Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. Perfectly Average, part 3
Over the course of the 2013 preview series (123 down, two to go!), I've predictably come across a few themes to revisit from time to time. One is the battle for the title of Most Perfectly Average Program.
Washington has put together a sterling c.v. through the years; outside of a bad outlier in 2008, the Huskies have ranked between 50th and 70th in six of the last seven years. NC State's certainly a stalwart competitor in this weight class as well, having posted rankings between 58th and 65th in six of seven years. Now that's average!
But a new contender has emerged of late and is putting together some spectacularly average numbers.
Randy Edsall caught lightning in a bottle at UConn for a bit, ranking 32nd, 29th, and 34th from 2007-09. His 2007-08 offenses were good to very good, as were his 2007 and 2009 defenses. The Huskies faded quite a bit in 2010, however -- a strange thing to say about a team that shared the conference title and went to the Fiesta Bowl -- falling to 63rd. In 2011, Paul Pasqualoni's first team was 54th. His second was 61st in 2012.
Actual F/+ ratings for UConn over the last three seasons: minus-1.4 percent, 1.4 percent, and 0.0 percent. That's … that's perfectly average.
The Pasqualoni hire basically screamed, "We just don't want to be terrible." Pasqualoni hadn't been at the helm of a truly good college football team since 2001; he went 16-20 in his last three years at Syracuse, then spent a while as an assistant in the professional ranks. And to his credit, he has indeed fielded two UConn teams that were most certainly not terrible. But they weren't good either. They've basically been a worse Rutgers.
2. The problem is pretty obvious
Husky defenses have been mostly stellar under the leadership of the 64-year-old home-stater, but offense has been optional. The Huskies have won 73 percent of their games in the last two years when they score at least 23 points (national scoring average in college football last year: 28 points), but they've only done so 11 times in 24 games.
UConn ranked 81st in Off. F/+ in Edsall's last season, but that ranking has fallen to 96th and 107th in the Pasqualoni era. (Can you call two years an era?) To fix the offense's woes, Pasqualoni has now turned to T.J. Weist, who has good programs (grad assistant at Alabama and Michigan, 1988-93) and good titles (offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky, 2003-06) on his résumé. Weist spent the last three seasons as Cincinnati's receivers coach under Butch Jones.
Thus far, most quotes from Weist focus on execution, energy, and detail over system change ("It's somewhat of a different offense. … I just added some stuff to it."). SB Nation's The UConn Blog went into a bit more detail here:
In response, Weist has, as told by players, simplified their approach. In addition, he’s taken terminology from the old playbook and put it in his own for this upcoming season. The team is going to take a fewer amount of concepts and practice them at a higher rate to become more proficient, instead spending their time sampling many styles of play. […]
I’d bet you season tickets for the next decade that outside of the spread style he favors, one of the biggest reasons Weist was hired by Pasqualoni was because of his past experience teaching pro-style concepts. Yes, he’s been coaching in a spread system for longer than a decade and that’s all we’ve heard about. But, it wasn’t always like that. […]
This system is not the lightning-fast spread offense you see at Oregon. It is not the pass-happy Air Raid attack used throughout the Big 12. Weist’s spread is also most definitely is not the run-first spread used by the old national title Florida teams and new Urban Meyer-led squads at Ohio State.
This is a refined, slightly altered version of the original one-back spread that really took flight in the late-'90s thanks to coaches like Dennis Erickson and Noel Mazzone. Yet, through the years and all types of variations made by coaches everywhere, the core concepts remain relatively the same.
Yes, he has some spread experience in his past, and when an offense is this bad, complete change might make you feel good, but considering the personnel is almost exactly the same from last year's young squad, perhaps this is okay for now. Or perhaps there just isn't enough talent. I lean toward the latter, but we'll find out soon enough.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 61|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||Massachusetts||37-0||W||20.7 - (-3.4)||W|
|8-Sep||N.C. State||7-10||L||16.8 - 15.1||W|
|15-Sep||at Maryland||24-21||W||18.9 - 19.5||L|
|22-Sep||at Western Michigan||24-30||L||27.6 - 17.6||W|
|29-Sep||Buffalo||24-17||W||30.0 - 23.0||W|
|6-Oct||at Rutgers||3-19||L||21.2 - 26.3||L|
|13-Oct||Temple||14-17||L||15.2 - 19.5||L|
|19-Oct||at Syracuse||10-40||L||21.6 - 32.3||L|
|3-Nov||at South Florida||6-13||L||17.8 - 20.4||L|
|9-Nov||Pittsburgh||24-17||W||31.8 - 26.6||W|
|24-Nov||at Louisville||23-20||W||15.1 - 16.3||L|
|1-Dec||Cincinnati||17-34||L||20.4 - 25.0||L|
|Points Per Game||17.8||121||19.8||19|
|Adj. Points Per Game||21.4||115||19.8||10|
3. Win at Louisville, lose at home to Temple
Really, the 2012 season didn't make much sense. That UConn was able to lose at home to Temple and win at Louisville certainly spelled that out pretty clearly, but the stats just make things more confusing. For five weeks, UConn was actually a pretty good team; the offense was still bad, but the defense was nearly untouchable. But even while playing well overall, the Huskies still figured out how to lose to a pretty bad WMU team while outgaining the Broncos by 90 yards. A couple of months later, UConn beat Louisville while getting outgained by 160 yards.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): UConn 22.8, Opponent 14.4 (plus-8.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 7 games): Opponent 23.8, UConn 20.4 (minus-3.4)
Actually, let's just move on. These numbers aren't going to make sense no matter how long we look at them.
|Q1 Rk||106||1st Down Rk||120|
|Q2 Rk||65||2nd Down Rk||74|
|Q3 Rk||123||3rd Down Rk||109|
4. Better game plans would be a start
T.J. Weist isn't exactly trying to install an Air Raid offense here. He seems to understand that UConn isn't going to draw much blue-chip offensive talent (and that there isn't a wealth of spread receivers in the northeast), and he has focused most of his efforts on sharpness and execution. That's fine. But if he can put together better game plans and coax better early execution out of the Huskies, that will certainly be a good first step toward improvement. Connecticut ranked 121st in Standard Downs S&P+, 123rd in Rushing S&P+, 120th in first-down S&P+, and 106th in first-quarter S&P+. Thanks to a pretty solid Chandler Whitmer-to-Geremy Davis combination, the Huskies were actually occasionally able to dig out of second- or third-and-long holes. But they were basically just forfeiting first downs, unable to move the ball forward on the ground and unable to find a reliable second weapon to do damage alongside Davis.
Be it better execution on the ground, frequent use of the slot receiver (probably junior Deshon Foxx), or anything else, UConn simply has to do a better job of stealing yards on standard downs. If Weist can uncover more second-and-5s and fewer second-and-10s, things will fall into place pretty quickly. But I'm not completely sure how he might do that.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Chandler Whitmer||6'1, 193||Jr.||**** (5.8)||208||361||2,664||57.6%||9||16||33||8.4%||6.2|
|Scott McCummings||6'3, 257||Jr.||** (5.4)||1||2||2||50.0%||0||0||0||0.0%||1.0|
|Casey Cochran||6'1, 226||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Tim Boyle||6'4, 216||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Lyle McCombs||RB||5'8, 175||Jr.||** (5.3)||243||860||3.5||3.1||6||-30.8|
|Scott McCummings||QB||6'3, 257||Jr.||** (5.4)||39||132||3.4||5.4||2||-4.6|
|Max DeLorenzo||RB||6'0, 207||So.||** (5.4)||36||119||3.3||5.2||0||-7.0|
|Chandler Whitmer||QB||6'1, 193||Jr.||**** (5.8)||30||60||2.0||3.4||0||-10.3|
|Martin Hyppolite||FB||6'0, 217||Sr.||** (5.2)||19||69||3.6||22.2||1||-0.9|
5. You can't be 5'8, 175 with no explosiveness
Jordan Todman … Donald Brown … if you remember the name of a former UConn offensive star, you're probably remembering a running back. Just thinking about the talent of the region, it's probably easier to build a competent offense around the run in the Northeast. Instead, UConn had the second-worst run game in the country last season. That's unfathomable.
What's more unfathomable is that UConn had the second-worst run game in the country despite decent line stats. The Huskies ranked 37th in Adj. Line Yards despite a banged up, shuffled line, seemingly creating a few opportunities for running back Lyle McCombs. (Pass blocking was a different story.) Either that was a statistical mirage, or McCombs failed to do anything with the chances.
We know that McCombs had a pretty bad 2012 campaign for a number of reasons, but even in 2011, as he was rushing for 1,151 yards and seven scores as a freshman, his highlight yardage was only 4.4 yards per opportunity. (Quick primer: highlight yardage basically documents the yards you get when the line gets you at least five yards downfield. Though it's obviously a generalization, the line is given credit for the first five yards of a run and given half-credit for the next five.) Anything under 5.0 is pretty bad on the highlight scale, and while McCombs has been impressively durable in his career thus far (22.5 carries per game, only one missed game in two years), his stats give the impression of a Le'Veon Bell-style runner. Bell has five inches and 70 pounds on McCombs.
It appears McCombs and backup Max DeLorenzo are the go-to backs again this year; DeLorenzo showed at least a hint of explosiveness as a freshman, but if the run game is going to improve, it will probably be because of play-calling and the exploits of a healthy, experienced line. Six players with starting experience return (77 career starts), and they're big. These six average 6'5, 312 pounds, and with some semblance of continuity, they could crack into the top-30 in run blocking. They'll just need a back who helps them out.
|Geremy Davis||WR||6'3, 215||Jr.||*** (5.5)||71||44||613||62.0%||8.6||19.8%||52.1%||8.6||79.9|
|Shakim Phillips||WR||6'2, 209||Jr.||**** (5.8)||57||32||399||56.1%||7.0||15.9%||40.4%||7.0||52.0|
|Lyle McCombs||RB||5'8, 175||Jr.||** (5.3)||38||24||230||63.2%||6.1||10.6%||50.0%||6.6||30.0|
|Martin Hyppolite||FB||6'0, 217||Sr.||** (5.2)||5||1||10||20.0%||2.0||1.4%||0.0%||1.3||1.3|
|Spencer Parker||TE||6'4, 228||Sr.||NR|
|Deshon Foxx||WR||5'10, 172||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Kamal Abrams||WR||5'11, 186||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Sean McQuillan||TE||6'4, 237||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Dhameer Bradley||WR||5'9, 168||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Brian Lemelle||WR||5'10, 160||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
6. Find complements for Davis
Chandler Whitmer, a former star recruit and Illinois transfer, was doomed by plenty of his own mistakes in 2012; he took far too many sacks, even on standard downs, and his interception rate (4.4 percent) was about twice as high as it should be. Still, like McCombs, he was only a sophomore. And when he was making the right reads (in the right amount of time), he was able to find a nice connection with Geremy Davis (another 2012 sophomore) and a pair of pretty solid tight ends -- Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt combined for 9.8 yards per target on about six targets per game. But both tight ends are gone, as are No. 3 and No. 4 targets Michael Smith and Nick Williams.
Sean McQuillan and Spencer Parker actually have a pretty high bar to clear at tight end, but beyond BC transfer Shakim Phillips, there is next to no experience at the receiver position. Guys like Foxx and Kamal Abrams aren't exactly replacing All-Americans, but they're still unknowns. Whitmer needs some high-percentage weapons to go alongside Davis, wherever they may come from.
|Adam Masters||RG||30 career starts|
|Kevin Friend||RT||6'6, 317||Sr.||** (5.1)||25 career starts|
|Steve Greene||LG||6'5, 308||Sr.||*** (5.6)||20 career starts|
|Jimmy Bennett||LT||6'9, 307||Sr.||*** (5.7)||15 career starts|
|Tyler Bullock||C||6'4, 316||Sr.||** (5.1)||8 career starts|
|Gus Cruz||RG||6'4, 309||Jr.||** (5.0)||5 career starts|
|Alex Mateas||C||6'4, 315||Jr.||NR||4 career starts|
|Bryan Paull||C||6'4, 304||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Xavier Hemingway||RT||6'5, 273||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Dalton Gifford||LT||6'5, 309||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Tyler Samra||LG||6'2, 299||So.||** (5.4)|
|Zach Rugg||LG||6'5, 301||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Kyle Schafenacker||RG||6'3, 290||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Q1 Rk||11||1st Down Rk||5|
|Q2 Rk||23||2nd Down Rk||70|
|Q3 Rk||21||3rd Down Rk||26|
7. System vs. talent
The improvement was immediate. Pasqualoni and new defensive coordinator Don Brown inherited a UConn defense that had fallen to 58th in Def. F/+ in 2009 and 50th in 2010, and engineered a surge right back into the top 30, where the Huskies had resided in both 2007 and 2008. The 2012 defense was every bit as good on standard downs as its offense was bad, constantly slicing into the backfield to stop the run, generating a solid pass rush, and swarming with one of the nation's linebacking corps. Despite an offense that was, at its best, almost a touchdown worse than average, the defense got the Huskies to within a single game of bowl eligibility.
How much of this solid defensive play was due to talent Pasqualoni inherited, how much was due to Don Brown, and how much was due to Pasqualoni himself? If the answer to the last question is "quite a bit," then the UConn defense should remain pretty strong in 2013.
But the more heavily you lean on the first two factors there, the more question marks emerge. Because two-thirds of UConn's stellar linebacking corps, along with the two leading tacklers on the line (and both starting cornerbacks, for that matter) are gone. And so is Brown, having been lured away by the seductive Steve Addazio at Boston College.
Hank Hughes takes over for Brown in the D.C. role, one he held for Edsall a few years back (before staying on staff as assistant head coach when Pasqualoni came aboard), so continuity won't be a huge problem there. Still, the more you think individual talent matters (both in coaching and on the field), the more you might doubt this year's defense.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Shamar Stephen||DT||6'5, 313||Sr.||** (4.9)||10||20.0||3.1%||2||0||0||4||0||0|
|Angelo Pruitt||DE||6'3, 297||Jr.||** (5.2)||12||19.5||3.0%||4||1||0||1||0||1|
|Tim Willman||DE||6'4, 267||Sr.||** (5.3)||12||16.0||2.5%||8||3||0||0||0||0|
|Jesse Joseph||DE||6'3, 262||Sr.||** (5.0)||3||8.5||1.3%||1.5||1||0||0||0||0|
|Julian Campenni||DT||6'0, 298||So.||** (5.3)||10||7.5||1.2%||2.5||1||0||0||0||0|
|B.J. McBryde||DE||6'5, 318||Jr.||** (5.2)||10||4.5||0.7%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Elijah Norris||DE||6'3, 238||So.||** (5.4)||7||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Reuben Frank||DE||6'3, 246||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Mikal Myers||DT||6'0, 295||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Yawin Smallwood||ILB||6'4, 236||Jr.||*** (5.5)||12||89.5||13.8%||15||4||0||4||2||1|
|Brandon Steg||ILB||6'2, 228||Jr.||** (5.4)||12||7.0||1.1%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Jefferson Ashiru||OLB||6'2, 233||So.||*** (5.6)||9||7.0||1.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Marquise Vann||ILB||6'0, 232||So.||*** (5.5)||10||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Ryan Donohue||ILB||6'0, 239||Sr.||*** (5.5)||5||3.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|OLB||6'2, 236||So.||**** (5.8)||12||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
8. Loads of potential, minimal experience
Pasqualoni still has some strong pieces -- inside linebacker Yawin Smallwood is one of the best in America, end Tim Willman has potential as a strong pass rusher, Florida transfer Graham Stewart has a pedigree and has evidently thrived in fall practice (yes, against the UConn offense, but still) -- but he has fewer of them than he did a year ago. At least, he has fewer known entities. Last year's starting linebackers accounted for 91 percent of the unit's tackles; Brandon Steg, Jefferson Ahiru, Marquise Vann, and Ryan Donohue combined to log less than one-fourth the number of tackles as Smallwood.
Meanwhile, after tackle Jesse Joseph tore his Achilles, UConn played basically five linemen. Some coaches just don't use their bench much -- UCF's George O'Leary, to name one -- so we don't know if these starter-heavy minutes came because of philosophy or fear of the second string. We know that he had a similarly small rotation in 2011, and after losing two starting tackles, the 2012 line got even better. So there's hope for players like Donohue, Steg, Willman, etc.; it just comes with a leap of faith.
(By the way, this complete lack of bench play might explain why UConn's defense, though still pretty good late in games, got worse as the game progressed.)
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Byron Jones||CB||6'1, 191||Jr.||** (5.4)||12||64.0||9.9%||1.5||0||1||2||0||0|
|Ty-Meer Brown||S||6'0, 201||Jr.||** (5.3)||12||41.0||6.3%||0.5||0||1||4||0||0|
|Taylor Mack||CB||5'9, 175||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||22.5||3.5%||1||0||0||4||0||0|
|Andrew Adams||S||6'0, 199||So.||** (5.4)||10||17.5||2.7%||2||0||0||4||0||1|
|Wilbert Lee||S||6'1, 207||So.||** (5.4)||11||6.5||1.0%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|David Stevenson||CB||5'9, 170||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Jhavon Williams||CB||5'11, 191||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Ellis Marder||CB||6'1, 195||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Obi Melifonwu||S||6'4, 208||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
9. The stats didn't add up
Blidi Wreh-Wilson missed five games in two years, but he had one of the better ratios of passes defensed to tackles made that you're going to find. He picked off three passes and broke up 16 more (stone hands) while recording 69 tackles, which means, as always, that he was either great at preventing his man from catching the ball or bad at tackling his man. Regardless, Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz, another active cornerback (eight tackles for loss, 21 passes defensed), are both gone, and that seems like a bad thing. But I'm wondering if some new blood might not be a bad thing; despite superb on-ball defensive numbers and a top 25 pass rush, UConn was still just 51st in Passing Downs S&P+; the Huskies had one of the best standard downs defenses in the country but suffered quite a few breakdowns on second- and third-and-long.
Safety Byron Jones has moved to corner, and senior corner Taylor Mack got decent experience last year (a whopping six defensive backs saw serious minutes!), so the cornerbacks unit isn't exactly starting over. But young (and big) safety Obi Melifonwu appears to have solidified a starting spot alongside Ty-Meer Brown, and young corners Jhavon Williams and Ellis Marder have also shoved their way into a potential rotation role (to the extent that Pasqualoni actually uses a rotation). This might not be a bad thing.
|Cole Wagner||6'3, 211||Sr.||78||40.5||8||18||25||55.1%|
|Chad Christen||6'1, 188||Sr.||43||62.5||16||37.2%|
|Bobby Puyol||5'10, 176||So.||4||53.5||0||0.0%|
|Chad Christen||6'1, 188||Sr.||22-22||12-14||85.7%||2-7||28.6%|
|Bobby Puyol||5'10, 176||So.||2-2||0-0||0.0%||1-1||100.0%|
|Taylor Mack||KR||5'9, 175||Sr.||6||16.3||0|
|Taylor Mack||PR||5'9, 175||Sr.||1||21.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||45|
|Field Goal Pct||74|
|Kick Returns Avg||96|
|Punt Returns Avg||18|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|26-Oct||at Central Florida||55|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||43|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||73|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-14 / -3.2|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (8, 5)|
10. It's not as dire as it may seem
As good as the defense was in 2012, it was almost a lot more successful. The Huskies defensed a solid 64 passes last year but somehow picked off only six of them. Typically about 21 percent of your defensed passes result in interceptions; for UConn, it was under nine percent. The Huskies also only recovered 41 percent of all fumbles, meaning that they had some of the worst turnovers luck in the country, losing almost five points per game to bad bounces in a season that saw them lose four games by a touchdown or less. Despite the wretched offense, UConn wasn't far away from being about as successful as Rutgers, basically.
Like Rutgers, however, the Huskies now have to hope that said wretched offense improves enough to offset potential defensive regression. Pasqualoni has a track record for good defense, but he really does have to replace a lot of talent, particularly at linebacker and on the coaching staff. If T.J. Weist can pull off a magic act, maybe that doesn't matter. But that's an enormous if.
For what it's worth, the schedule should help in UConn's quest to get back to a bowl, even with the question marks. At least five home games are winnable, and both Michigan and Louisville have just enough issues that I'm sure UConn fans can talk themselves into having a chance there too. (Hey, they did take down the Cardinals last year...)
If the Huskies go just 4-3 at home and take down Buffalo and either SMU or Temple on the road, that's six wins. I have no faith in the offense, and I think I'm justified in that, but I do think the schedule caters to six wins. We'll set the bar there. And that will feel like improvement even if it really isn't.