The master chef has arrived.
His cookbook contains tips from St. Augustine, Garth Brooks and Knute Rockne. His recipes have been penned by the likes of Al Groh and Brian Kelly. The theoretical pieces for a gourmet gridiron meal all seem to be in place.
But, any cook is only as good as his hands or the physical work he can muster with the ingredients available.
For our chef in question, new UConn head coach Bob Diaco, the cupboard to produce a quality football team is not bare. However, by no means is it entirely full.
So, what does he have to work with?
For obvious starters, Diaco will be making use of the majority of Huskies from this past 2013 team. That 3-9 group was certainly a proud, tough bunch, which relied heavily on its veterans in the trenches through both thick and thin. Going forward, nine starters from the final depth chart of 2013 will be missing, including six from the offensive and defensive lines.
Throw in star linebacker Yawin Smallwood, who is taking off for the NFL Draft, and that's a lot of quality beef to replace.
Not to mention, many question marks are left to be answered.
On the flip side, Diaco will carry over every UConn starter from the offensive "skill positions" into 2014. From 1,000-yard stud Geremy Davis to recently converted tight end Elijah Norris, these Huskies will all be back to contribute to a formidable attack. The playmaking department, no matter how surprising this may read, actually projects to be the unquestioned strength of the future.
Of course, we're forgetting something here: the incoming freshmen recruits.
Per Rivals.com, the UConn graduating class of 2018 will be comprised of at least a couple tight ends, handful of offensive linemen and a smattering of receivers and running back. Most commits have been labeled with two stars, while a few lucky ones have earned a third.
After that, who knows? The class is not complete and won't be until March. Furthermore, who actually can say how these commits or any future recruits will perform in their first collegiate action? Not a soul.
Therefore, they're going to largely be excluded from our conversation.
From here on out, we're going to examine the current state of the roster to determine exactly what Diaco will have available in his first attempt to whip up a championship dish.
By this point, every snap of 2013 has been broken down and all the tales of the tape have been written. Here is what they had to say about 2014:
As soon as practice starts up again, Connecticut products Casey Cochran and Tim Boyle will return to crouch under center and vie for the no. 1 job. Given his superior play in the final four games of last season, Cochran appears to be head and shoulders ahead of Boyle to start next year. His pocket presence, respectable accuracy to multiple levels of the field and decision-making all shone clearly for four Saturdays. Furthermore, coaches and players alike constantly lauded his leadership and work ethic off the field.
Although, there are two important things to keep in mind here. Both are very likely to be handed an entirely new playbook very soon by new coaches with whom they'll have a fresh slate. In addition, the four-game sample each put forth last season is still rather small from which to draw conclusions. Cochran was not throwing well in practice when Boyle was named the starter. It's possible he comes down again against quality defenses.
Still, we feel comfortable with the assertion that UConn should see its best quarterback play of the last four or five years between these two. Cochran's intangibles and Boyle's physical talent were undeniable in spurts, and the key here will be consistency.
Reportedly, Chandler Whitmer is considering leaving the program via transfer or a simple wave goodbye. The soon-to-be redshirt senior has struggled mightily over his two seasons starting in Storrs and would open the No. 3 job to Kivon Taylor. Stay tuned.
Let's start with the good news: The top two Husky rushers from last year are back.
Now onto the bad news: They may have already hit their ceiling.
This upcoming fall, Lyle McCombs and Max DeLorenzo will be entering their fifth and fourth seasons in Storrs respectively, after completing a campaign that combined for only 1,019 yards on a paltry 3.95 yards per carry. Mind you, they played for a team that before its final two home games couldn't rack up respectable passing yards until garbage time.
So, the chance to become a run-oriented offense was there. Yet, the combination of McCombs, DeLorenzo and their blockers up front couldn't seal the deal with enough consistent production. Speaking of that offensive line, next season these backs figure to run behind the most inexperienced front five they have ever seen thus far in their careers.
Not even McCombs' shiftiness in tight quarters may be able to nullify the potential defensive penetration that consistently occupies the UConn backfield. Ayear ago, the redshirt junior was sidelined when he failed to create enough positive plays, and his running vision mysteriously began declining.
Meanwhile, DeLorenzo continued to show marked improvement, as he has every year in the white and blue, with his hard-nosed running style. The Berlin native will never be a home run threat, though no offense should pass on the chance to consistently move the chains and avoid negative plays. Provided halfway decent blocking, he can do this for you.
The other back that ought to contribute will be highly touted freshman Arkeel Newsome from Ansonia. Otherwise, the Huskies project to rely count on fullbacks Matt Walsh and Jazzmar Clax in short-yardage situations.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Let's keep this simple.
Geremy Davis is a true No. 1 receiver in college football. His wide-catching radius, toughness and sure hands are as undeniable as his 6-foot-3 frame.
Shakim Phillips, when healthy, is this team's best downfield threat. He possesses slightly better long speed than Davis and a similar ability to win jump balls.
When he holds on to passes, Deshon Foxx is a legitimate slot receiver with very good run-after-the-catch ability. The physical tools have always been there, and with gametime reps, you and I both saw the development that was necessary to showcase them.
These are your starting wideouts for 2014.
However, all of them will be on the field pregame for Senior Day 2014, so it's a very good thing rising sophomores Dhameer Bradley, Brian Lemelle and John Green all made their opening auditions this year to ease next off-season's inevitable transition. Bradley is the biggest threat to snag a starting spot, given his versatility and late-season production. Kamal Abrams will be in the mix as well.
Meanwhile, Sean McQuillan and Elijah Norris return at tight end, primarily as pass-catching threats. By all accounts, McQuillan should maintain his starting spot. Keep an eye on Norris for a different reason, as his size and athleticism could force him into another position change. Provided there's enough depth at tight end to fill in a vacancy, it may be wise to move former defender Norris to outside linebacker, if he can cover.
This is where things could get dicey.
Presently, my best guess at the Huskies' starting line for opening night looks like this: Xavier Hemingway, Tyler Samra, Alex Mateas, Gus Cruz and Dalton Gifford. Mateas and Cruz were the only regular starters from 2013, though Cruz gave away playing to Tyler Bullock even prior to suffering from heart issues. Mateas was below average to solid for 12 games, though largely unspectacular.
Hemingway, serving in the stead of Kevin Friend, looked almost like a revolving door on passing downs in the earlier parts of 2013. He owns rare athleticism and sufficient size for a tackle, but needs to further fill out his frame and do a better job of gaining and maintaining leverage.
Rising sophomore Kyle Schafenacker figures to be the next man in line at either guard position, after he was listed as a backup for the first half of last season. Future redshirt senior Bryan Paull moved to second-string center and may be able to fill out one guard position as well. Others who could contribute inside include Zach Rugg and any incoming first-year players.
Outside at tackle, sophomores Richard Levy, Thomas Hopkins and junior Paul Nwokeji will have the opportunity to earn playing time.
Instead of pinning their ears back and attacking opposing quarterbacks, the UConn defensive line of 2014 will be charged with staying at home and holding tight to blockers up front. The requirements for starting along Diaco's 3-4 defensive front begin in the weight room. Both ends and particularly the nose tackle must register at around 290-300 pounds. Then, they must boast the necessary strength and awareness to hold up blocks and pursue plays at their point of attack.
Along the end spots, the Huskies appear to be set. However, in the middle, there is going to be more of a question.
Unfortunately, at 6-foot-5 and 317 pounds, soon-to-be graduate Shamar Stephen would've filled in beautifully here at nose tackle. Now, those duties likely fall to his back-up and fellow 300-pounder B.J. McBryde. McBryde will be a redshirt senior this upcoming season and has yet to make much of an impact, excluding short yardage situations.
While his size is very comparable to that of Stephen, his endurance and ability to impact both the pass and run game are the more important pieces here. There's a reason quality nose tackles are so hard to find at any level at football and the difficiulty of owning all those qualities simultaneously is the exact reason why.
Flanking McBryde projects to be Angelo Pruitt and either Julian Campenni or Mikal Meyers. Pruitt was the most underrated of all Husky defenders from a year ago, and I would frankly be shocked to find him anywhere else but the starting line-up.
Campenni and Meyers come into question here because of their height. Both stand at only six feet tall, falling three inches shy of the typical 3-4 defensive end. In addition, each appears to be better suited for a one-gap, 4-3 system. At this early stage, it would be very difficult to count Campenni, a former starter, out entirely.
But other names to keep in mind for the final defensive end spot should include the 6-foot-9 Dane Andreas Knappe, Folorunso Fatukasi or a bulked up Kenton Adeyemi.
One way or another, this group will be in excellent hands in 2014.
Either they will stay put under current position coach Jon Wholley, one of the fastest rising coaches on the UConn staff in recent years, who is beloved in the locker room and has helped send multiple players to the NFL, or they'll hear from Diaco himself. Diaco was a former linebacker at Iowa and linebackers coach at many stops afterward, beginning with Virginia where he learned much of his 3-4 system.
The responsibilities for this group will be vastly different from previous seasons, as detailed here. First, every contributing linebacker from 2013 is going to bulk up in the off-season. There's no avoiding that. None currently fit the ideal frame of a 3-4 Cat, Dog, Mike or Will linebacker, and it's likely Diaco won't have all these positions filled exactly as he wants until a few years down the road.
In the meantime, Marquise Vann figures to own one of the inside linebacker positions with his solid instincts and physicality. The other spot should be up for grabs, but I'd give the edge to redshirt freshman Jon Hicks, who seems to have a brighter defensive future than special teams stud Brandon Steg. Hicks measures at 6' 2" and 236 pounds, two inches taller than Vann.
UConn's top returning linebacker, Jefferson Ashiru, projects to take up the "Cat" outside linebacker spot. This position calls for frequent coverage of tight ends and occasionally slot wide receivers, both duties Ashiru performed very well last year. After replacing the inured Graham Stewart in the Maryland game, he took extensive gameday reps and proved to be the most athletic 'backer on the roster. Stewart is not far behind in that regard, but was out-played by Ashiru even after his return. The pair will be in direct competition in the spring.
Finally, the Dog position, or other outside linebacker spot, I believe should eventually belong to Rebuen Frank. Frank moved from fullback to defensive end last year in an effort to improve the team's pass rush, and rushing the passer is the primary responsibility of the "Dog". He possesses the prototypical size here and ought to be able to hold the edge in the run game. Alternative candidates for this spot will also be around 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, but all other Huskies who fit that mold have yet to see the field or play linebacker.
They are Norris, Junior Joseph, Cole Ormsby and Brendan Battles-Santos.
Three starters return to this unit that struggled mightily with tackling in the open field, though in contradictory fashion, could almost always be counted on in run support. Barring a position change, Obi Melifonwu, Ty-Meer Brown and Andrew Adams will patrol the back end of this defense, frequently in two-deep coverages. From this view, Melifonwu could develop into a star in the conference, and Brown is as steady as they come. Adams' versatility was sorely missed when he sat out the first half of the year with an injury.
Byron Jones will most certainly man one of the cornerback spots over his final year in a Husky uniform. On the opposite side, I liked a lot of what I saw from redshirt freshman Jhavon Williams. He'll be in direct competition with Tyree Clark and Javon Hadley, as all defensive backs adjust to new zone-dominant schemes.
As you almost assuredly know, both Chad Christen and Cole Wagner are gone for next year.
The only pieces of information we can utilize to project their replacements them are the listed back-ups from 2013's final depth chart: Bobby Puyol and Justin Wain. From the few summer practices I attended, Wain has a tremendous leg, but failed to generate much consistency. He may take in fact take kickoff duties. On the other hand, Puyol will have some competition with his field goals and this should be a battle to watch all summer long.
The transition to a two-gapping, 3-4 defense is going to be the most interesting roster storyline of the off-season. Can Diaco work enough magic to make his new systems work in Year 1? On the other side, is there enough talent and experience to muster a respectable offensive line? Will Casey Cochran, who led this team to three wins, show up for an entire season?
We know the offensive playmakers and secondary pieces will be there. There should even be enough bodies up front to fill a defensive line that bids adieu to a bevy of seniors. But, we won't know for sure until the final gun of the opening game.
Until then, we give you our projections for the starting line-ups:
QB: Casey Cochran RB: Lyle McCombs WR: Geremy Davis, Shakim Phillips, Deshon Foxx TE: Sean McQuillan
OL: Xavier Hemingway, Tyler Samra, Alex Mateas, Gus Cruz/Kyle Schafenacker, Dalton Gifford
DL: Angelo Pruitt, B.J. McBryde, Julian Campenni LB: Jefferson Ashiru, Marquise Vann, Jon Hicks, Reuben Frank
Secondary: Byron Jones, Jhavon Williams, Obi Melifonwu, Ty-Meer Brown
K: Bobby Puyol
P: Justin Wain