The Connecticut Huskies had a rough go in 2017 in the first year of Randy Edsall’s second stint at the school. UConn went 3-9 overall and 2-6 in AAC play a season ago.
It is a full rebuild for coach Randy Edsall, and this is the first year of what looks like a youth movement. With a new offensive coordinator and some younger players expected to play bigger roles, this is a foundational season. Improving on last year’s 3-9 season is possible, but this year is about developing the young team for 2019 and 2020.
The UConn offense, the lowest-scoring unit in the nation in 2016, improved to reach a functional level in 2017, Randy Edsall’s first season back as head coach. Coordinator Rhett Lashlee then left for SMU and was replaced by John Dunn, so the Huskies are on to a new page in an ever-changing offensive story. Dunn, most recently an assistant with the Chicago Bears, will become the fifth coach in five years to spend at least part of a season as coordinator.
The Huskies averaged 23.6 points (103rd in FBS) and 415.2 yards (50th) last season but return few proven weapons outside of senior receiver Hergy Mayala (43 receptions, 615 yards). Senior quarterback David Pindell, a junior college transfer, won the job out of camp last season but was replaced in the opener by Bryant Shirreffs, who remained the starter until Pindell returned for the final three games. Pindall is the clear frontrunner to start in 2018, with the offense ready to gear its no-huddle approach to his running ability.
Tyler Davis is an intriguing tight end, and the Huskies are probably deeper at receiver than at any other position with Mayala supported by Keyion Dixon, Tyraiq Beals and Quayvon Skanes.
There are questions on a young, remodeled offensive line and at running back, where Kevin Mensah returns as the leading rusher (561 yards). The line has been a significant problem in recent years and remains a concern. It’s being rebuilt around senior center Ryan Crozier.
The Huskies were almost historically bad on defense last season, allowing an average of 333.9 passing yards per game, last in FBS. UConn was also among the nation’s worst units in scoring defense (37.9 ppg) and total defense (519.0 ypg).
The Huskies lost their starting front three (Foley Fatukasi, Luke Carrezola, and Cole Ormsby) and top linebacker in Junior Joseph. UConn’s secondary became a carousel of inexperienced players, and competition at cornerback and safety for playing time in Billy Crocker’s 3-3-5 system was wide open in the spring and will continue to be.
Darrian Beavers is an emerging linebacker, but there are significant holes to fill and inexperienced players who will be relied on up and down the depth chart — never a solid recipe for success in the short term.
Placekicker Michael Tarbutt has a strong but inconsistent leg. He was 12-of-18 on field goals last season, connecting from as far as 53 yards but missing several short attempts (including from 33 yards as time expired in a 41-38 loss to East Carolina, and an extra point — pushed back by a Mayala taunting penalty — as time expired on a season-ending loss to Cincinnati). Brett Graham averaged just 38.8 yards per punt.
UConn has a strong stable of receivers and two durable running backs who should be better with a year of experience. Having Fortt and Coyle in the secondary is a huge plus and UConn upgraded its athleticism.
The defensive front seven is basically new so there is little experience there. The offensive line needs to improve and give the quarterback time to throw and also open up running lanes so the defense can stay off the field a bit more.
The thought is that UConn will be better, with so many first-year players debuting last season and now returning, but that doesn’t mean an improved record should be expected. The Huskies aren’t quite big enough, strong enough or fast enough on either side of the line yet, and players at skill positions remain very raw. Edsall has a clear approach, and the program — after six tumultuous years following his first stint — appears to be headed in the right direction. But it will likely take the 2018 season plus another for the project to truly gain traction. Barring a big surprise, UConn appears headed for an eighth straight losing season.
Nick Obot’s Verdict
Projection: 4-8, 2-6 AAC