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1. Starting over
But while Pitt (the second time around) and WVU hired young, offensively-minded up-and-comers in the coaching ranks, UConn went conservative. They hired an infinitely more experienced, defensive-minded coach in former Syracuse head man Paul Pasqualoni.
Once I realized that Pasqualoni is somehow only 61 years old (my first guess would have been much closer to 70 -- he's been around forever), I warmed to the hire a bit. Though he couldn't quite replicate the success that his predecessor Dick MacPherson found at Syracuse, his profile was probably raised by successor Greg Robinson's struggles. Pasqualoni won 107 games in 14 seasons at The 'Cuse and finished with the best conference record in the fledgling Big East six times. He inherits a team in transition, in a conference in transition. I cannot tell you if this was a good hire, but the thought process -- if the conference's stable of coaches is young and, in some cases, high on offensive potential, then going with experience and defense could pay off -- was one I can defend. So they've got that going for them.
I tried as hard as I could to talk myself into UConn's hire of Paul Pasqualoni three years ago. I really did. He's got a good defensive mind, and he knows the northeast. But hires that feel underwhelming often feel that way because they are indeed underwhelming, and sometimes going against the grain simply means going against what is most likely to work.
UConn was likely in need of a reset following Randy Edsall's departure to College Park, and some temporary stagnation or regression was perhaps to be expected. And despite a faulty record, UConn was mostly stagnant in Pasqualoni's first two years -- the Huskies ranked 63rd in the F/+ rankings in Edsall's last season and (because of a stout defense) 54th and 61st in Pasqualoni's first two. But with impatience growing (and let's be honest: there was impatience from the start), UConn completely collapsed at the beginning of the 2013 season. The Huskies began the season 0-4, and Pasqualoni was dismissed.
Enter Bob Diaco. The 41-year old was born in New Jersey, played college football at Iowa, and spent the last four seasons as a member of the Brian Kelly coaching tree at Cincinnati and Notre Dame. He is young and enthusiastic, and he knows exactly what he's getting himself into.
I asked Diaco recently what he encountered when he took the job in December and what he realized needed immediate change. His response:
The care and cleanliness of the facility. The locker room, the player lounge, the hallways, the traffic in the building. It had basically become a free-for-all.
We had to raise the team's expectations and understanding of our expectations for how they treated things. We had to make a lot of changes for them in the building to help shine everything up so it became something respectable looking again. [...]
Right now, we're working to eliminate the things that cause losing. It's every day. Performance on the field is just a microcosm of lifestyle. That's what we're focused on -- changing the culture here for the football team. A lack of attention to detail, a lack of physical and mental conditioning, a lack of expectation and confidence due to poor preparation. Communication and presentation. Making sure we're operating at a high level there. And you're talking about inside the play, and you're talking about just in the day. It's all the same. I could name another 100 things that we've tried to inspect hard in these first few months. Everything that's being consumed in this facility.
UConn actually played pretty well in the last month of the season and returns a lot of the reasons for late-season offensive competence. With a couple of breaks, they could potentially compete for a minor bowl bid this year. But this does take on the feel of a Year Zero situation like the one Willie Taggart inherited at USF. Diaco is young, enthusiastic and charismatic and has a lovely résumé. He could certainly turn out successful in short order. But we'll forego actually defining any sort of expectations for the 2014 season.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 93|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|29-Aug||Towson||N/A||18-33||L||17.3 - 27.5||L|
|14-Sep||Maryland||63||21-32||L||23.3 - 33.1||L|
|21-Sep||Michigan||37||21-24||L||14.3 - 20.3||L|
|28-Sep||at Buffalo||80||12-41||L||15.0 - 26.8||L|
|12-Oct||South Florida||99||10-13||L||18.2 - 20.8||L||-8.1|
|19-Oct||at Cincinnati||64||16-41||L||33.1 - 36.3||L||-6.7|
|26-Oct||at Central Florida||21||17-62||L||15.3 - 33.0||L||-8.3|
|8-Nov||Louisville||12||10-31||L||25.5 - 20.1||W||-6.0|
|16-Nov||at SMU||84||21-38||L||22.7 - 35.2||L||-6.1|
|23-Nov||at Temple||98||28-21||W||11.8 - 23.2||L||-7.9|
|30-Nov||Rutgers||91||28-17||W||30.9 - 23.3||W||-5.8|
|7-Dec||Memphis||83||45-10||W||43.2 - 20.0||W||2.4|
|Points Per Game||20.6||108||30.3||86|
|Adj. Points Per Game||22.5||105||26.6||58|
2. Sustainable improvement
It was pretty early in the year for a firing, but nobody could be too surprised when Pasqualoni was fired four games (and four losses) into the 2013 season. UConn had managed to drop a tight home game to Michigan and stay reasonably close to Maryland, but ... when you enter the season on a hot seat, you probably can't afford to lose to Towson and Buffalo by a combined 74-30. Sure Towson was a strong FCS team, and sure, Buffalo was a pretty good MAC team, but ... 74-30. Towson and Buffalo.
Improvement was slight directly after Pasqualoni's termination, but it grew.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Opponent 26.9, UConn 17.5 (minus-9.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 3 games): Opponent 30.0, UConn 22.2 (minus-7.8)
Adj Points Per Game (last 5 games): UConn 26.8, Opponent 24.4 (plus-2.4)
There were still plenty of down moments along the way, but after righting the ship a bit in October, UConn was downright decent in November. The Huskies looked semi-competent against Louisville, then ripped off three increasingly impressive wins to end the season.
If you are good enough for long enough over the last half of the season, and if the reasons for your improvement return the next season, then this step up could be sustainable. UConn's step toward offensive competence could indeed be a sign of good things to come, but losses on the defense give me pause.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||36.9%||114||Succ. Rt. +||87.8||103|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||33.5||116||Def. FP+||94.4||111|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.9||95||Redzone S&P+||88.8||101|
|Q1 Rk||73||1st Down Rk||103|
|Q2 Rk||105||2nd Down Rk||100|
|Q3 Rk||112||3rd Down Rk||101|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Casey Cochran||6'1, 226||So.||3 stars (5.7)||111||175||1293||11||4||63.4%||4||2.2%||7.1|
|Tim Boyle||6'4, 212||So.||3 stars (5.7)||59||133||621||0||8||44.4%||18||11.9%||3.4|
|Chandler Whitmer||6'1, 193||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||71||129||896||5||6||55.0%||19||12.8%||5.0|
|Michael Ecke||6'4, 173||So.||NR|
3. Putting it on Cochran's shoulders
So here's what we know from new offensive coordinator Mike Cummings' time running the Central Michigan offense: standard downs are for rushing, and passing downs are for passing. CMU ran about three percent more than the national average on standard downs and passed almost 11 percent more than average on passing downs. That puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback to make tough throws; that also means quite a bit of opportunity (and, yes, pressure) on Casey Cochran. The presumptive starter for 2014, Cochran was far and away the most effetive of three quarterbacks in last season's pass-heavy system; he took far fewer sacks than Tim Boyle or Chandler Whitmer, he threw fewer interceptions, and he was completed more passes to his own team. He started the spring game and acquitted himself alright, and he seems to have strong odds of starting on August 29 against BYU. He was well-regarded out of high school and could give Diaco and Cummings a rather high-quality signal-caller for the foreseeable future.
|Lyle McCombs||RB||5'8, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||159||670||5||4.2||5.7||31.4%|
|Max DeLorenzo||RB||6'0, 207||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||99||349||5||3.5||2.1||32.3%|
|Deshon Foxx||WR||5'10, 172||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||59||0||4.2||2.3||57.1%|
|Chandler Whitmer||QB||6'1, 193||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||11||18||0||1.6||2.1||18.2%|
|Tim Boyle||QB||6'4, 212||So.||3 stars (5.7)||9||39||0||4.3||6.9||44.4%|
|Jazzmar Clax||FB||5'11, 239||So.||3 stars (5.5)||7||11||0||1.6||1.3||14.3%|
|Casey Cochran||QB||6'1, 226||So.||3 stars (5.7)||6||6||1||1.0||1.5||16.7%|
|Joshua Marriner||RB||5'8, 192||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Arkeel Newsome||RB||5'7, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Ron Johnson||RB||6'0, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Geremy Davis||WR||6'3, 215||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||114||71||1085||62.3%||27.9%||53.0%||9.5||211||8.8||120.0|
|Deshon Foxx||WR||5'10, 172||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||75||43||534||57.3%||18.3%||51.6%||7.1||-19||7.0||59.0|
|Sean McQuillan||TE||6'4, 237||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||34||25||196||73.5%||8.3%||80.0%||5.8||-88||6.0||21.7|
|Lyle McCombs||RB||5'8, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||31||20||75||64.5%||7.6%||42.9%||2.4||-167||3.1||8.3|
|Brian Lemelle||WR||5'10, 160||So.||3 stars (5.6)||29||16||177||55.2%||7.1%||83.3%||6.1||-33||4.3||19.6|
|Dhameer Bradley||WR||5'9, 168||So.||3 stars (5.7)||29||13||119||44.8%||7.1%||37.5%||4.1||-73||5.8||13.2|
|Max DeLorenzo||RB||6'0, 207||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||8||69||57.1%||3.4%||70.0%||4.9||-34||6.2||7.6|
|John Green||WR||5'10, 177||So.||2 stars (5.4)||11||5||40||45.5%||2.7%||57.1%||3.6||-33||3.2||4.4|
|Kamal Abrams||WR||5'11, 186||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||9||4||34||44.4%||2.2%||100.0%||3.8||-25||0.3||3.8|
|Noel Thomas||WR||6'1, 183||So.||3 stars (5.5)||3||3||32||100.0%||0.7%||N/A||10.7||2||0.0||3.5|
|Quinn Thompson||TE||6'4, 244||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Thomas Lucas||WR||6'2, 194||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Tommy Myers||TE||6'5, 237||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
4. All the experience in the world
Players responsible for almost every rushing and receiving yard return in 2014. This is almost never going to be a bad thing, even for an offense that needed a bit more talent and play-making ability than it actually had.
In Lyle McCombs, UConn has a low-efficiency back who does strong things rare open-field opportunities. In Geremy Davis, the Huskies have a strong No. 1 wideout, capable of breaking off big plays (15.3 yards per catch) with minimal all-or-nothing risk (62 percent catch rate). In Josh Marriner, Dhameer Bradley, Brian Lemelle, and incoming freshman Arkeel Newsome, UConn has youngsters with pretty high expectations. If a couple of youngsters are able to surpass veterans, UConn could have the benefit of both experience and new blood, and Cochran will have plenty of options overall.
|Alex Mateas||C||6'4, 315||Sr.||NR||16|
|Gus Cruz||RG||6'4, 309||Sr.||2 stars (5.0)||10|
|Dalton Gifford||RT||6'5, 309||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||6|
|Tyler Samra||RG||6'2, 299||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||1|
|Kyle Schafenacker||LG||6'3, 290||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Bryan Paull||C||6'4, 304||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Tommy Hopkins||OL||6'6, 298||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
5. What happens up front?
Remember how I said that Cummings was more likely than average to run on standard downs and pass on passing downs? It probably bears mentioning that UConn was 123rd in standard downs line yards and 123rd in passing downs sack rate. Granted, the sack rates improved dramatically when Cochran was in the game instead of the dreadfully sack-prone Boyle and Whitmer; still, that's not a great combination, especially when you factor in the experience level. UConn must replace four players who had combined for 103 career starts.
Four others with experience return (33 career starts), but an already shaky line got thinner over the offseason. This puts a pretty solid damper on potential skill-position enthusiasm.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||39.3%||32||Succ. Rt. +||103.2||46|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||27.4||107||Off. FP+||91.6||122|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.9||40||Redzone S&P+||101.2||54|
|Q1 Rk||56||1st Down Rk||57|
|Q2 Rk||110||2nd Down Rk||59|
|Q3 Rk||32||3rd Down Rk||71|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Julian Campenni||DT||6'0, 298||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||12||19.5||3.1%||2.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Angelo Pruitt||DT||6'3, 297||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||17.0||2.7%||6.0||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Reuben Frank||DE||6'3, 246||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||16.5||2.6%||3.5||2.0||0||0||0||0|
|Mikal Myers||DT||6'0, 295||So.||3 stars (5.5)||8||3.5||0.6%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kenton Adeyemi||DT||6'4, 266||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||5||2.0||0.3%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|B.J. McBryde||DT||6'5, 318||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)|
6. A very good run defense rebuilds
From preview to preview, I find myself pointing out one of the following two phenomenons quite often when talking defense. These aren't the only two options, mind you, but they're common: either your strength gets stronger and your weakness gets weaker (because key stars are returning while weak units suffered from attrition) or your strength gets weaker and your weakness gets stronger (because strength and weakness were determined in large part by the experience on hand).
For UConn, 2014 sees very much the latter. An experienced, seasoned front seven played quite well for much of the season, with Shamar Stephen hitting 10 tackles for loss from the tackle position and Yawin Smallwood playing the role of play-making tackling machine. They're gone, as are three other members of last year's starting front seven. Angelo Pruitt has quite a bit of potential at tackle, and linebacker Jefferson Ashiru was strong against the run; plus, a lot of highly-touted youngsters -- sophomore tackle Mikal Myers, four-star linebacker (and Florida transfer) Graham Stewart, three-star redshirt freshman linebackers Cameron Stapleton and Jalen Stevens -- could get a chance to thrive. Still, you're moving from proven entities to potential, and that will likely cause a step backwards in the run defense.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jefferson Ashiru||LB||6'2, 233||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||41.0||6.5%||8.0||1.0||0||2||0||0|
|Marquise Vann||LB||6'0, 232||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||9||12.0||1.9%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||1|
|Graham Stewart||LB||6'2, 236||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)||8||9.5||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Brandon Steg||LB||6'2, 228||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||4.5||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jon Hicks||LB||6'2, 236||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Cameron Stapleton||LB||6'4, 226||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jalen Stevens||LB||6'3, 218||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Vontae Diggs||LB||6'4, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Tom Rodrick||LB||6'3, 240||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
7. A very bad pass rush rebuilds
The front seven had plenty of strengths in 2013, but pass rushing was not one of them. The Huskies were big and effective against the run but ranked a woeful 118th in Adj. Sack Rate. This did no favors for a defensive backfield that was struggling with shuffled lineups and youth.
Only three Huskies logged more than 2.0 sacks in 2013, and all three (Stephen, Smallwood, and end Tim Willman) are gone. We'll see how Diaco and defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter go about generating pressure on quarterbacks; the secondary should be more equipped to cover effectively this fall, but that doesn't matter if the quarterback has too much time to find a target.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Obi Melifonwu||S||6'4, 208||So.||3 stars (5.5)||12||54.5||8.6%||3||0||2||5||2||0|
|Byron Jones||CB||6'1, 191||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||51.0||8.1%||2||0||3||8||0||0|
|Andrew Adams||S||6'0, 199||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||8||35.0||5.5%||0.5||0||2||4||0||0|
|Jhavon Williams||CB||5'11, 191||So.||2 stars (5.4)||10||22.0||3.5%||0||0||1||1||1||0|
|David Stevenson||CB||5'9, 170||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||4||13.5||2.1%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Tyree Clark||CB||5'10, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||7||13.5||2.1%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|Wilbert Lee||S||6'1, 207||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||11||10.5||1.7%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Javon Hadley||CB||5'11, 159||So.||2 stars (5.4)||5||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ellis Marder||CB||6'1, 195||So.||2 stars (5.4)||6||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jordan Floyd||S||6'1, 214||So.||2 stars (5.4)||12||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jamar Summers||CB||5'11, 178||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
8. Get to know Obi
UConn had nine defensive backs log at least 10.0 tackles in 2013; only two played all 12 games. Endless shuffling and injury created setbacks and experimentation, and that almost always hurts in the present tense. As good as UConn was against the run, the Huskies were only 79th in Passing S&P+.
The good news about shuffling and youth is that it createst a decent reservoir of experience. Of the nine players with 10 tackles, two were freshmen and four were sophomores. Potentially important players like Jhavon Williams got more playing time than perhaps was expected, and that could pay off. But the stars of the group are the two who did, in fact, manage to play in all 12 games. Senior Byron jones is a steady corner (perhaps "star" is overstating it, but stars are relative), and safety Obi Melifonwu held his own and proved an interesting, hard-hitting prospect while leading the unit in tackles as a freshman. He is probably a name to remember for the coming seasons.
|Lyle McCombs||KR||5'8, 175||Sr.||24||18.5||0|
|Deshon Foxx||KR||5'10, 172||Sr.||10||18.2||0|
|Lyle McCombs||PR||5'8, 175||Sr.||13||3.1||0|
|Brian Lemelle||PR||5'10, 160||So.||7||3.1||0|
|Special Teams F/+||101|
|Field Goal Efficiency||90|
|Punt Return Efficiency||100|
|Kick Return Efficiency||87|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||99|
9. Clean slate
A thin roster often bleeds over into special teams, where the second- or third-stringers aren't athletic enough to prevent or create good returns, and you end up deciding between playing your starters (and risking injury) or having bad special teams. It makes sense, then, UConn's special teams unit was below average across the board in 2013. Punting and place-kicking were mediocre, coverage was sketchy, and returns left a lot to be desired, but they all hovered around the same level. For worse or (probably) better, though, it all starts over. A few new names here probably wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. And if the incumbent return men are either usurped or given better blocking, that wouldn't hurt either.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|19-Sep||at South Florida||77|
|23-Oct||at East Carolina||72|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-0.4% (57)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||91|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-1 / 1.8|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||14 (8, 6)|
10. Year zero
It's a beautiful football facility. I can't imagine there's a better one. It's as nice and easy for the student athletes to navigate in as any I've seen. It's a functional space, and it's used by a lot of athletes, and that's nice. There's a very large, really nicely done indoor building here that's used by the university. Athletics uses it, and it trickles down to the student body -- it's used from beginning of the morning through the end of the night.
Spirits are high at UConn right now, even if it doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with football. Dual basketball championships created more than a little buzz, and Diaco is attempting to pounce on the UConn brand and create some momentum.
Of course, UConn's basketball programs have been strong for basically all of UConn's FBS history. Things that make everybody happy don't make the football team good. Diaco is both selling and creating a brand at the moment, and it will be interesting to see how successful he is at it.
Honestly, UConn isn't too many breaks from being relatively decent this year. There is potential at quarterback and experience in the skill positions, and there is a much more stable secondary on defense. Still, the questions are pretty serious. How quickly can the offensive line grow competent? How quickly can the defense rebuild? How quickly can Casey Cochran thrive in a new system? The answer to none of these questions is "immediately," so it would probably be best to aim low and let the Huskies surprise you this season.