The 2017 UConn football season is nigh, and if that evoked a sense of foreboding, that’s probably reasonable. It’s going to be a rebuilding year in Storrs/East Hartford, but the Huskies have enough talent to compete for a bowl if there aren’t any serious setbacks.
On Wednesday, the team released their first two-deep depth chart for the season opener against Holy Cross. Let’s take a look at who Randy Edsall is planning to use for significant minutes during his first game back as head coach of the Huskies.
At quarterback, we’ve known for certain that junior college transfer David Pindell would be starting for a couple weeks, and we had reasonable assumptions that he would assume the leading role for much longer before that. He’ll be backed up by Bryant Shirreffs, who UConn fans have known about for some time. I’ve always been more positive about Shirreffs than most, especially given the talent level UConn normally sees at quarterback, but Pindell has looked great in practice, and could be a better dual-threat QB than his predecessor from his first start. Pindell is versatile and likely fits into new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s preferred system better than anyone else on the roster— a very good thing. I also give plenty of credit to Shirreffs for his willingness to accept a backup role in his senior year after two years of starting, giving Edsall the flexibility to prepare for the future by redshirting some promising freshman quarterbacks.
The running backs will be led by Arkeel Newsome, which is no surprise, as he’s been UConn’s best primary back of the decade in each of his last two seasons. Backing him up will be Nate Hopkins, a quick, well-regarded redshirt freshman from Texas. Hopkins was one of Bob Diaco’s best recruiting wins (not that he had many, but this one was legitimate), as Hopkins also had scholarship offers from Boise State and Illinois. Alongside him as the #2 is Jason Thompson, an undersized but quick-twitch back with good field vision. Thompson, a former walk-on, has risen up the depth chart through impressive play in practice sessions, having only three carries to his name so far despite playing in all 12 games last season. With the backfield’s skillsets finally complementing the offensive gameplan (and, perhaps more importantly, vice versa), the running backs will likely be UConn’s most improved positional group in 2017.
The wide receiver corps will look a bit different from the last time Edsall coached Connecticut, as the Huskies will be deploying a three-receiver set nearly full-time, as opposed to Edsall’s previous personnel preference of two wideouts with a fullback in the backfield (undoubtedly influenced by the presence of Anthony Sherman, now one of the NFL’s best at the position). The starting wideouts in 2017 will be juniors Hergy Mayala and Tyraiq Beals, neither of whom got much of a chance to accomplish much in last year’s truly horrific offense (they combined for 30 catches, 394 yards, and 1 touchdown), but showed promise throughout their first two seasons. Joining them in the slot is Quayvon Skanes, a talented redshirt freshman from Chicago who turned down offers from multiple “power five” schools to join the Huskies.
There will be plenty of depth at the position this year, for a nice change, as five players are listed as backups or co-backups on the chart. Beals and Mayala lead Keyion Dixon and Mason Donaldson, a pair of redshirt freshman, while the three receivers behind Skanes all have experience, even if not at the position: Tyler Davis, Aaron McLean, and Donovan Williams. Davis (who was recruited as a quarterback) and McLean both got looks at receiver last year, and you might remember Williams from Diaco’s Last Scam, wherein, in a last-ditch, self-serving attempt to save his job, Diaco burned Williams’ redshirt to use him as the starting quarterback in a near-meaningless game against a Temple squad with a top-25 defense despite Williams clearly not being ready to face such strong competition—which is no fault of Williams’, of course. Edsall and Lashlee have converted Williams to wide receiver, and he appears to be picking up the new position quickly. With the new coaching staff understanding the value of a quality passing game, expect a transitional year at this position; the corps is much deeper now, but one player will have to step up to replace Noel Thomas’ production.
At tight end, there aren’t any surprises, as Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers are listed as co-starters for their senior season. Both are big targets in the passing game, and they’re adequate at blocking as well. No other tight ends are listed, but if I had to guess, I would imagine sophomore Zordan Holman, who’s shown potential as a pass-catcher, would be third, and highly-touted Jay Rose would be redshirting. Bloom, who started the past two seasons, has proven to be injury-averse so far, and Myers is very capable himself, so the Huskies might never need to go deep into this unit. Expect steady production from this group again in 2017.
The offensive line has a couple surprises, but fans will be happy to know that, for now, the O-line is finally healthy! There will undoubtedly be an injury to this unit during the season, but let’s count our blessings for now. Going from left to right, UConn will start hyped sophomore Matt Peart, looking to improve upon an impressive freshman season, senior Trey Rutherford, a recovered Ryan Crozier at center, redshirt freshman Cam DeGeorge at right guard, and Tommy Hopkins, an injury casualty in 2016, on the far right side. Needless to say, this is a much better group than the Huskies were able to start at any point last season. DeGeorge’s rise over several players with more experience is a good start, Peart is a year older and will look to anchor the line, and Crozier, when healthy, has a claim for best center in the American Athletic Conference. Rutherford and Hopkins have been two of the most dependable lineman out of a group that has multiple upperclassmen in backup roles.
Speaking of backups, here’s how Edsall lists them, again from left to right: senior Brendan Vechery, who started his sophomore year, freshman Nino Leone, big Dan Oak in the middle, Steve Hashemi, a reliable backup who sees significant time every season, and true freshman Ryan Van Demark at right tackle. Thanks to depth and improved talent among the starters, barring major injuries, this is likely to be the best offensive line the Huskies have had in some time.
You’ll notice some changes as UConn prepares to take its defense into the 21st century for the first time since Randy Edsall’s last stint as head coach. New defensive coordinator Billy Crocker prefers the 3-3-5 lineup that he used with great success at Villanova, eschewing the old-school practices of Diaco and Paul Pasqualoni that held UConn to only one bowl appearance in the last six seasons.
Let’s start on the defensive line, where the Huskies have a lot of talent. They’ll be starting seniors across the board, going with Cole Ormsby and Luke Carrezola on the ends and Folorunso Fotukasi (better known as “Foley”) at the tackle. Fotukasi has legitimate NFL aspirations as perhaps the standout on the UConn defense, Carrezola is a playmaker who has led the team in tackles for loss in the past two seasons, and Ormsby is a dependable pass rusher. Backing up the ends will be James Atkins and Sheridan Lawley, two juniors with a major gap in their relative playing experience— Lawley played in all 12 games last season, while Atkins didn’t see game action last year, and played in only two games in 2015. Lawley probably has the inside track to being the replacement if one of the starters gets hurt. Behind Fotukasi is Kevin Murphy, a sophomore with the potential to eventually fill Fotukasi’s shoes without losing a step. The D-line is likely going to be the most important group to UConn’s success this year, so it’s fortunate they have the right mix of talent and experience at the position.
At linebacker, things look a bit different now than they will at the end of the year, as expected starters Vontae Diggs and E.J. Levenberry are out with injuries for the Holy Cross game; Diggs isn’t likely to be out for long, while Levenberry is projected to miss most of the season. Junior Joseph will be starting in the middle, and is one of the conference’s best inside linebackers. Diggs’ and Levenberry’s replacements on the outside are Chris Britton and Cam Stapleton, two guys who played all 12 games in reserve duty last season. The senior, Stapleton, is the first to step up, as he’s an effective pass rusher from his position and has seen consistent bench minutes since his freshman year. Britton, a junior, played for the first time in 2016 and didn’t get many opportunities, but showed that he might have a nose for the ball.
Backing up Joseph is Santana Sterling, a junior community college transfer who originally committed to Arizona State out of high school. If he’s developed his talent, he may be a productive player for the Huskies out of the gate. The backups on the outside are a pair of freshmen in Darrian Beavers and Eddie Hahn, the former being a true freshman. Beavers, from Cincinnati, was recruited by multiple MAC teams before signing with UConn in January. Hahn, listed on the roster as both a defensive back and linebacker, was UConn’s top member of their incoming class of 2016, and he’ll get a chance to make an impact on the team early in his career. If everything goes right for the linebacking corps, and Diggs and Levenberry return from their injuries without further setback, this group can again be a positive for the Huskies.
The secondary will be starting five players this year in a new look for the UConn defense. The depth chart doesn’t differentiate between the cornerbacks and safeties, but the starting safeties appear to be Brice McAllister and Anthony Watkins, with Jamar Summers, Tyler Coyle, and Tre Bell lining up across from opposing receivers. McAllister, a senior, will be stepping into a starting role for the first time, while Watkins started five games last season. McAllister might have more of an opportunity to be a standout in the defensive backfield this year.
Summers will hope to repeat his sophomore season, when he had eight interceptions, in his final year with the Huskies. Summers’ junior year wasn’t as much of a stepback as the stats make it appear to be, as multiple talented defensive backs left the UConn roster, preventing him from causing too many turnovers. The NFL hopeful will still have a big impact on the pass defense this season. Coyle, a redshirt freshman, was ranked 8th in Connecticut in the class of 2016, above more-hyped recruits in Jay Rose and Keyion Dixon. Bell is the Vanderbilt transfer, a senior who has looked great in practice sessions.
The backups, emphasizing Edsall’s youth movement, include four freshmen and a sophomore. The sophomore is Marshe Terry, who saw limited snaps in ten games last season, and should be a competent backup should anyone fall to injury. Tajh Herring-Wilson, a three-star recruit from Suffield Academy, scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery in the spring game, and could eventually become UConn’s next great turnover generator. The three true freshmen are Ian Swenson, Omar Fortt, and Jordan Swann. Swenson, likely the best of the group, turned down scholarship offers from Louisville and Iowa State, among many others, to join the Huskies. Fortt, who has plenty of potential at the safety position, is the younger brother of 2014 4th-round NFL draft pick Khairi Fortt, and played for coach Noel Thomas Sr. in high school. Swann averaged an interception per game in his high school senior season, and hopes to bring those ballhawking skills to the college level.
The secondary has been the focal point of the UConn defense since Edsall’s first stint ended, but with so much talent lost over the last three years, the defensive backs might be entering a transitional period, as many of the players with the most pure talent are also some of the youngest and least-experienced. With luck, Crocker’s guidance will make this transitional period as seamless as possible.
You can never forget special teams in college, where this unit has more impact than it does in any other level of football. Over the summer, the Huskies lost one of their most reliable kickers in the program’s history in Bobby Puyol, and three-year-starter Justin Wain vacated his punting spot as well. With a lot of turnover this season, here’s how the Huskies look on special teams.
At kicker, Michael Tarbutt finally takes over the starting role for himself. Definitely the Huskies’ most highly-touted kicking recruit of all time, Tarbutt was so known for his powerful leg that he spent his freshman season (2015) as the kickoff specialist, but redshirted last year to extend his college career. He beat out Will Rishell, a former walk-on who is listed at both quarterback and kicker. Rishell is capable at the position too, lest anyone think there wasn’t competition between the two in training camp, but Tarbutt has too much potential to ignore.
The punter spot is held by two freshman co-starters for now. One is Luke Magliozzi, a former Aussie rules football player whose journey to Storrs is an interesting story. The other is Brett Graham, who played several other positions in high school too. Magliozzi is probably the best option for now, owing to his nearly five-year age advantage over Graham, but both have a lot of room for growth.
The long snapper position shows sophomore Nick Zecchino over redshirt freshman Jeffrey Sidebotham. Zecchino held the position last year and will likely only vacate it in case of injury.
Punt return and kick return show the same two players, although the more important takeaway is that UConn will actually be utilizing the punt return this year! As it turns out, it is good to gain yardage back when the other team tries to pin you deep. Edsall has Jordan Swann above Quayvon Skanes in both spots, and it’s encouraging that it’s two freshman in the roles, especially with a true freshman winning the starting job over a more traditional pick. With neither of the two having any game experience in college so far, and the return game not being a focal point of open practices, it’s hard to predict how either Swann or Skanes will do in these roles, but Edsall naming these two on the depth chart is a strong vote of confidence.
Going from dependable seniors at important special teams positions to as-of-yet unproven underclassmen might make for a frustrating season at this unit, but there’s reason to think the talent pool has been restocked, even if the cycle has to start anew.
In a way, that describes the UConn team as a whole as they attempt to recover from the disastrous Pasqualoni/Diaco eras. This might not be the happiest season we’ve ever seen at Pratt And Whitney Stadium At Rentschler Field, but UConn fans will be happy to know that better times are ahead. Here’s hoping they start as early as the season opener against Holy Cross.