The UConn football team's first depth chart of the fall was released Sunday in Bob Diaco's weekly press conference, two days earlier than the regularly scheduled weekly conference because of UConn's Thursday night opening game.
Diaco has turned his attention to Villanova, a program which he showed immense respect for, saying "you fall in love with them" the more you read about their team and program, going on to compliment the exceptional continuity in their staff and experienced starting lineup.
Diaco used Saturday's FCS Kickoff game between Montana and North Dakota State as evidence Villanova is an opponent to respect regardless of the FBS vs. FCS designation. Montana, the 12th-ranked team in the preseason FCS Coaches Poll, beat No. 1 North Dakota State, the four-time reigning national champions, in an exciting match-up to open the college football season. It was the first Division I game on the calendar.
UConn will be playing on the opening day of FBS football Thursday against Villanova, ranked No. 3 in the FCS poll and lead by head coach Andy Talley, who has held that post for 30 years. Talley outlined some of the challenges they will be facing in a conference call Sunday.
"When you play guys like that, they're bigger, stronger and faster," he said. "They're a lot deeper too... probably playing 55 guys, we'll be playing 40, maybe 38."
This will be a homecoming of sorts for Talley, who started his coaching career at Simsbury High after graduating from Southern Connecticut State, where he played defensive back, in 1967. Villanova also has a star defender, linebacker Don Cherry, who played at Trumbull High, and will be looking to make a triumphant return to his home state. Cherry was an FCS All-American and was also named the Colonial Athletic Association Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 2014.
Talley also revealed this game was scheduled (a long time ago) as part of a plan to acclimate Villanova to what was once called Big East football at a time when they were "serious about moving up to 1-A." He noted the Wildcats played Boston College and Syracuse in the previous two seasons, and have Pitt on the schedule next year. After the Catholic Seven took their basketball and went home, that plan was abandoned, but the games stayed on the schedule.
This Villanova team is replacing two starting offensive linemen, two running backs and its top receiver from last year, but is still an experienced and extremely well-coached group, especially on defense. The Wildcats also return star quarterback John Robertson, winner of the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Diaco compared him to BYU's Taysom Hill, a smart, strong-armed passer who can also make devastating plays with his legs.
There were not many surprises with the release of the two-deep roster. North Carolina State transfer Bryant Shirreffs was officially named the starting quarterback, but that was expected. Tim Boyle was named the backup, and it appears the goal is to protect Tyler Davis to redshirt. Don't count out junior college transfer Garrett Anderson from seeing the field this year. He matches up well with Boyle and Shirreffs from a skill-level standpoint.
4 true freshmen on the offensive two-deep: OT Peart, TEs Chris Lee and Zordon Holman, WR Beals pic.twitter.com/UcqGFdJekL— UConn Report (@UConnReport) August 30, 2015
Running backs Ron Johnson and Arkeel Newsome were named co-starters. Diaco said on a game-by-game basis either one of the two may get more carries and touches than the other, so he felt it was appropriate to list both in the starting role. Newsome will also be the primary kick returner.
READ: UConn Positional Preview: Running Backs
The top two wide receivers are Noel Thomas and Thomas Lucas, with junior Brian Lemelle and true freshman Tyraiq Beals as the backups. As he mentioned before, Diaco stated that others, including a few more freshmen, will see time at receiver as well. Beals is also the backup punt returner behind Lemelle.
Three other true freshmen earned a spot on the two-deep depth chart on offense, tight ends Chris Lee and Zordon Holman and left tackle Matt Peart. Diaco called Holman's father, "one of the baddest dudes on the planet. For real, for real."
Freshman Michael Tarbutt will start as the kick-off specialist and also take longer field goal attempts.
READ: UConn Will See Contributions from Recruiting Class of 2015
Defensively, everything played out as expected in the front seven or secondary. The corners are a bit young, but with a strong front seven and experienced safeties the cornerbacks will have excellent support around them. Jhavon Williams and Jamar Summers will take their lumps, but they both saw significant playing time last year which they have had the opportunity to build on. Coaches and teammates have also been raving about the progress of junior Javon Hadley, who will be the third corner.
Defensive starters, no surprises here. pic.twitter.com/XPrZtsQCtZ— UConn Report (@UConnReport) August 30, 2015
Sophomore Luke Carrezola is another young player who saw a good amount of playing time last year, though his season was cut short due to injury. He is listed as the starter as a defensive end but it is really a hybrid DE/OLB role while the other starting end is Kenton Adeyemi, who will be playing a traditional 3-4 end role.
Redshirt junior Sean Marinan, a walk-on from Higganum who played with Tim Boyle at Xavier, landed a backup defensive tackle job and effusive praise from Bob Diaco at Sunday's press conference.
Speaking about walk-on Sean Marinan making two-deep chart at DT, #UConn's Bob Diaco made reference to Mikey from Life commercial— Jim Fuller (@NHRJimFuller) August 30, 2015
Sunday's practice was open to the media. My biggest takeaway was how much energy Bob Diaco brings to the field and the clear love he has for the game. He was constantly jumping up and down in excitement and congratulating players for making great plays.
UConn's goal is to be an efficient and disciplined football team on both sides of the ball. Shirreffs ran the offense confidently and defensively the team is full of leaders. Though UConn lost 10 games last year, we learned how thin the line is between winning and losing. The Huskies, with all their deficiencies, had the chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter in eventual losses against BYU, Boise State, USF, ECU and Army. With a slight uptick in discipline, a stronger offensive line, and a new quarterback, perhaps UConn has made the improvements necessary to break out of the bottom of the FBS and maybe even into bowl contention.
Thursday's game will be a great test for UConn's development. Even losing a close game would not be too bad, though obviously a win is preferred. What can't happen is a re-creation of the Towson game from two years ago. If the Huskies can keep it competitive against a good football team, FCS or not, it should instill confidence that Bob Diaco is taking the program in the right direction. That's what's on the line this Thursday.