After a 3-6 start to the season, UConn decided to change things up by naming Donovan Williams the starting quarterback for Friday's game against Temple.
The result? A 21-0 loss, a 3-7 start to the season, and one fewer year of eligibility for UConn’s best offensive asset in years.
At first glance, it appeared to be a panic move with no care for the future. Upon closer examination, it looks even more like a panic move with no care for the future.
But first, some context: Williams had been redshirting this season, but that label was rescinded so he could start the final three games of his true freshman season. The dual-threat style Williams, a high school standout just last year at Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, is UConn’s top quarterback recruit in recent memory.
The decision came in a time of major turnover among the Huskies offense. Earlier this week, Bob Diaco announced that offensive coordinator Frank Verducci would be demoted from his position in favor of former running backs coach David Corley. These decisions came in the wake of an embarrassing 41-3 loss at East Carolina, and a stretch in which UConn hasn’t scored a touchdown in six quarters.
Williams replaced Bryan Shirreffs, who had moments of great play over the last two seasons but was marred by inconsistency. That said, his stats were solid, and he might have been UConn’s best regular quarterback since Dan Orlovsky. Shirreffs’ flaws are evident, but overall, I’m more complimentary than derogatory toward his game.
While Williams has proven his ability in practice, with many calling him the best quarterback currently on UConn’s roster, burning his redshirt year and shortening his tenure at UConn from five seasons to four (though really three and a quarter), all for just three games in a season where the Huskies were not likely to make a bowl game anyway, is a very poor decision.
The goal this season was to make a bowl game, and, sure, it was going to take some changes to accomplish that goal. Unfortunately, that still didn’t make a bowl game likely. UConn needed to win each of its last three games to become bowl-eligible, and before the game against Temple (a 21-0 loss in which the offense sputtered throughout), they were the statistical underdog in each one.
UConn is ranked 104th in FBS in S&P+, a metric devised by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly based on the five factors of winning college football games. That 104th ranking was last in the American Athletic Conference (but still ahead of Rutgers, because Rutgers is terrible). Their final three opponents ranked 33rd (Temple), 82nd (Boston College), and 103rd (Tulane).
The final two games are winnable with or without Williams in the lineup. UConn has already beaten Virginia (86th) and Cincinnati (74th), after all. But Temple is much closer to Houston in terms of quality, and their statistical performance doesn’t put them far outside the top 25. It was going to be a tough game for UConn no matter what, and it was clear Friday night that Williams’ presence didn’t change anything.
The justification to remove Williams’ redshirt and lose a full year of him in Storrs (a year that almost undoubtedly would be better than the current one, as most athletes are better at age 22 than they are at 18) was if he led them to a bowl game by winning the final three games. However, since the last two games are still winnable even with Shirreffs under center, this is only a good decision in the unlikely scenario that Williams, a true freshman who has never seen game action in college, is so much better than Shirreffs that this change alone is enough to beat Temple.
As you can imagine, this is an issue. UConn doesn’t often have players as talented as Williams, and if he is good enough to potentially beat Temple as a freshman, then it would be a better use of his talents to play him for four whole seasons, not three and one-fourth seasons, especially when that one-fourth season was already a likely lost cause, which it now clearly is.
Making matters worse, Williams didn’t make a lick of difference against Temple. Perhaps it’s because a true freshman with no in-game college experience is highly unlikely to be effective against one of the 40 best teams in the country (and one known for its defense), or perhaps it’s because Williams isn’t actually better than Shirreffs yet, being three years younger and all. None of this takes away from Williams’ potential, of course, but there were already reasons to believe that he wasn’t quite ready to lead an already sputtering offense to three straight wins.
To summarize: The coaching staff took a year off the career of their quarterback of the future in hopes of upsetting three straight teams, and the plan has already failed.
This was not a decision made in the best interest of the future of UConn Football. If Williams turns out to be good, then this decision effectively caps his career at what would otherwise be his junior year. And if he never becomes good, why would you shorten his timetable for growth by removing his redshirt? In either scenario, this is a decision made with one season in mind— the current one.
Making a bowl this year would have been good for UConn, that much is undoubtedly true. But whether or not Williams ever could have been the difference in making a bowl this season after a 3-6 start is not up for debate.
Either way, the current coaching staff isn’t looking toward the future, but just this season. In a year where many are (justifiably) questioning whether the current regime is taking the program in the right direction, that’s a major issue. And since their risky plan for the rest of this year failed, I see no reason to continue to believe that the best pathway to future long-term success for UConn Football comes from the current leadership.