With just a few days remaining before the first UConn Football game of the year (a home contest against FCS/I-AA Villanova), the team released their first official depth chart for the upcoming season. There are some good parts, some bad parts, and some parts that can only elicit the reaction of "Yeah, that's exactly what I expected." The full depth chart can be viewed here, but I'll repost the relevant information so you don't have to flip back and forth between tabs whenever I move on to a new point. You're welcome.
Let's start with the obvious part: Bryant Shirreffs was named the starting quarterback, with Tim Boyle listed as the backup. This seems to be the right choice, because although Boyle has the physical tools to develop into a starting-caliber quarterback at the FBS level, he hasn't shown any glimpses of utilizing that ability on the field just yet. It's very possible that he improved over the offseason, and that Shirreffs might be the worse of the two quarterbacks, but we know what Boyle is at this point, and Bob Diaco needed to give the more unknown quantity the chance to start the season. That said, from the limited tape I saw from Shirreffs at NC State, he looked like he had better odds of developing into a long-term option at starting quarterback. From a risk-reward standpoint, Shirreffs probably needs to be the starter in week one.
Staying at the same position, I'm a little surprised that junior college transfer Garrett Anderson wasn't named the backup, given the great reviews he had been getting since his first practice with the Huskies. But with a little more confidence in Boyle combined with Anderson's seemingly-strong play over the summer that probably means freshman Tyler Davis will be redshirted this season, but we'll have to see what Diaco is planning for the two in the bottom half of the depth chart.
Moving on to running back, Ron Johnson and Arkeel Newsome were named co-starters in the backfield, in front of third-stringer Max DeLorenzo, who, believe it or not, was the most consistent of the three backs in 2014, leading the team in yards per carry. Johnson and Newsome both have much more room for improvement, and both appeared to be able to carry a starter's workload from day one as a true freshman, even if the offensive line did them a grand total of zero favors last year. We'll see if either of the two pulls away from the rest of the group during this upcoming season, but I like the idea of them splitting first-option carries, as they bring a different style that allows them to run separate plays. Chances are, we'll see more than a few packages that utilize both Johnson and Newsome at the same time.
At wide receiver, the starters will be Noel Thomas and Thomas Lucas, backed up by Brian Lemelle and true freshman Tyraiq Beals, respectively. Thomas is the top returning receiver from last year, finishing third on the team in total yards (behind the ultra-reliable Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx, who was the exact opposite), and actually led the team in receiving touchdowns. Thomas is the clear number one, but Lucas showed some ability over his nine receptions last year, and he could have some big-play ability. Lemelle didn't get much playing time last year, so both he and Beals might be slight unknowns, but Dhameer Bradley, last year's number four, was relegated to no-name status on the two-deep. Bradley got pretty poor reviews in offseason practice and wasn't particularly impressive in 2014, so it won't be a huge loss to the team, as long as either Lemelle or Beals can step up as a solid passing target-- and if one of them does, my money's on Beals.
The tight ends are definitely diminished compared to last season, all because Sean McQuillan had to be a dang moron and get himself kicked off the team (note to all incoming freshmen: please do not assault your roommate), but there are some reasons to be optimistic about this unit. Size is one thing, sure (the two starters, Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers, measure at 6'6", 257 and 6'5", 255 respectively, and first backup Chris Lee comes in at 6'7", 252), but they're also young. Both starters are sophomores, and both backups are true freshman, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion Zordan Holman. Bloom caught a touchdown pass against Boise State last year and saw deeper targets compared to Myers, so it looks like Diaco will start a receiving tight end and a blocking one, but both backups appear to be purely blocking ends for the moment. Bloom probably won't be able to replace McQuillan's workload and reliability from day one, but he's got potential, and the rest of the unit has the size to become quality blockers. That said, I'd bet that the year of great production from this unit is 2016, rather than this upcoming season.
The offensive line will probably cause consternation again in 2015, but the right side won't be the cause of that, as starting guard Tyler Samra and tackle Andreas Knappe will again have solid seasons (and likely will be the two best offensive linemen), and their respective backups, Kyle Bockeloh and Trey Rutherford, are probably the two best backups on the offensive line. Things get tricky to figure out after that. Richard Levy struggled quite a lot at left tackle last year, and he was named starter yet again, with his listed backup being true freshman Matt Peart. That's a lot of faith to put in Levy, and I think it's a little too much, even though I'm sure he improved over the offseason. Next to him will be Tommy Hopkins, starting in front of Steve Hashemi, a recently-converted former tight end. Hopkins played fairly well for a freshman last season, but it'll have to be better this year for him to earn the full-time starting role. The center is Brendan Vechery, who didn't play last season, starting in front of redshirt freshman Dan Oak, who also did not play last season. I was hoping the coaching staff would have Bockeloh play at center (he has the size and the experience, and he wouldn't be starting on the right side no matter what), but perhaps their plan is to rotate backup linemen, and not have their positions be so rigid as the depth chart implies. As is, though, the left side is looking a little thin. Hopefully the younger guys play better than I'm currently giving them credit for, but at this point I can't trust that optimism on faith alone.
Things start to pick up on the defensive line, as there are some talented guys playing in that front four. The number might be the most interesting thing about the depth chart, as it appears Diaco isn't ready to make the full transition to the 3-4 defense, and is looking at playing a little more fluidly with positions. In any case, the ends are the steady Kenton Adeyemi and Luke Carrezola, a converted linebacker. It's not a unit that's going to destroy in the pass rush (Adeyemi's backup, and the likely first defensive lineman off the bench, Cole Ormsby was the leader in sacks last season with 3.5), but they could provide some pressure at points. Julian Campenni, the closest thing the UConn defensive line has to a disruptive force, is the focal point of the line, and he'll start at tackle next to Folorunso Fatukasi, who jumped Mikal Myers on the depth chart. The run defense will start here, and the defensive tackles will help more than hurt, provided both Campenni and Fatukasi improve the way I expect they will.
The linebackers are where I think the UConn defense has the best chance of returning to their glory days of the Randy Edsall era, with Graham Stewart and Marquise Vann leading the way. The two talented players will be joined by Junior Joseph in the starting unit, so there are three starters who all have a chance of breaking out in 2015. Stewart and Vann are both seniors, so their improvements from last season probably won't be gigantic, but there's enough strong play here to help the defense as a whole. No telling who the best backup will be out of Vontae Diggs, John Hicks, and last year's backup fullback Matt Walsh, but on the bright side, the three starters will probably be on the field a lot.
I'm a big fan of the secondary, more so than a lot of other UConn fans, so take it with a grain of salt when I say I think this will be the best unit on either side of the ball for the Huskies in 2015. The loss of first-round NFL draftee Byron Jones will be huge, of course, but Jamar Summers will be ready to step in from day one, and looked impressive as a backup as a true freshman last season. Jhavon Williams, typically playing opposite Jones, was charged with a big workload last season and he handled the challenges well. At safety, Andrew Adams (last year's interceptions leader) returns, and he'll be the focal point of the secondary, unless Obi Melifonwu has the breakout season that I predicted from him last year (I still think it'll happen. Second time's the charm). The only issue with this unit is depth, with a lot of untested options on the second-string unit. One who stands out in a positive way is John Green, who provided lockdown coverage in very limited gameplay last season, and could be a solid third cornerback.
There wouldn't be much to talk about in the kicking game, if it wasn't for true freshman Michael Tarbutt being listed as a co-starter at kicker next to returning kicker Bobby Puyol. Tarbutt has a cannon for a leg and could stretch the field for the Huskies on offense (and they need the help), but Puyol is more accurate, even if he did miss three extra points in 2014...alright, maybe Tarbutt will prove to be just as accurate. An interesting parallel: in 2008, UConn lost a game to a terrible Rutgers team by a score of 12-10, after the third-year starting kicker, Tony Ciaravino, missed three field goals. Edsall decided to switch his starter to a freshman with a stronger leg by the name of Dave Teggart. Teggart would go on to have, uh, one or two huge moments for UConn.
I'm not saying this will happen again this year, mostly because I can't imagine UConn beating South Florida to go to a BCS bowl any time soon, but don't underestimate the value of a very good kicker in college football, and Puyol can be a little shaky. Until he does anything to lose the job, though, they'll split kicks.
Finally, in the return game, Arkeel Newsome is listed ahead of Josh Marriner as the kick returner, while Brian Lemelle is right ahead of Tyraiq Beals at punt returner. Newsome was pretty solid as a kick returner last season, and with another year of growth is probably the best bet to return kicks, although it's interesting that two running backs are going to be the primary kick returners. UConn is looking for a new punt returner this season following the graduation of Deshon Foxx, who never did much with his explosiveness. Lemelle and Beals probably won't be the next Nick Williams just yet, but we'll see what they can do against Villanova-- someone will have to stand out at the position eventually.
Overall, I think there are only a few questionable decisions on the depth chart, but it points to a team that isn't especially talented outside of one or two positions. Diaco will probably be getting the most out of the talent he has this year, but that might not add up to much for 2015. Come Thursday night, we'll see what this team is capable of for the rest of the season.