NCAA Football Preview - Connecticut Huskies

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Updated: 8/21/2013 12:09 pm

The Huskies had perhaps the easiest opening game of the 2012 season when they hosted Massachusetts in the Minutemen's first game as an FBS program. The Huskies predictably rolled to a 37-0 win and the next week hung tough in a 10-7 loss to NC State. Connecticut then bested another ACC opponent, beating Maryland on the road 24-21. After that victory though the Huskies fell apart, losing five of six including their first four conference games.

There was a turnaround though, as the Huskies defeated Pittsburgh and pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season with a 23-20 overtime triumph at Louisville before ending the season in a 34-17 loss to Cincinnati.

All together the Huskies were unable to get back to a bowl game. It is a task they have yet to accomplish in Pasqualoni's two seasons after making four straight bowl appearances from 2007-2010 under Randy Edsall.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Conservative and predictable are not the types of adjectives a team wants associated with its offense, especially if the word unproductive follows. That was and has been the unfortunate weakness for Connecticut in the last couple of seasons.

The Huskies have brought in a new offensive coordinator in T.J. Weist to help elevate the unit. Weist will certainly put a focus on the passing game as he has been a wide receivers coach at five different schools, including the last three years at Cincinnati.

Consistency at quarterback may also help to get the Huskies clicking offensively. Chandler Whitmer entered last season as the starting quarterback but was an unknown commodity as he was transferring from Butler Community College. Whitmer didn't light the world on fire with his passing but was solid enough, completing 57.6 percent of his passes for 2,664 yards. He desperately needs to cut down on the mistakes (16 interceptions in 2012) if he hopes to take that next step.

Compounding the offensive problems was the regression of Lyle McCombs. A Freshman All-American in 2011, when he ran for 1,151 yards, McCombs picked up just 860 yards last season, averaging a paltry 3.5 yards per carry. Entering his junior seasons McCombs will look to replicate his 2011 efforts, otherwise backup Joseph Williams could see more action.

Weist's experience in coaching receivers should help with the development of Geremy Davis. The 6-foot-2 wideout showed flashes of brilliance in an offensive attack that did not favor the passing game. Davis led the team with 44 catches and 613 yards, including a strong showing against Western Michigan when he set career-highs in catches (nine) and yards (123). Shakim Phillips (32 receptions, 399 yards) is another solid returning pass-catcher.

Backup quarterback Scott McCummings, who rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns as a change of pace option behind Whitmer last season, may see time at wide receiver this season to further open up the offense.

"We just felt that Scott is a very good athlete and we wanted to do something to utilize him more," head coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "He knows all the formations, he knows all the plays, he knows the routes because he's been a quarterback."

Four starters return on the offensive line for Connecticut but that isn't exactly a good thing. The Huskies allowed 33 sacks last season. That type of effort was partly responsible for Whitmer and McCombs' struggles. Improvement will be needed.

DEFENSE: What kept the Huskies competitive last season was the defensive unit. The Huskies ranked ninth in the country and led the Big East in total defense (309.9 ypg), ranking among the top 20 teams in the country in scoring defense (19.8 ppg) and rush defense (97.9 ypg).

The bad news for 2013 is that a huge bulk of the contributors from last year have moved on. Linebackers Sio Moore and Jory Johnson, Trevardo Williams and his team-high 11.5 sacks, as well as cornerbacks Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz will be sorely missed. With their absence many players will need to step it up.

Despite losing some depth the Huskies still have an anchor for the defense with middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood. The junior led the Huskies in tackles last season (120) and also racked up 15 tackles for loss and a solid 4.0 sacks. Ryan Donohue transferred from Maryland to bring more depth at linebacker.

"I like the guys we have that are going to replace the guys we lost. I think they will do a good job of replacing those linebackers we lost," Pasqualoni said. "I think the guys that need to step up are going to step up."

Jesse Joseph had 8.5 sacks in 2010 as a sophomore. Since then he has just two but that can be blamed mostly on injuries, including last season when he tore his Achilles' tendon in September. He will be at full strength this season and joined by Shamar Stephen and Angel Pruitt, who each have starting experience on the defensive line.

Safety Ty-Meer Brown and Byron Jones, who is moving to cornerback from safety, bring in a combined 136 total tackles from last season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Nick Williams was a do-it-all back for the Huskies last year and was an extremely effective returner. Having departed though, the return responsibilities fall to Taylor Mack. The 5-foot-9 cornerback did return six kickoffs last season with a 16.3 yard average and got 21 yards on his lone punt return.

Chad Christen will be in his second season as the primary place kicker after he connected on 14-of-21 field goal attempts. Senior Cole Wagner will handle punting responsibilities.

OUTLOOK: This is an important year for Pasqualoni. Though his teams have certainly been solid, that won't continue to cut it, especially now that Connecticut is in the new American Athletic Conference.

The Huskies will get plenty of challenges from both the non-conference and league schedule. The biggest matchup of the year will be when Michigan comes to Storrs on September 21. Games against Maryland and of course big tests at Cincinnati and versus Louisville and Rutgers will also be important in terms of bowl contention.

With Whitmer having a year under his belt, the Huskies will have consistency at the quarterback position which should help get the offense in gear under Weist. If the players that fill the multiple holes on defense can keep the Huskies strong on that side of the ball, UConn will once again be a team that could cause some noise. However, the ceiling for the Huskies isn't much higher this year.

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