UConn Football's offense has been among the least productive in the country for a while now.
It wasn't always like this. The offense roared under quarterback Dan Orlovsky, gaining over 5,000 yards and finishing 27th in scoring in his senior season, 2004. In 2009, the Husky offense was ranked 31st in the nation by Football Outsiders' S&P efficiency rating.
But it's been all downhill ever since. The Huskies have been 113th or worse the past four years, coming in at 114th (out of 128) in 2015.
Luckily the scheme and players are in place for a marked improvement in year three under head coach Bob Diaco. With an improved offensive line, continuity across the skill positions, and development of its youth into experienced and battle-tested talent, the offense should no longer be a liability in 2016.
UConn has its most promising option in years at quarterback. Bryant Shirreffs isn't a miracle worker, but he has been a smart, stable passer who can also make plays with his legs, a skill which he repeatedly needed to tap into behind a struggling offensive line. Shirreffs contributed over 500 rushing yards and three running touchdowns to a 2015 campaign in which he completed over 60% of his passes and threw for over 2,000 yards. Those aren't world-beating numbers, but it is a lot better than any of his recent predecessors have done and he has two seasons to improve on them.
Shirreffs should be running around a bit less this year, and the offense should benefit greatly as a result. The redshirt junior will also have a number of talented skill position players to give the ball to.
Junior running backs Ron Johnson and Arkeel Newsome have been seeing steady playing time since they were true freshmen back in Diaco's first season as head coach. After Newsome broke out in a big way last year, Johnson is ready to complement him as the bruising, between-the-tackles runner who can wear defenses down. The two will spearhead a run-oriented offense which will control the clock and hopefully dominate time of possession.
Don't sleep on the Huskies' passing game, though. Senior receiver Noel Thomas leads a talented group of pass-catchers, as the Huskies return their top six targets from last year.
Tight end Tommy Myers showed flashes across a redshirt sophomore season which was unfortunately cut short by an injury in the win over Houston. He's a very sound blocker, but if offensive coordinator Frank Verducci has any regrets from last season, surely one would be not getting the ball to Myers a little more. The same can be said for Alec Bloom, the 6-foot-6 junior who caught 22 passes for 314 yards last year. Both should be looked at more often in the redzone.
At receiver, Thomas is looking to build off of a junior season where he caught just about everything thrown his way, including two touchdowns against Houston. He finished with 54 receptions for 719 yards—the most productive season for a wide receiver in the Bob Diaco era.
While secondaries will obviously focus on Thomas, there should be enough talent around him to make them pay if they put too much attention on him. In that case, sophomores Hergy Mayala and Tyraiq Beals should be able to take advantage. Mayala earned the starting job opposite Thomas and Beals is a dynamo in the slot, where he may be joined by Chicago-area recruit Quayvon Skanes, who has so far received rave reviews from the coaching staff and veteran players. Skanes chose UConn over offers from Northwestern, Illinois and many others coming out of the class of 2016.
High-flying fast-paced offenses are all the rage in college football right now. UConn certainly doesn't have one of those but also doesn't aspire to—it''s not part of the overall gameplan. If it can control possession with an efficient running game and capable air attack, this could be a team that wins nine or more games this year.