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UConn offense looking to its young quarterback for leadership, identity

The key for the Huskies to put their 2-10 season from a year ago behind them will be to rally around Shirreffs.

Bryant Shirreffs hands the ball off to Ron Johnson during UConn's 20-15 victory over Villanova last Thursday at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
Bryant Shirreffs hands the ball off to Ron Johnson during UConn's 20-15 victory over Villanova last Thursday at Pratt and Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There's a new sheriff in town.

Ok, I swear that's the first and last time I'll make that pun this year, but you had to like what you saw from UConn quarterback Bryant Shirreffs in the Huskies' 20-15 victory over Villanova.

I get it, it was only the first game of the season and it was against an FCS opponent. However when you win just five games in two seasons you need to celebrate the victories, however small they may seem. Not that Villanova was a small victory.

Last Thursday, the Huskies were in a must win situation. It may be one of the first times a college football team faced a "must win" game on opening weekend. If UConn lost its first game to an FCS opponent the Huskies would have already lost what's left of the fan base. Think back to a couple seasons ago when the Huskies lost to Towson on opening night, it set the tone for what would become a season to forget for UConn fans.

But that won't be the case this year. UConn started their season with a win and must now build off it. With Shirreffs under center, I feel comfortable, but not fully confident until I see more. In his debut with the Huskies, Shirreffs went 12-20 and threw for 202 yards- not too shabby for a guy who hasn’t played in a year. His night was highlighted by two touchdowns, including a 14-yard strike to sophomore tight end Tommy Myers on the Huskies opening drive of the game.

Shirreffs showed poise under pressure and kept crucial drives alive, including a 64-yard drive that ended when Shirreffs hit sophomore running back Arkeel Newsome with a screen pass good for 22 yards and touchdown. He has a clear command of the huddle and the respect of his teammates. Head coach Bob Diaco spoke to the nature of Shirreffs’ leadership ability.

"He doesn’t have to be a real 'rah rah' guy," Diaco said. "The things he says when he says them are appropriate and guys listen because they respect him. They respect his football IQ, they respect his work over here physically, and they respect his work as part of the student body. He's a great, great teammate."

The test for Shirreffs will be if the young quarterback, who is also a standout student, can continue his success. There is hope with improvements in the offensive line, as Shirreffs had time to throw the ball, for the most part, and was only sacked once in the game. There are still plenty of growing pains on this offensive line, which was also evident last Thursday, but giving the quarterback more time in the pocket is a huge improvement.

While Villanova is one of the better FCS teams out there, it will be a lot different on Saturday when the Huskies line up against Army, and a whole new world when they face Missouri to start a very tough four-game stretch.

This weekend is a chance for Shirreffs and the Huskies to get their second win, ensuring that this year won’t get any worse than last season’s 2-10 performance.  The key phrase this week, and this season, is "baby steps." Don’t clear off space on the trophy case for an American Athletic Conference title just yet. After taking one final look at the Villanova game, Shirreffs said his team has already moved on to what’s next for the Huskies on Saturday.

"I saw a lot of things that we can work on," Shirreffs said. "Now I’m just focused on Army. We watched the game film a couple of times, but our focus should be Army. They have a great defense and a great team and they’re respectable people so it’s an honor to be able to play them."