Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 9 UConn.
Gone is Bob Diaco and all his adorable, made-up rivalries and ideas of broadcasting college football on Nickelodeon—he gave it his best, I guess, but it turns out even an innovative genius like Diaco can’t afford a three-year record of 11-26. So he, like the drunken coeds fiendin’ for some of that good-ass mac and cheese, got kicked to the curb at the conclusion of the 2016 season. Instead of taking any sort of risk at all and hiring someone else to come in and start plugging the numerous holes that have the Huskies’ hull scraping the ocean floor, the UConn athletic department administrators decided to play it safe and turn back to the man that made them wonderfully average.
Randy Edsall is back in the saddle after a tumultuous four-and-a-half year run at Maryland—with the Terrapins, he went 22-34, struggling to ever field a consistently competitive team; to the delight of Terps fans, he finally got the boot in October 2015 after opening 2-4. UConn waited another year and a half before it made its move to snatch back the one that got away. Edsall will now be tasked with accomplishing same trick he pulled off when he took the Huskies to the big leagues in 2000: making UConn not completely suck ass. Somehow, it’ll feel even more impressive if he can do manage it now, given the current pathetic state of the program.
Last season, UConn ranked dead last in the entire FBS—128 of 128—in scoring offense, posting a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad line of 14.8 points per game. If you are looking for a silver lining, I suggest you look elsewhere; the Huskies were revolting to the eye, being shut out twice and topping 20 points just five times. By comparison, the defense was the fucking Steel Curtain, doing its very best to keep opponents from topping 30 points—considering UConn failed to hit the 30-point mark once, that was more or less the death note.
To remedy this, Edsall went out and hired Rhett Lashlee, who took a $250,000 pay cut to vacate his position at Auburn in order to have full run of the Huskies’ offense and put himself in a better position to nab a head coaching gig down the line. Tigers head coach Gus Malzhan, a known offensive force in the college coaching universe, finally turned the reins over to Lashlee three games (and two losses) into the 2016 campaign—Lashlee responded by leading the offense to a win against LSU the next week, the first victory in what would become a six-game winning streak in which the offense topped 37 points four times.
The Huskies now want him to recreate some of that magic for them, though hopefully people will understand Lashlee is going from cooking with kobe beef and Mauviel pans to a Betty Crocker playset—things will almost certainly get better, but let’s be reasonable about what “better” can and will actually look like. For instance, three quarters into UConn’s season-opener, “better” was starting to look like simply hitting double-digits against an FCS team.
Quarterback David Pindell, a junior college transfer, was named the starter at the outset of the season; it only took a couple quarters of check-down-heavy play against Holy Cross for the UConn coaches to realize the error in their ways. Pindell finished 19-of-28 for 154 yards, no scores, and one costly fumble—that’s a fine line against AAC opponents, but not against a team that’s coming off a 2-4 finish in the Patriot League. With UConn trailing 20-7 at the end of the third quarter, Pindell was pulled in favor of Bryant Shirreffs, who filled in to the tune of 9-of-13 passing for 124 yards and a touchdown. He led the Huskies on two scoring drives and also got to do something only a select few Huskies quarterbacks have had the past three years: kneel the ball to secure a win.
Considering Shirreffs couldn’t beat out Pindell in the offseason, I have little-to-no confidence that we won’t see Pindell back under center by season’s end. But, for now, Shirreffs is UConn’s starting quarterback.
Regardless of who ends up taking snaps, they’ve been been blessed with the gift of Arkeel Newsome, a compact running back that laid a big ol’ turd rushing-wise against Holy Cross (one yard on eight carries) but otherwise should be the team’s deadliest offensive weapon. With Newsome having an off game, redshirt freshman Nate Hopkins stepped up, delivering a 130-yard, three-touchdown performance. Newsome is a senior, and with 1,507 rushing yards over the past two years, he’s not just going to disappear from the UConn gameplan, especially given Lashlee’s up-tempo, space-friendly offense. That said, if the offense can work Hopkins as the every-down back and use Newsome out of the slot or backfield more often (he was second on the team with 44 receiving yards on two catches last weekend), you might actually start to see some honest-to-god offensive improvement from the Huskies.
Continuing to work Newsome into the passing game is also a strategy implemented out of necessity, as the receiving corps lost Noel Thomas, who was the team leader with 1,179 receiving yards and three scores a season ago. In terms of receivers that can provide a boost, junior Hergy Mayala had the best performance of his career against Holy Cross, hauling in nine catches for 106 yards and a score. The 6-foot-2 Canadian hasn’t shown much outside of last year’s 92-yard outing against a stiff Houston defense, but as a big guy on the outside, he’s likely going to become the favorite of whoever’s throwing him the ball. Behind him, you’ve got Keyion Dixon, Aaron McLean, and Tyraiq Beals.
The defense, now being run by coordinator Billy Crocker, switched over to a 3-3-5 in order to shake things up and, with what should be an improved offense, keep improving on its actually decent +9 turnover margin from a year ago that tied the Huskies for 15th-best in the nation. UConn’s defense was also quietly one of the better at bottling up opposing running backs and stiffening their backs in the red zone, two things Crocker showed a talent for coaching while building up the Villanova defense to excel in those areas. While the Huskies decided to have an extra man patrol the secondary, thanks to a bevy of serviceable upperclassmen, UConn should again field a solid front seven, err six, this season.
This all starts up front with defensive end Luke Carrezola, who led the team with 11 tackles for loss last season and contributed another three sacks. The senior is joined by a pair of fifth-year guys in tackle Folorunso Fatukasi and fellow end Cole Ormsby. In a 3-3-5, I wouldn’t expect any of these guys to post ridiculous numbers, but Carrezola is a mountain of a man, so I expect him to show out for more than the two tackles he registered against the Crusaders.
Behind them, senior linebacker Vontae Diggs, joined by redshirt junior Chris Britton and redshirt senior Junior Joseph, round out the linebacker corps for UConn. Diggs was second on the team with 86 tackles last season, but was lost to a knee injury sustained in training camp; he’s now back and ready to go for the Huskies, which is great news considering Joseph, who logged 81 tackles last year, injured his shoulder against Holy Cross. He’s still expected to play moving forward, but it’s something to keep an eye on given they boast few proven playmakers behind him. The secondary will almost assuredly be home to the team’s leading tackler this season, with Jamar Stevens—11 tackles and three passes defended against the Crusaders—and corner Tre Bell being the two names to know here.
A Guy To Know
Shitty outing against Holy Cross aside, Arkeel Newsome is too damn good to be on this roster; alas, this is the trade-off of allowing 40-year-old coaches to sell their programs directly to 18-year-olds. Fresh off setting the Connecticut high school state record in total rushing yards, Newsome was the first Parade All-American to sign with UConn in program history when he committed the Huskies back in 2013.
Four years later, he’s the team’s most explosive running back, kick returner, and, maybe, receiver. Newsome boasts burners, a wonderful array of quick-cuts and jump-stops, and some of the softest hands you’ll see on a running back. He ranks fifth on UConn’s (admittedly brief) list of all-time rushing yards leaders and, according to the New Haven Register, is now 17 receptions shy of having 100 for his career, which would a first among Huskies backs. With Hopkins apparently ready to take his shot at handling at least half the carries moving forward, I’d expect Lashlee to start working Newsome into the passing game—he’s got the mitts and the route-running abilities to create mismatches on whichever poor linebacker gets placed on him, and once he gets into open space, he becomes one of the best reasons to watch AAC football. Ethically, I can’t ask you to watch UConn football—it’s something of the college football writer’s hippocratic oath—but if, for whatever reason, your TV gets stuck and you’re chained to your couch, keep an eye out for No. 22.
Can They Make The Playoff?
Ha. If Connecticut makes a bowl game, let alone the playoff, they ought to shut down Storrs for a day and go the parade route and everything. While Edsall has brought this program to the periphery of college football’s attention once before, this project will prove to be no simpler. The Huskies have been the worst in their conference at recruiting for years and under Diaco had little to no sense of what actual progress looked like. Edsall at least knows how to get a program to level out around seven or eight wins, and I think that’s the spot UConn should aim to be at in about four years. Right now, let’s just be happy they were able to knock off Holy Cross.
Is The Coach A Dick?
Short answer: Yes, Randy Edsall is a dick. He’s is a Tom Coughlin mentee, so his whole clean-cut Boy Scout routine shouldn’t surprise anyone—at Maryland, he banned do-rags, earrings, and baseball hats, which was still cooler than when he took the names off the back of the Terps jerseys for the same fucking reason every idealistic, school-first dipshit coach does it: to remind the players they’re not above the program and blah blah blah. Edsall’s literally been featured on this site with the term “dicks over recruit” in the headline—he’s a solid coach, but he’s also for sure a dick. Also: Uhhhhh, not the best at picking charities.
Aug. 31: Holy Cross (W 27-20)
Sept. 16: @ Virginia
Sept. 24: East Carolina
Sept. 30: @ SMU
Oct. 6: Memphis
Oct. 14: @ Temple
Oct. 21: Tulsa
Oct. 28: Missouri
Nov. 4: South Florida
Nov. 11: @ UCF
Nov. 18: Boston College
Nov. 25: @ Cincinnati
*UConn and South Florida were supposed to play Sept. 9, but the game was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma. According to the Connecticut Post, ECU agreed to bump up their Nov. 4 game to Sept. 24 in order to allow the Bulls and Huskies to play Nov. 4.