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After three seasons of Randy Edsall, UConn football has more questions than answers

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A rebuilding project that started in 2017 is still taking its time showing returns.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Randy Edsall’s return to UConn brought a lot of promise with it. Athletic Director David Benedict did not have any previous ties to the former Husky head coach, but respected the man enough to hire him back for his old job after firing Bob Diaco. Three full seasons later, though, it’s hard to see the signs of progress.

Edsall got off to a good start, staffing up for his first year with two really interesting coordinators and grabbing some notable wins on the recruiting trail. The guy who brought UConn from 1-AA (FCS) to 1-A (FBS) in the early-2000s knew how to succeed under the uniquely challenging circumstances the school faces and seemed like he could tackle the very fixable problems of the Diaco era.

But the Huskies have managed a grand total of six wins over the past three years. If you ask Edsall, he’ll explain that he inherited a horrible situation, a sentiment he has shared many times.

“I don’t think people realize how far this program had to go,” Edsall told the Hartford Courant’s Mike Anthony after last Saturday’s loss to Temple.

His predecessor said the same. It’s a common practice for college football coaches to say stuff like this to buy time for themselves, especially when they’re taking on a fixer-upper. In my opinion, both Edsall and Diaco were just making excuses for their team’s struggles.

The cupboard was not empty in 2017. The roster had a solid quarterback in Bryant Shirreffs, a great group of defenders (Vontae Diggs, Junior Joseph, Luke Carrezola, and current New York Jet Foley Fatukasi, to name a few), and a lot of experience at many key positions. Those players were part of a bowl team in 2015. There was enough talent on hand to at least not have to scrap the whole thing and rebuild it from scratch—the fans who had seen six straight losing seasons sure would have appreciated that.

With a new head coach, a fresh set of offensive and defensive strategies and a new quarterback, there was a “palpable buzz” around the program heading into that 2017 season, a truly incredible feat for David Benedict and the athletic department given how 2016 ended.

That excitement lasted all of five minutes, however, as UConn fell behind quickly to FCS Holy Cross in their season opener. They needed a QB change and a frenzied second-half comeback to save face and get the win.

Over the course of that 2017 season, the previously anemic offense actually looked pretty good! It used modern concepts and was legitimately exciting to watch. So even though the team only won two more games and the defense took a step back, there was enough reason for confidence after one year of the second Edsall era.

Unfortunately, in that first offseason, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee left for the same job at SMU and a number of players transferred out. That run of defections led to the largest youth movement ever on defense, with a starting lineup in 2018 of almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores.

So while David Pindell developed into the most exciting talent to suit up at QB for the Huskies this decade, UConn won only one game all season and became a laughingstock for its historically awful defense. The Huskies could have improved on 2017’s three wins if the defense would have been slightly better than “statistically worst ever.”

Randy Edsall mismanaged the defensive personnel over those first two years, perhaps with the help of DC Billy Crocker, who he fired after the 2018 season for failing to successfully implement his 3-3-5 defense. They should have taken their time with the scheme change instead of letting good defensive talent waste away or walk out of the door for the sake of the scheme which they ended up scrapping anyway. Look at the difference between Luke Carrezola’s junior and senior seasons. He was one of the Huskies’ most disruptive defenders in the previous two years before his senior campaign.

The transfers weren’t a bunch of scrubs who couldn’t cut it. Darrian Beavers transferred to Cincinnati. Tyler Davis went to Georgia Tech. Marshe Terry is at Northern Illinois. Brice McAlister started for UMass. It’s not like these guys didn’t have enough talent or experience to play for UConn. These are players any sane head coach would want to keep.

But UConn let them go and ended up with the youngest starting defense ever. Across 2018, the Huskies were failing spectacularly in the name of a supposedly necessary tear-it-all-down rebuild.

Edsall may say blowing it up was his plan the whole time, but that isn’t what happened on offense, and I doubt that’s what he told David Pindell while he was sitting in his living room recruiting him. Why recruit a talented QB with two years of eligibility left when you aren’t planning on being competitive during his time there?

Former Alabama analyst Lou Spanos took over as defensive coordinator for the departed Crocker. Under Spanos, the defense progressed from worst in the post-WWII era to 124th out of 130 in the nation, according to ESPN’s SP+ efficiency rankings.

Despite a promotion and a raise, John Dunn left for a job with the New York Jets, leaving the Huskies looking for a new OC once again. This time they promoted O-line coach Frank Giufre.

Giufre did not do a great job as playcaller, and Edsall’s love for punting in plus territory didn’t help. Neither did the constant change at quarterback. Losing Pindell and more transfers set the offense back in a way that Giufre had little control over, but on gameday the coaches owe their players a strategy that gives them the best possible chance to win. In close losses to Houston and East Carolina, coaching was just as much a culprit as any talent deficit.

Additionally, there are allegations that indicate there may be a culture problem within the program—something that goes beyond Edsall not getting along with Diaco recruits.

Friday on Twitter, former Husky Jamar Summers shared how poorly he felt he was treated, adding that he was told to cut his dreads. Linebacker Cam Stapleton shared that he regrets staying at UConn for his senior year. The UConn Blog has been told that multiple players were told to cut their hair and that multiple recent graduates share Stapleton’s feelings.

When reached for comment, UConn denied that players were told to cut their hair “as a condition for participation,” and noted that multiple current players wear dreadlocks.

When Randy Edsall accepted this job at a discount, given the many disadvantages that come with being UConn in the AAC in 2017, followed by the impending move to FBS independence, it came with a lot of leeway. David Benedict did not seem too bothered by 2018 and, as recently as the 2019 season finale, voiced his support for Edsall.

After three years, Edsall’s rebuild appears to be behind schedule, and there is reason to question his leadership of the program. He admits having challenges with “this generation” and is often waxing poetic about the glory days of his first stint in Storrs, perhaps a bit too much.

This has to be a noticeably more competitive team in 2020. But it’s hard to see how that happens with so many question marks on both sides of the ball, including a likely sophomore starting at quarterback, and more talented players transferring out. Tyler Coyle was a captain and a multi-year starter. We have to ask ourselves why someone like that would want to leave.

Right now, Jonathan XIV is probably the best reason to go to a game at The Rent. Tailgating with friends, family, and loved ones is a close second. These are all great reasons, but it’d be nice to see an interesting, competitive football product on the field as well.

Moving out of the AAC is not the “death knell” some claim it would be, and there’s actually optimism that FBS independence could be a boost for recruiting and morale around the program. But its current leadership is losing good players and assistant coaches while making questionable decisions on and off the field. UConn football can be decent, but it’s fair to question if the right people are in place to make that happen.