It’s the most important battle on the football field, often overlooked by the average fan in favor of the glory boys at quarterback, running back, or receiver, but when the final whistle is blown, the victor is often the team which wins at the line of scrimmage.
While UConn’s defensive front has continued to be disruptive and place players in the NFL, the offensive line has been a work in progress during UConn Football’s six-year valley following Randy Edsall’s departure.
New head coach Bob Diaco was completely candid about the situation at offensive line in his first AAC Media Day in 2014.
“Not a lot of dudes there who can play 12 games of competitive football,” he said.
Two more years of sub-par O-line play followed and the UConn offense suffered the consequences.
In 2014, UConn’s quarterbacks ended up getting battered, with Casey Cochran being forced into early retirement and senior backup Chandler Whitmer going down to injury as well, forcing the coaches to abort their attempt to redshirt Tim Boyle. In the home game against Boise State, which came down to a late possession in the fourth quarter, Arkeel Newsome fumbled when he was met immediately after receiving the handoff by a defender. The running game hardly ever had any room to run.
In 2015, the offensive line was poised to take a big step forward until starting center Ryan Crozier went down with an injury. The line certainly improved, but still contributed greatly to UConn’s offensive woes.
“Two years ago [Crozier] was one of the best, if not the best, offensive linemen we had,” Diaco said. “Now he’s back and that’s a huge, huge piece.”
Crozier’s return, along with the experience gained by his injury replacement at the pivot, Brendan Vechery, along with guys like Steve Hashemi and Trey Rutherford give UConn a crew that is seven or eight deep, meaning it can both perform at a high level (hopefully) and also withstand any losses to injury which may occur.
Right tackle Andreas Knappe has been starting since he was a redshirt sophomore, and while he has taken his lumps should be solid in his senior season. Fellow redshirt senior Richard Levy has started 25 games at left tackle and is currently leading Vechery for the starting right guard job. Left guard Tommy Hopkins started all 13 games last year in the same spot. UConn hasn’t had this kind of experience on the line in years.
While we know what to expect from four of the line’s starters, the one wildcard will be redshirt freshman Matthew Peart, who has supplanted Levy at left tackle.
Widely considered the most important position on the line, given its responsibility for a right-handed quarterback’s blind side, left tackle is not an ideal position to have your least experienced lineman at. To have beaten out Levy—who was by all accounts solid as the starting left tackle last year—means he must have been performing quite well.
There are many reasons to believe in UConn Football in 2016, one is the potential improvement of an offense returning 10 out of 11 starters. If the line takes a big step forward, which is possible, it could mean a lot of wins.