2012 UConn Football Preview: Fending Off The Malaise

EAST HARTFORD, CT - NOVEMBER 26: Lyle McCombs #43 of the Connecticut Huskies carries the ball in the first half against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on November 26, 2011 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Related: UConn's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

For more on Huskies football, visit UConn blog The UConn Blog, plus Big East blog Big East Coast Bias.

In general, UConn's hire of Paul Pasqualoni could have made sense. When everybody else is going young and offense-heavy (Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, Todd Graham -- ouch -- at Pitt), there could be value in going old and defensive.

And lord knows Pasqualoni has been around the block, way around the block. He was a Connecticut high school coach in 1972 and the head coach of West Connecticut State in 1982, and he began a 14-year tenure as Syracuse's head coach in 1991. He knows the northeast, and if he could figure out how to bring Donovan McNabb, Marvin Harrison, et cetera, to upstate New York, he could bring the next McNabb to Storrs, CT, right? Plus, somehow, he's only 62 (two years older than Nick Saban), even if he looks quite a bit older than that.

There is potential upside in a guy like Pasqualoni. Unfortunately, conservative, safe hires -- especially conservative, safe hires of men who haven't been a college head coach in seven years -- don't tend to jazz up a fanbase. And when such a hire is matched with a lackluster first season, "meh" feelings turn into frustration, and eventually frustration turns into malaise. UConn fell from Fiesta Bowl to five wins in 2011, and now the seasoned, smart, and enjoyably terse Pasqualoni must figure out how to win over a fanbase that probably wasn't giving him too much benefit of the doubt to begin with. Can he do it? Will a few well-placed offensive transfers be ready to help out immediately? And can a thin defense overcome a couple of huge losses up front?


Related: Check out UConn's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about UConn last summer:

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. […]

In games against evenly-matched opponents (i.e. in the Big East), your ability to win close games goes hand-in-hand with your YPP margin. Simply being a little better at turning yards into points can make the difference between a 3-4 conference record and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. UConn's YPP margin was one of the more favorable in the country, and with a new coaching staff and entirely new offensive backfield, it will be difficult for UConn to manage games quite as well. Combine that with poor recruiting rankings and only decent five-year performance averages, and the odds are significantly stacked against the Huskies in the short-term.

Randy Edsall is the only coach Connecticut has had since making the jump to FBS. He leaves behind a program that has succeeded more than should have been expected in its first decade at this level, but the facilities and recruiting base are still somewhat limited. In hiring Pasqualoni, UConn didn't exactly go the 'underdog strategies' route, but they did go with somebody who is familiar with the area and whose style can take advantage of the type of recruits that typically thrive in the northeast. He was a definitively conservative hire, but for this program, that might be alright. Especially if he comes up with a nice "stopping the spread" blueprint.

It's never good when "Fire ______" rumblings begin five games into a new coach's tenure, but that's what happened in Storrs (or, rather, East Hartford) last fall. the Pasqualoni era began with a 2-4 start, losses to Vanderbilt, Iowa State (at home) and Western Michigan (at home) and a mostly hopeless set of offensive performances. Things did begin to turn around for the offense over the last half of the season, but it only offset some defensive regression.

First seven games: Opponents 24.8 Adj. PPG, UConn 22.9 (minus-1.9)
Last five games: Opponents 28.1 Adj. PPG, 26.5 (minus-1.6)

Injuries and a new coaching staff certainly played a role in UConn's limited 2011 performance, but there were some distinct liabilities on the roster. The Huskies could never find a solid quarterback, couldn't protect whoever was behind center and suffered from severe defensive depth issues that hurt them as games (and the season) progressed. Pasqualoni certainly hopes that some interesting transfers and another year of his (and his staff's) coaching can cure some ills, but how many?

Offense

Aside from a random surge in 2009 fueled by two 1,000-yard rushers, UConn's offense has never been particularly amazing. The Huskies ranked 81st in Off. F/+ in 2007, 83rd in 2008, 12th in 2009 and 77th in 2010. So as mean as it may sound, it wasn't particularly surprising to see the Huskies struggle to move the ball in 2011 (83rd) under new management.Only solid red zone management and a fantastic field goal kicker saved the Huskies from seriously poor scoring numbers. But while the passing game has been an issue for a while, the running game's total collapse, from 41st in Rushing S&P+ to 100th, was still a bit surprising. No matter the back, UConn's run game had been solid for a while, and over the course of 23 carries per game, then-freshman Lyle McCombs did manage to rack up 1,151 yards. But he didn't face too many stout defenses, and he got very little help from a previously great line.

Make no mistake: compared to the passing game, the run was a relative strength. McCombs was durable for a small back (5'8, 172 pounds), but injuries and general ineffectiveness on the line dropped UConn's Adj. Line Yards ranking from 24th to 73rd. (And this says nothing of a pass-blocking unit that ranked 112th in Adj. Sack Rate.) I expected great things from the Huskies' line, and they just didn't materialize. And now the line must rebound without the services of all-conference center (and four-year starter) Moe Petrus and tackle Mike Ryan. Five players return with starting experience (48 career starts), but two -- guard Adam Masters (23 starts) and 6'9 tackle Jimmy Bennett (three) -- missed the spring with injury. Masters should be healthy this fall, but Bennett has struggled with chronic injuries in his time at UC.

A healthy, effective line would be a bonus for any number of reasons. Not only could it make McCombs a 1,300- or 1,500-yard rusher, but it could also do obvious good things for whoever wins the starting quarterback job. UConn is evidently in the midst of the rare five-player race for the top spot behind center, though the race does appear to have a favorite: former four-star Illinois signee Chandler Whitmer, who had a decent spring while trying to get up to speed learning the offense. (The picture in that article, by the way, makes Whitmer look about 4'9. Pretty sure he isn't.) Johnny McEntee (of YouTube fame) failed to make the most of his opportunities in 2011 -- he completed just 51 percent of his passes and was sacked 10 percent of the time -- but neither did then-freshmen Michael Nebrich or Scott McCummings. Throw in high-three-star freshman Casey Cochran, and you've got either a mess or great depth, depending on your level of optimism. McCummings is a good runner and could see time in a Wildcat-esque package, but one would think that the smart money is on either Whitmer or McEntee.

A new receiving corps awaits the quarterback as well. Last year, 42 percent of all UConn passes targeted either Isiah Moore or Kashif Moore, who combined for decent, if unspectacular numbers: a 58 percent catch rate, 14.2 yards per catch. Nobody else managed even a 55 percent catch rate, however. This year, 2010's leading receiver, Michael Smith (54 percent catch rate, 13.4 yards per catch), returns after a year of academic ineligibility and is joined by two reasonably interesting transfers (and former four-star recruits): senior (and former Clemson Tiger) Bryce McNeal and sophomore (and former Boston College Eagle) Shakim Phillips. They will join Smith and a couple of last year's second-stringers (senior Nick Williams, sophomores Tebucky Jones and Geremy Davis) in attempting to make something out of what was a two-man, mostly ineffective passing game.

Defense

If there was a bright side for UConn in 2011, it's that the defensive line improved as much as the offensive line regressed. UConn improved from 63rd to fourth in Adj. Line Yards and from 106th to 48th in Adj. Sack Rate. Tackle Kendall Reyes took his play to a new level, recording 13.5 tackles for loss and getting strong help from fellow tackle Tywon Martin (9.5 tackles for loss). End Trevardo Williams, meanwhile, came out of relative nowhere to provide a level of pass rush (12.5 sacks) that the Huskies didn't have in 2010. As a result, the Huskies ranked 10th in Rushing S&P+ and 34th in Passing Downs S&P+, perfectly solid totals. But when Williams didn't make the sack, UConn's banged-up secondary was probably getting burned. Corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson was hobbled for a good portion of the season, and his counterpart, Dwayne Gratz, struggled at times. Safety Jerome Junior was decent, but the next two leading safeties (Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown) were each two-star freshmen and played like it. (That's not entirely fair -- Brown did defend 10 passes; he had his moments.)

The good news is that, despite the unexpected dismissal of Junior this spring, the foursome of Jones, Brown, Gratz and a healthy Wreh-Wilson should make for an improved secondary despite thinned-out depth. The bad news: both Reyes and Martin are gone up front. Tackle Ryan Wirth had a good spring, and Shamar Stephen has had his moments, but the Huskies' line rankings will almost certainly regress. That, of course, means the secondary will have to improve just to match the regression.

There is more good news, however: the entire linebacking corps returns intact. Outside linebackers Jory Johnson and Sio Moore combined for 23 tackles for loss and 15 passes defended last year; both return, as does sophomore middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood. The three combined for 32 percent of UConn's tackles last year. Plus, they will be joined by Maryland transfer Ryan Donohue (who on the east coast doesn't have a Maryland transfer on their roster now?), three-star redshirt freshmen Jefferson Ashiru and Marquise Vann, and incoming three-star freshmen Jazzmar Cox and Jason Sylva. This is important. Depth was a severe concern for the UConn front seven in 2011 -- the top three linebackers combined for 206.5 tackles, and the next three combined for 17.5, plus only five defensive linemen made more than 12.0 tackles. It probably isn't a coincidence, then, that UConn's defense ranked 31st in the first quarter, 26th in the second, 73rd in the third and 72nd in the fourth. Better depth (and, of course, an offense that can do a better job of staying on the field) could help tremendously, and while the depth may still be questionable on the line and in the secondary, the Johnson-Moore-Smallwood trio at least will not be asked to do quite as much this fall.

Defining Success

As with most Big East teams, UConn faces an oddly tiered schedule in 2012. Only one opponent is projected to rank higher than 40th, but eight are projected between 40th and 75th. If Pasqualoni and company can improve the Huskies to around 50th, then up to eight or nine games are exceedingly winnable. But if they fall around 70th or so, they could end up about 3-9. Naturally, we will split the difference and simply say that if UConn can get back up into the six- or seven-win range, 2012 was a rousing success.

Prognosis

The drop-off of 2011 probably felt like more than it actually was, honestly. UConn fell from just 55th to 61st in overall F/+, with defensive gains offsetting most offensive losses. But after going 3-1 in one-possession games in 2011 and sneaking out a Big East title at 8-4, UConn went just 2-4 in such games last year and fell to 5-7.

In 2012, it will probably be much the same. Though it is difficult to get too excited about this roster as compared to where Charlie Strong is taking Louisville, and where Kyle Flood might be positioned to take Rutgers (and we haven't even talked about South Florida yet), it isn't too hard to see UConn scraping by with a 6-6 or 7-5 living under Pasqualoni. They return 16 starters this year and are positioned to return approximately another 12 or 13 next year. There are potentially exciting young players like Lyle McCombs, Chandler Whitmer, Shakim Phillips, Yawin Smallwood and Ty-Meer Brown kicking around, but UConn faces the same problem as Syracuse: there is enough upside to expect decent things in the future, but others' young players simply seem a little better. Pasqualoni should milk a decent amount of potential out of his roster, but the conservative nature shown in hiring Pasqualoni in the first place probably ensured that the Huskies won't have as much potential as other conference mates, especially when Boise State, Houston, et cetera, come aboard.

For more on Huskies football, visit UConn blog The UConn Blog, plus Big East blog Big East Coast Bias.

While we’re here, let’s watch some college football videos from SB Nation’s new YouTube channel together:

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