Obi Melifonwu. Second-string linebacker Marquise Vann got his hands on another gift from Boyle on the following play, though he dropped it.

Redshirt tight ends Spencer Parker and Sean McQuillan both received reps with the top team, but the senior Parker stepped in first during the early going. He also did well in blocking drills, at one time handling starting defensive end Jesse Joseph, who gave him a congratulatory helmet slap afterward. McQuillan, a third-year player from Glastonbury, C.T., saw a good chunk of playing time when the team went to two tight end groupings later on.

The wide receivers on the second team consisted of a trio of freshmen Dhameer Bradley, Noel Thomas and John Green. Weist did a lot of work between plays showing them the finer points of route running and releases, which is to be expected early in summer practice.

The offensive line remained steady with a returning first unit that stands from left to right with Jimmy Bennett, Steve Greene, Alex Mateas, Gus Cruz and Kevin Friend. The group of veterans opened up some holes during 11-on-11 running plays, but struggled some in blitz work, much like the second and third-team linemen. Back-up redshirt sophomore tackle Paul Nwokeji failed to gain good leverage on a number of snaps.

Defense

From this view (and barring injury), the first-team defense should remain as it was yesterday up until Aug. 29th when Towson comes to town. The unit dominated every facet of 11-on-11 play, generating heat on all five quarterbacks and clogging up lanes on runners. In addition, there’s little depth across most positions, so few players will be pushing these fellas for their jobs.

Here were the starters:

Defensive line: Jesse Joseph, Julian Campenni, Shamar Stephen and Tim Willman

Linebackers: Yawin Smallwood, Ryan Donohue and Graham Stewart

Secondary: Byron Jones, Taylor Mack, Ty-Meer Brown and Andrew Adams

Beating his All-American fellow linebacker to the punch, Donahue picked off Chandler Whitmer early on in 11-on-11 to set the tone. Then, he nearly repeated the feat on the next play. However, the pre-season award winner Smallwood reeled in an interception later during a red zone session that would’ve gone back for six. The pair was aided all afternoon by a superb push up front from Stephen, which in turn allowed Wilman to also rush one-on-one along the edge.

Behind all of them, Mack enjoyed a rung above what most would consider a rough day, as he often garnered the attention of coaches. Adams played tough in run support and newly converted cornerback Byron Jones was very reliable. Freshman cover man Ellis Marder entered during nickel situations and played the outside, which moved Mack to the slot position. Marder is tall, but surprisingly sturdy at 193 lbs. Stewart was the linebacker who left the field in these packages.

While the personnel on the field has shuffled a lot since last December, the scheme appeared to remain very similar. Returned coordinator Hank Hughes had the unit running many of the same fronts and blitzes seen for the last two seasons under Don Brown. This included an occasional three-man line in pressure situations.

11-on-11 play highlights

The offense worked in a variety of personnel packages that ranged from two to five wide receiver sets. Whitmer and his fellow quarterbacks stood primarily in the shotgun, but did all move at one point to take snaps under center.

Chandler Whitmer started 0-5 with a batted pass and interception, but was still the best of the bunch overall. Following his final interception, he was replaced by Casey Cochran, who took the majority of second-string snaps along with Tim Boyle.

Freshman quarterback Kivon Taylor demonstrated below average accuracy throughout the afternoon.

Every signal caller performed very poorly in the day’s final segment— 11-on-11 with a blitzing defense.

Redshirt sophomore running back Max DeLorenzo ran with good quickness on a screen pass that was the highlight of the day for the offense.

Upon scoring their first of two touchdowns on the day against a full defense, the surrounding offensive players exclaimed with joy.

Freshman fullback Jazzmar Clax broke through on a power run that was blocked brilliantly up front by the second-string line. It was the only time the defensive front seven was seriously gashed on the day.

Back-up defensive end Jalen Stevens later forced a fumble from Clax and showed good range in pass coverage on a zone blitz.

While he lined up with the second-unit, sophomore defensive end Elijah Norris showed excellent explosion and speed off the line. He got around the edge very quickly rushing on both defense and special teams.

Byron Jones stripped a ball from the clutches of Shakim Phillips at the last second as the two tumbled to the ground in the end zone after a completed pass.

BJ McBryde, a member of the defensive line rotation last year, was demoted to the third team.

Freshman wide receiver Dhameer Bradley showed good elusiveness in one of the few times an offensive player found himself in space.

Casey Cochran nearly threw an interception to Jesse Joseph in his final snap against an inside zone blitz that called for Joseph to leak out and cover the flat.

Happy Huskies

LB Ryan Donahue, RB Max DeLorenzo, DE Jalen Stevens, DE Elijah Norris

Unhappy Huskies

QB Chandler Whitmer, FB Jazzmar Clax, CB Taylor Mack, OT Paul Nwokeji

Injury Report

Last year’s starting center Tyler Bullock did not participate due to what appears to be a right ankle injury. He rode a stationary bike during the beginning of practice.

Linebacker Jonathan Hicks, a redshirt freshman from Palmyra, P.A., remained on the sidelines for the afternoon and did some resistance training.

Odds and ends

Athletic director Warde Manuel was on hand for roughly the first two-thirds of practice. Per Pasqualoni’s request, he spoke to the team as a whole once they had finished stretching.

In an early part of the afternoon, Weist was heard shouting to his offense "If you don’t get lined up fast, it defeats the purpose!" This provides further proof he will almost assuredly be running the attack we detailed here nearly a month ago.

Weist called for many bunch sets when the Huskies offense attempted to score in the red zone.

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