With Big Ten opponent Illinois entering Rentschler Field in what will be UConn’s most-winnable non-conference FBS matchup this season, head coach Randy Edsall shared his thoughts and some updates in his mid-week press conference.
“[Illinois has] some talented running backs, some talented wide receivers and they like to get some mismatches, move them around and try to get them in space,” Edsall said. “They do a lot of movement on defense, they’ve got really good athletes up front, they’ve got good athletes at the second level.”
Center Nino Leone put it more bluntly:
“It’s the most important game of the season for us, and our approach to it is to keep the confidence and keep the momentum going,” Leone said, expressing the need for UConn to prove themselves against greater competition this year.
Help Arrives at Wide Receiver
After a week on the sidelines, the Huskies will gain the help of grad transfer Ardell Brown, who is expected to be a leading receiver on the team. Edsall wouldn’t elaborate on the status of any specific receiver, but Brown himself confirmed that he is expecting to play this week.
A graduate transfer from Division 2 Seton Hill, Brown caught 81 passes for 1,267 yards last year, and figures to play an integral role in UConn’s new-look passing attack this year. He suffered an undisclosed injury in camp that kept him out against Wagner.
“I’m excited for the atmosphere, for the fans, to play my heart out for them,” Brown said.
It’s unclear whether another key part of UConn’s wide receiver corps, Cam Ross, will return against Illinois, but running back-turned-wideout Zavier Scott was named to the “participation squad” this week.
Edsall was also hopeful that a leader on the defensive line, tackle Caleb Thomas, would be eligible to play this Saturday after appealing his NCAA suspension for an academic violation this week.
Bigger Competition Arrives in East Hartford
Although UConn’s week one win against Wagner was a good boost for the Huskies, an opponent like the Fighting Illini brings a whole new set of challenges. Going from FCS-level competition to the Power Five, even if it’s the bottom of the Power Five, is a significant step up physically. Last year against Syracuse, we saw the impact of this talent gap.
This year, though, the team is confident that they have made the right steps in the offseason to compete, including the recruitment of Art Thompkins, who displayed next-level athleticism against Wagner:
“Speed always helps you, you know, with the quickness and you can see that out of Art Thompkins, you know, he’s a little bit of a jitterbug, he’s shifty and got speed and quickness,” Edsall said.
Edsall also touched on Travis Jones as another example of a player who increased his athleticism over the offseason.
“Travis has come a long way since he’s been here in all phases of his student athlete experience,” Edsall said, “As a football player he’s really just starting to scratch the surface, you know, how good he can be.”
Jones will be an important piece in the Huskies’ war in the trenches against Illinois, along with Llwal Uguak, who’s looking to build on his two game-breaking third down sacks against Wagner, despite the bigger opponent.
“For defense we got to come off the ball strong, we gotta come off the ball fast and we got to we got to stop the run,” Uguak said. “We can stop the run and we get after them on third down when they pass the ball then we’re in good shape.”
Offensive Line Leaves Room for Improvement
UConn’s offensive line performed reasonably well against Wagner, paving the way for 234 yards rushing on four yards per carry while giving up just two sacks, but apparently were carrying themselves too highly for Edsall during practice this week.
“They need to show me a lot more before I’ll ever show them a strength of our team again. Maybe I give them too much praise. You give them too much sugar, they get fat,” Edsall said. “They need more nastiness and aggressiveness.”
“It’s a little motivation is also a factor that lets you know you just gotta get going,” offensive tackle Matt Peart said on Edsall’s reaction in practice. “If coach says something like that, you gotta take it personally. There’s something wrong and we just have to finish it.”
Edsall said this afternoon that Caleb Thomas has been cleared by the NCAA to take part in this week’s game against Illinois, a big boost to a defensive line that had a solid day against Wagner.