The 2015 UConn football season officially begins Thursday. Four months on from the annual Blue-White Spring Game, the Huskies are back in Storrs, preparing for their second act under head coach Bob Diaco.
There are several key position competitions expected to unravel over the next few weeks. At Tuesday's American Athletic Conference football media day in Newport, Rhode Island, Diaco said he is particularly excited for battles at defensive end (Kenton Adeyemi vs. Cole Ormsby), outside linebacker (Vontae Diggs vs. Omaine Stephens) and inside linebacker (Marquise Vann vs. Matt Walsh).
Those will all be exciting competitions, particularly the Vann-Walsh battle (Walsh was a fullback his freshman year for Paul Pasqualoni and T.J. Weist). But the battle Diaco – and UConn fans – will be paying the most attention to is the position where UConn has had the most trouble finding continuity over the last decade.
It has been a long 10 seasons without Dan Orlovsky, hasn't it? Since Orlovsky led the Huskies to their first bowl victory in 2004, the position has been as impossible to fill as the Defense Against the Dark Arts job at Hogwarts. You think you find the right guy (Cody Endres, Casey Cochran), but then they turn out to be a rule-breaker or get hurt.
Here is a reminder of the 10 years post-Orlovsky.
2005 (UConn finished 5-6): Matt Bonislawski threw nearly twice as many passes as D.J. Hernandez (remember Aaron's brother?), but they both got significant work in seven games. Dennis Brown also got two games in at quarterback, throwing 54 total passes, finding the end zone twice.
2006 (4-8): Bonislawski is the No. 1 guy, playing all 12 games, but Hernandez passed for six more yards (849-843) in five less games with 16 less attempts. It was a run-heavy offense. Donald Brown and Terry Caulley (
2007 (9-4, lost to Wake Forest in Meineke Car Care Bowl): LET'S HEAR IT FOR TYLER LORENZEN! The No. 2-rated junior college quarterback entering the big time (?) in 2007, Lorenzen was a dream come true, throwing for 2,367 yards and 13 touchdowns in 13 games. Dennis Brown got back into the fold, throwing 12 passes in five games, and West Virginia just scored again.
2008 (8-5, defeated Buffalo in International Bowl): Lorenzen's arm got a break, because 2008 was Donald Brown's coming-out party. The future first-round pick ran for 2,083 yards and 18 touchdowns. UConn did most of its scoring on the ground. Lorenzen, Cody Endres and Zach Frazier played nine, five and five games, respectively, and combined for 1,816 yards and five touchdowns. It all worked out. UConn left Toronto with a bowl trophy.
2009 (8-5, defeated South Carolina in PapaJohn's.com Bowl): We all know the circumstances of the 2009 season, and everything the Huskies had to overcome. Frazier and Endres led the way under center, splitting time and combining for 2,815 yards and 16 scores. Among the notable performances by a UConn quarterback, Zach Frazier, a former Notre Dame commit, took the Huskies into South Bend and beat the Irish in double overtime, UConn's first win following the death of Jasper Howard.
2010 (8-5, lost to Oklahoma in Tostitos Fiesta Bowl): Endres gets kicked off the team for his frowned-upon botanical interests, but it's all good. Frazier (and more realistically Dave Teggart and Jordan Todman) guided the Huskies to the Big East championship and a BCS game, which UConn of course lost by a lot. Moot point.
2011 (5-7): I'm just going to leave this here.
2012 (5-7): Chandler Whitmer takes the starting job from McEntee and throws for 2,664 yards, but the Huskies struggle again in Year 2 of the Pasqualoni era.
2013 (3-9): This was a weird year for UConn quarterbacks. Whitmer started the first four games and struggled with turnovers. Pasqualoni got fired after an 0-4 start. T.J. Weist turned to true freshman Tim Boyle, who started the next four games and looked progressively better each week. At 0-8, Weist changed it up. After losing his first start, Casey Cochran helped UConn close the year on a three-game win streak. He put a big ol' exclamation point on the year with a ridiculous performance against Memphis, throwing four touchdown passes and setting the single-game school record with 461 passing yards.
For real, the kid went nuts.
2014 (2-10): Cochran rightfully enters the season as the starter. He gets hurt in the opener against BYU, sits out the Boise State game, then announces the end of his football career. Whitmer struggled as the No. 1 quarterback in his senior campaign, throwing for 1,522 yards and tossing some costly interceptions. Boyle saw action in nine games, again burning a potential redshirt.
Following an impressive showing this spring, Bryant Shirreffs, a sophomore who sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina State, enters camp as the No. 1 guy. However, the competition is going to be a lively one between potentially three quarterbacks.
"It's a legitimate battle at that position," Diaco said.
Diaco would like to have a No. 1 guy taking the snaps about two weeks out from the opener against Villanova Sept. 3.
Shirreffs will be an interesting player to watch the next few weeks. Can he hold on to the No. 1 spot? There is the possibility he comes into the season rusty after sitting out a year (we saw that last year with another UConn athlete who transferred from N.C. State). He also saw limited game action in 2013. Most of his work in seven games was out of the wildcat. He only threw five passes—three against Richmond and two against Syracuse—for 17 yards and a touchdown. He was not going deep, either. The longest completion he had was good for 7 yards.
Regardless, Diaco liked what he saw in the spring. He would not have listed Shirreffs at No. 1 unless he earned it.
"He earned that," Diaco said.
"Tim (Boyle) didn't prepare for spring," Diaco said immediately after.
Therein lies one of the most important statements Diaco made in his roughly 35 minutes alone with the media Tuesday. Despite playing in nine games in 2014, Boyle was not entirely healthy. He dealt with lower-back and foot issues, which are now issues of the past.
With Boyle now healthy, he can really make a competition of this. People in Connecticut have been waiting for the former Xavier High School star to break out at UConn. He could have a real chance of pulling ahead in the coming weeks.
Boyle did not look bad as a starter his freshman season, especially for a young kid who was essentially thrown into a wildfire with a squirt gun and told to put it out. Last year was tough, between injuries and an inexperienced offensive line limiting protection for him, but his junior year could be the year.
"This guy is training with a purpose. Not only is he 100 percent healthy, but he's training to do the work," Diaco said.
A third party could have a say in how the quarterback depth chart plays out: Garrett Anderson. The junior transferred to UConn for this season from Laney Junior College in California. His reps decreased from 2013 to 2014 at Laney, but he gives UConn a strong, mature veteran who could step in and be a leader for this offense.
Here is a look at what Anderson did at Laney.
And, of course, Aman Kidwai, the manager of The UConn Blog, discussed in June how Anderson could win the starting job this season.
Diaco excitedly spoke about Anderson Tuesday. From the sound of it, Anderson checks every box on the Bob Diaco Football Player Wish List.
"This is a grown man; he's probably 240 pounds," Diaco said. "Strong mind, strong heart, strong of purpose. He's married. He's just a mature, grown man. Little kid stuff is not part of his DNA. And he immediately won over his teammates."
Right now, on Day 1 of camp, it is impossible to say who the starting quarterback will be against Villanova. It is not necessarily fair to say it is Shirreff's to lose as much as it is Boyle's or Anderson's to earn. All three bring qualities to the table that can be beneficial in a starting quarterback. Diaco has not seen a lot from them in game situations or working with the offense as it is now. His comments Tuesday do not suggest he is leaning in any one direction. He is simply excited to get out there and watch his guys try to prove they can carry the load.
The most important thing for whoever the starter is will be staying on the field. For years, UConn has been splitting time between two quarterbacks, or battling injuries or legal trouble.
If the Huskies are to have a big turnaround season—especially if they are to live up to Diaco's national championship aspirations—the quarterback position will need to be managed in a way we have not seen in 10 years.