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Football Preview Weekish: The WRs/TEs

Much like NyQuil, saying "Dwayne Difton" 17 times in 1,100 words can relive all stress and flu symptoms.

As part of TheUConnBlog’s 2009 football Season Preview Week, we’re rolling out the position primers and opponent capsules. Today, we look at the wide receivers and tight ends.

Previously on TheUConnBlog: Few ideas are more cherished among UConn fans than "Randy Edsall: Master Talent Evaluator." Maybe not as much as "Jim Calhoun, non-dime-giving grumpy winner," but it’s close. Follow the recruiting sites at your own peril, we’ll say. We’ve seen many players come through Storrs with zero, one or two stars and leave as an all-conference player or an NFL draft pick. Of the four Huskies drafted in April, three (Darius Butler, Will Beatty and Cody Brown) all measured up at two stars; Donald Brown, only the greatest player in UConn history and the best running back in the NCAA last year, was given three stars by the recruitniks.

And while it’s always seemed that UConn wasn’t quite on the level of a West Virginia, back-to-back winning seasons make it seem that Edsall’s recruiting voodoo was doing something right. During this key period of transition, Edsalls seems to have continued to target bunches of overlooked talents while working to impress bigger, more athletic names with UConn’s fancy new facilities and up-and-comer reputation. The worst part about such a transition is that, apparently, there are just some positions that cry out for talent and overwhelming athleticism. Like, say, wide receiver.

For four years or so, UConn quarterbacks have been throwing (or not throwing, as was the case last year) to a collection of underachieving, middling wideouts. I guess if you liked possession receivers being smothered by defensive backs, this was the team for you. At times, it was utterly shocking when a wide receiver made a catch more than 10 yards downfield. Whether it was athleticism or simple poor route-running (chalked up to coaching?), the receivers did not get it done in 2008, which exacerbated an already-predictable offense and an inconsistent rotation of quarterbacks. When your statistical season highlight was sophomore Kashif Moore’s 27 catches for 273 yards – equal to about two good games for Michael Crabtree – you know it was a tough season. Mercifully, this transition period seems to be nearing an end, as Edsall has done good work in adding a corps of big, strong, quick and young receivers to the fold, headlined by four-star prospect and likely opening-game starter Dwayne Difton, whose name will almost certainly annoy you by the end of this preview. The prognosis is somewhat shakier at the tight end position, where starter Martin Bedard graduated to join Larry Taylor avec les Alouettes de Montreal. A pair of big athletic freshmen will hold down the fort there.

The depth chart (2008 numbers in parentheses): Wide receivers, according to the Runway Ramblings blog (until the actual depth chart is released Sunday):

  1. #1 (modest son of a gun) Dwayne Difton, true freshman (5-11, 170 lbs)
  2. #82 Kashif Moore, junior (27 rec, 273 yds, TD)
  3. #80 Michael Smith, sophomore (12 rec, 137 yds)
  4. #83 Isiah Moore, sophomore (1 appearance last year; 6-foot-1, 185 lbs)
  5. #29 Marcus Easley, senior (4 rec, 94 yds)
  6. #3 Brad Kanuch, senior (7 rec, 69 yds; 790 career rec yds)
  7. #7 Michael Lang (5-foot-11, 181 lbs)
  8. #88 Gerrard Sheppard, redshirt freshman (6-foot-2, 209 lbs)
  9. #87 Malik Generett, true freshman (6-foot-4, 206 lbs)

Tight ends, according to same:

  1. #94 Ryan Griffin, redshirt freshman (6-foot-6, 247 lbs)
  2. #89 John Delahunt, redshirt freshman (6-foot-3, 255 lbs)

2008 high points: Here they are, in all their glory: both touchdown catches by UConn wide receivers (again, I’m not counting Butler, who primarily played defense) in 2008:

  1. UConn at Rutgers, Oct. 18: Kashif Moore catches a 47-yard pass from Zach Frazer (8:33, 4th quarter)
  2. UConn at South Florida, Nov. 23: Ellis Gaulden catches a 43-yard flea flicker from Tyler Lorenzen (2:49, 3rd quarter)

Out of 885 plays (and 329 passes), these were truly the loftiest moments. Honorable mention to productive TE Steve Brouse (STEVE BROUSE!), who was injured most of the year but caught a TD in the International Bowl.

2008 low point: Arguably the turning point of the season came in the Huskies’ 35-13 loss to West Virginia at the Rent. Leading 13-7 in the third quarter, with a chance to improve to 7-2 (3-1), Cody Endres uncorked a bomb to a wide-open Kashif Moore, who streaked past all defensive backs on a post route. The only thing between Moore and the end zone was imagination.

Two seconds later, the ball hit Moore in the hands and fell to the ground.The Mountaineers went on to score 165 28 straight points to win and send the Huskies to an under-.500 year in-conference.

For most teams, a play like that probably happens once a game, so I don’t mean to pick on Moore or anything. But, according to the sage insight of Marshall Mathers, you only get one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted. And instead of capturing it, he just let it slip. I just hope that this year, Moore and the bunch are calm and ready to drop bombs.

Just goin’ off popular consensus: Phil Steele: Has the Huskies’ receiving unit (including TEs, it appears) ranked eighth in the Big East (and he rates Difton as the 64th-best incoming WR in the country).

Athlon: Eighth in the Big East, with the backhanded compliment that the WR/TEs are an "interesting" position battle due to the lack of experience. Does not even mention a wide receiver by name in their magazine preview.

Our outlook: It would be tough for this group of receivers to be worse than they were last year, when it would’ve been charitable to give the position a ‘D.’ In hindsight, it’s likely that the combination of mediocre quarterbacks, mediocre receivers, and a conservative gameplan conspired to depress the receivers’ stats and impact. A more creative offensive coordinator should be able to make something of this group; and of course, everybody’s a year older, stronger and better at route-running.

But whereas the offense’s success will hinge on Frazer’s play, it goes without saying that he’ll need some playmakers at wideout. If the recruiting videos and first-hand accounts are close to accurate, maybe Difton is that guy.

Now, much like backup quarterback is the most popular player on the team, the incoming freshmen are always the great hope of the next season. If it were any other team, I’d think it was crazy to put so much on a freshman’s shoulders. (Ditto for the tight ends, of course, who have intriguing size and athleticism but will have to adjust to being the guys on the end of the line).

The receiving corps as a whole is inexperienced and bound to make all sorts of mistakes as it adjusts to the hurry-up offense. The talent level is raised and I think you’ll see a noticeable improvement here.

But unless Difton is half-man, half-amazing, or one of the other freshmen (or the Edsall-approved Smith and K. Moore, by far the best of the returning bunch) step up in a big way, an improvement to above "average" would be considered a huge leap forward.

Position grade: C