A familiar face is back in Storrs, as Randy Edsall returns for his second stint as Connecticut’s head coach. Edsall left UConn for Maryland after leading the Huskies to a share of the Big East title and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl in 2010 and the hope is he can get the program back to its winning ways as a member of the American Athletic Conference. The first place to start is getting significantly more out of an offense that ranked near the bottom of the FBS in yards and points per game. The defense fared better but will be undergoing its own overhaul with a new coordinator switching from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-3-5. Edsall has some experience and talent to work with, but everyone knows this is a rebuilding job that will take several seasons.
Previewing Connecticut Football’s Offense for 2017
Pace. Tempo. Speed. These are all words you will hear thrown around for this year’s Huskies offense, which by all measures was slow and ineffective last season under former coach Bob Diaco. For the most part, the nation’s 122nd-ranked offense, which also ranked dead last in scoring at only 14.8 points per game, was the main culprit behind last season’s disappointing 3–9 mark. It will be up to new (and, technically, old) coach Randy Edsall and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to pick things back up. Lashlee took a pay cut to come to Storrs from Auburn, where he ran Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle offense to increasing success over the course of last season.
Whether or not the Huskies have the requisite personnel to execute Lashlee’s offense in the first year is up for debate. The quarterback competition encountered a setback in spring practice when sophomore Donovan Williams suffered a knee injury. He is expected to be ready for preseason camp, but senior Bryant Shirreffs, who started the first nine games last year, looks like he will begin the season at the top of the depth chart. Don’t rule out junior college transfer David Pindell, who has an outside shot at winning the job.
The offensive line has some experience, while running back Arkeel Newsome is a multi-purpose weapon. Lashlee will look to incorporate receivers Hergy Mayala and Tyraiq Beals more into the offense.
Previewing Connecticut Football’s Defense for 2017
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Although it did not need as much of a facelift as the offense did, the defense is nonetheless getting a wholesale change in scheme as well, with new coordinator Billy Crocker. The Huskies are going from a more traditional 4-3 look to a 3-3-5, which tends to be more suited to defend the type of high-powered spread offenses that rule the college landscape. When Crocker was at Villanova, he had great success, giving up an FCS-low 15 points per game last season.
Just like the offense, an injury gave the defense a setback in the spring. E.J. Levenberry suffered a torn ACL and will miss the season. Losing him is a big blow to a linebacker corps that was expected to be possibly the best unit on the team. Even with his loss, the return of Vontae Diggs and Junior Joseph, who finished second and third on the team in tackles last year, respectively, gives the group some punch.
There is plenty of experience up front, as Luke Carrezola at defensive end led the team with 11 tackles for a loss last year, and fellow end Cole Ormsby tied for the lead in sacks with four. Losing NFL Scouting Combine stud Obi Melifonwu, last year’s leading tackler at safety, hurts, but Jamar Summers will lead the secondary from either cornerback or safety, both of which he can hold down effectively.
Previewing Connecticut Football’s Specialists for 2017
There is plenty of uncertainty here, as both the kicker and punter are gone. Newsome returns as a speedy option at kick returner, and there are plenty of other options there. Brice McAllister and Beals are two of them, and either one can be effective.
Any rays of hope the program showed under Diaco at first were wiped away by an ugly 2016. By going back to Edsall, who saw UConn through the transition from the Division I-AA level to an FBS independent to a member of the Big East, the Huskies are hoping to return to their winning ways.
Although there is a decent amount of experience returning, the AAC has grown into perhaps the best Group of 5 conference, and inching up that ladder will be difficult. There’s no way the offense can be worse, so marginal steps forward there can at least set the stage for greater improvement down the line.
National Ranking: 101
AAC East Prediction: 5
(Arkeel Newsome photo courtesy of UConn Athletics)