UConn exceeded even modest expectations in Bob Diaco’s second season. Coming off a 2-10 season in 2014, UConn cobbled together a 4-4 record in the American Athletic Conference, including an upset of league champion Houston in November. The expectations have changed for the Huskies, who will look to take a standout defense to a second consecutive bowl game.
Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:
Previewing UConn’s Offense for 2016
To put it quite simply, there’s nowhere to go but up for a unit that finished 124th in the nation in total yards per game. But with nine starters back and a few key playmakers, that can be accomplished.
The one player who may generate the most excitement is junior running back Arkeel Newsome, a local product out of Ansonia, Conn., who was a Parade All-American in high school. At just 5'7", 180 pounds, Newsome packs an explosive element in his frame as both a runner and receiver, putting up 1,686 all-purpose yards in his breakout sophomore campaign.
The quarterback position will likely be in the hands of dual-threat junior Bryant Shirreffs. When he’s on the field — Shirreffs battled through some injuries late in the season — he’s clearly the team’s best option, as he completed 60 percent of his passes in 2015 for 2,078 yards and nine touchdowns while also adding 503 yards rushing.
His top option will again be senior Noel Thomas, who caught 54 passes for 719 yards and three scores, and although the offense makes good use of its tight ends, it needs better production from its other wideouts.
The offensive line returns four starters, but it was clearly a weak spot last season and needs to improve for the offense to take a step forward.
, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Previewing UConn’s Defense for 2016
Coach Bob Diaco came to UConn from Notre Dame as a defensive wizard, and he lived up to that reputation last year. Outside of a couple games where they were gashed in the middle of the season, the Huskies were solid, giving up just 19.5 points per game, good for 15th in the country. That number looks even better when the offense’s poor showing is taken into account.
Like the offense, there is plenty of production in the junior class. On the defensive line, junior tackle Foli Fatukasi was a disruptive force with a team-high eight sacks and seven tackles for a loss. Classmate Luke Carrezola at end/outside linebacker broke out with six sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss.
The clear strength of the team, despite the loss of Graham Stewart, should be the linebacking corps. Junior Joseph and Matt Walsh return, and the unit will be bolstered by Florida State transfer E.J. Levenberry, a former top recruit.
Although opponents had relatively good success throwing the ball on the Huskies at times last year, UConn has a good group returning in the secondary. Cornerback Jamar Summers — another junior — finished with eight interceptions, the second-highest total in the nation. Fellow corner Jhavon Williams returns, as does safety Obi Melifonwu, who was third on the team in tackles with 88.
Previewing UConn’s Specialists for 2016
Like the defense, this should be another strong point. The Huskies return nearly everyone here, including kicker Bobby Puyol, whose 88.9 percentage on field goals was good for fifth in the nation.
In Diaco’s second season at UConn last year, he did a masterful job of saving the team from a midseason slump to become bowl-eligible by knocking off Houston for a true signature win. Although the team didn’t win its bowl against Marshall, the program has clearly taken a step forward from its 2–10 mark in 2014.
The Huskies are more experienced with 15 returning starters. Another step forward is critical. Much hangs on the improvement of an offensive unit that consistently hung its defense out to dry last season. But if the offensive line can improve enough to create holes for Newsome and make time for Shirreffs, progress is possible. The schedule isn’t a picnic with three ACC teams in non-conference play and road trips to Houston and South Florida. But the Huskies should be in line for at least another bowl trip.