Connecticut football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Huskies, best players and season prediction.
The ingredients are in place for Connecticut to dress up as Cinderella in 2016.
If returning starters and letterwinners are accurate barometers for success, the Huskies have a crack at being this year’s Temple in the American Athletic Conference.
UConn leaned decidedly forward in Bob Diaco’s second season in Storrs, tripling its win total from 2014 and earning a postseason berth for the first time in five years. It was an important step that’s liable to continue this season, with the Huskies welcoming back the majority of their regulars on both sides of the ball. However, as has often been the case since Randy Edsall left the program at the end of the 2010 campaign, the team remains saddled with one of the nation’s worst offenses.
Connecticut returns 10 offensive starters, which is a classic half-empty or half-full scenario for a program that averaged 12 points in last season’s seven defeats. However, the Huskies can’t possibly tailspin any further now that it’ll be led by an experienced quarterback, Bryant Shirreffs, as well as last season’s top two backs and every primary receiver. And even modest gains here could profoundly impact a program that participated in eight games decided by 10 points or less.
Defense will again be the main attraction at Rentschler Field. Following the Temple blueprint of a year ago, the Huskies are primed to defend their 2015 title as the American’s stingiest D. Connecticut is always well coached on this side of the ball, plus at least a couple of the holdovers are going to get a shot to play on Sundays. If the offense fails to deliver, Diaco knows he can count on his defense to keep the team competitive against any opponent on the schedule.
Last season was a critical one for UConn, as it attempts to gain traction in an American that’s become a breeding ground for upstart, try-hard programs. The Huskies won six games for the first time in five years, including handing eventual league champ Houston its only loss of 2015. After a rugged start, Diaco is beginning to change the culture in Storrs, no small task at an obvious basketball school. With a few breaks on offense, Connecticut could become this year’s American team that weaves a couple of early upsets to capture a rare amount of attention outside of the Northeast.
What You Need to Know About the Connecticut Offense
For four years running, the Huskies have averaged fewer than 21 points a game to become one of the country’s feeblest offenses. And while no dramatic turnaround is expected from a conservative attack light on playmakers, there is a glimmer of hope that the unit will showcase much-needed improvement in 2016.
Ten starters are back from 2015, including the backfield combination of QB Bryant Shirreffs and RB Arkeel Newsome. Plus, the receiving corps is experienced, led by WR Noel Thomas and oversized tight ends Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers. If Shirreffs can smooth out the edges of his game, UConn might actually show a pulse this fall.
There’s also cautious optimism regarding the perennially dreadful O-line. Not only do four starters return, but C Ryan Crozier is healthy after missing all of 2015, and the development of rookie LT Matt Peart allows Richard Levy to kick inside to guard, where he’s less likely to get exposed. Connecticut will be far from prolific offensively, but even incremental growth could flip a loss or two into the win column.
Biggest Key To The Connecticut Offense
Peart of the solution. The Huskies have struggled at the point of attack for what seems to be a generation. But this season’s blocking unit shows uncommon potential, thanks to four returning starters, a healthy Ryan Crozier at center and one enormous young tackle to protect Bryant Shirreffs’ blindside. Redshirt freshman Matt Peart has already displaced two-year starter Richard Levy at left tackle, performing in the spring as if he’ll be a four-year fixture at the position. It’s way early, but there’s already chatter that the 6-7, 291-pound Bronx native could become the best blocker to ever play at UConn.
What You Need to Know About the Connecticut Defense
Staff and players change all the time, but the Huskies are usually the kind of blue-collar defense that makes opponents earn every point and yard.
After a brief departure from its standard personality, Connecticut returned to form last season by leading the American in scoring defense. With a solid corps of defenders returning from the 2015 edition, no retreat is expected from coordinator Anthony Poindexter’s unit.
The Huskies will have an all-star candidate at each level, Foley Fatukasi, Mikal Myers and Luke Carrezola up front, LB Junior Joseph and Jamar Summers, Obi Melifonwu and Jhavon Williams out of the secondary. Plus, the newcomers to the lineup appear determined to not be weak links in a sturdy chain.
Taking the next step will require amplified edge pressure, which is going to place the onus on DE Cole Ormsby and outside LB Vontae Diggs, among others, to crank up the heat in 2016.
Biggest Key To The Connecticut Defense
Who mans the middle? The Huskies have what’s known as a good problem at inside linebacker. They added E.J. Levenberry, a transfer from Florida State with the size and the potential that rarely winds up in Storrs. And yet, as high as the ceiling is for the 6-3, 245-pound junior, he’s still running behind senior Matt Walsh. Walsh made a successful switch from fullback in 2015, starting three games and ranking seventh on the team with 47 tackles.
Connecticut Will Be Far Better If …
the offense can deliver in the clutch. Yeah, it’s a repetitive statement from essentially every year of the past decade, but it still applies. The Huskies are simply not getting to another level until the offense can lug a lot more of the weight. The D is fine, and will continue to be so in 2016. But after finishing 117th nationally in third-down conversions and 115th in red-zone touchdown efficiency, Connecticut must do a better job of extending drives and trading three-point attempts for six-point scores.
Best Offensive Player
Senior WR Noel Thomas. Connecticut is a conservative, run-first program, a philosophy that will not change this season. However, a player like Thomas, who really blossomed on the outside a year ago, provides the Huskies with balance to go along with backs Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson. In order to spread out defenses and open up the field for the runners and a deep group of tight ends, UConn needs weapons like Thomas to keep the opposition honest.
Best Defensive Player
Junior CB Jamar Summers. While there’s stiff competition for this honor on a very good defensive unit, Summers continues to stand out as the Huskies’ most indispensible player. A bona fide lockdown corner, his eight interceptions a year ago will be in the minds of opposing quarterbacks when they drop back to throw this fall. Summers is still in the early stages of his development as a pass defender, so it’ll be even tougher to complete passes on him in 2016.
Key Player to a Successful Season
Junior QB Bryant Shirreffs. Shirreffs played modestly well in his first season after transferring from NC State. But simply playing well is insufficient for an offense that needs a true playmaker behind center. Connecticut was a miserable passing team throughout the first half of this decade. It’s up to Shirreffs to continue making plays with his feet, but to also become a more competent third-down passer. On third and fourth downs last season, he completed just 47.7% of his throws.
The Season Will Be a Success If …
the Huskies finish above .500 for the first time since Randy Edsall left the program for Maryland in 2010. It’s the next step for the team that surprisingly went 6-7 and earned a bowl berth last season. East Division contention can’t—and shouldn’t—be ruled out. But after the opener with Maine, the schedule is thorny. UConn faces Virginia, Syracuse and Boston College outside of the conference, and American road games include trips to Navy, Houston, South Florida and East Carolina. If the Huskies can get to 7-6 after going 2-10 just two years ago, go ahead and call it momentum.
Sept. 10 at Navy. Yeah, bouts with Syracuse and Boston College carry regional and historical significance. But a Week 2 trip to Annapolis is going to answer a lot of questions about the potential of Diaco’s third team in Storrs. The Midshipmen, rock-steady though they may be, are undergoing a fair amount of change this season. If the Huskies can start the campaign with two wins, the upset at Navy is liable to infuse the squad with a level of confidence it hasn’t had in six years.
2015 Fun Stats
– Third-down%: Connecticut 32% – Opponents 41%
– Sacks: Connecticut 21 – Opponents 37
– Points per game: Connecticut 17.2 – Opponents 19.5