Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.
1. A big, physical foundation
A coach's abbreviated first class is often a space-filler before the real work. But for Bob Diaco and the roster he inherited, it was a different story. Nine of the 16 played as true freshmen, even two offensive linemen.
The program Diaco inherited had been flagging. Too good defensively to bottom out, the Huskies had regressed for four years. If it turns out that Diaco knows what he's doing -- how to recruit, develop players, put them in position to succeed -- then we'll look back at 2014 as a necessary Year Zero, a reset for a program in need of one.
There was almost nothing redeeming about the 2014 team, but if you are going to stink, you might as well stink with a young team. And if you turn things around, no one's going to care that you started 2-10.
UConn had regressed, at least a little bit, for five consecutive years heading into 2015. That's both difficult to do and terrifying. The entire, ill-advised Paul Pasqualoni era had been one of minor slippage, but the fifth year of regression had a purpose.
When former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco arrived on campus in 2014, he basically stripped the depth chart down to its studs. He played a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, and UConn went from playing semi-competitive, pointless football to stinking for a cause.
In 2015, we came to understand that purpose. Granted, the Huskies' offense was still bad -- after ranking 31st in Off. S&P+ in 2009, they have now ranked 94th or worse for five consecutive years and 113th or worse for four straight -- but the defense was legitimately strong. The Huskies rose back to 38th in Def. S&P+ and, with help from a plodding tempo, held eight opponents to 17 or fewer points. And they pulled off this improvement with help from a lot of sophomores and juniors.
Last year we caught glimpses of what Diaco is attempting to build. As it did in South Bend, Diaco's defense intends to combine bend-don't-break principles with fantastic red zone defense and the ability to punish any and every mistake the offense makes. That style of defense isn't as fun as attack-attack-attack, but it can be very effective.
Meanwhile, the offense is going to be a Northeastern special, loaded with size, run-first principles, an old-school tempo, and the ability to bruise.
The offense isn't where it needs to be for UConn to become a true AAC East contender, and maybe it will never get there. But with progress on only one side of the ball, the Huskies still reached a bowl for the first time in five years last fall, and the offense returns nearly contributor. Even if there's still a low ceiling in place, there's no reason to think UConn can't take another step forward in Diaco's third year.
Bottoming out can serve a purpose. If you lose with youth and manage to keep morale from getting too low and turnover from getting too high, those younger players could eventually grow into the example you want to set for your program.
|Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 5-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 80 | Final S&P+ Rk: 87|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|10-Oct||at Central Florida||128||40-13||W||75%||99%||+19.0||+30.0|
|Points Per Game||17.2||122||19.5||15|
2. Upside emerged
UConn was very good at forcing opponents to play by the Huskies' rules in 2015. That didn't always result in a win -- in fact, with the bowl game, the Huskies still lost more than they won -- but with limited upside on offense, defining the terms of the game gave their defense the best chance to compete and stay fresh.
This team wanted to give you the fewest possible opportunities to get ahead, and from the perspective of underdog tactics, slowing the game to a crawl is a pretty good one.
It becomes an even better approach when you can move the ball at least a little bit. And if you squint, you can maybe see signs of offensive improvement ... as long as you ignore the ending of the season, anyway.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 5 games): 32% (~top 90) | Record: 2-3 | Average score: Opp 20, UConn 16 | Yards per play: Opp 5.1, UConn 4.9
- Average Percentile Performance (next 6 games): 60% (~top 50) | Record: 4-2 | Average score: UConn 22, Opp 19 | Yards per play: Opp 5.4, UConn 5.3
- Average Percentile Performance (last 2 games): 22% (~top 100) | Record: 0-2 | Average score: Opp 22, UConn 7 | Yards per play: Opp 4.9, UConn 3.6
A little bit of an offensive boost in the middle of the year -- the Huskies averaged 6.3 yards per play against UCF, 6.6 against USF, and 6.2 against ECU -- had an immense impact. Granted, there were duds against Cincinnati and Tulane scattered in there, but the simple ability to hit even 20 points made a significant difference. In fact, it made all the difference: UConn was 5-1 when scoring at least 20 points and 1-6 when falling short of that mark.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||38.6%||101||Succ. Rt. +||95.0||91|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||29.9||68||Def. FP+||30.2||79|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||3.7||116||Redzone S&P+||97.7||81|
|Q1 Rk||96||1st Down Rk||104|
|Q2 Rk||97||2nd Down Rk||83|
|Q3 Rk||79||3rd Down Rk||94|
3. Staying out of the defense's way
After the offense's dismal showing in 2014, Diaco shuffled his staff around a bit, moving offensive coordinator Mike Cummings to more of a co-coordinator role and handing the main coordinator title to Frank Verducci. This was the first coordinator role for the 35-year coaching veteran; Verducci had spent almost his entire career as either an offensive line or tight ends coach. He was an Iowa grad assistant when Diaco was playing for Hayden Fry, and he ended up spending a full decade coaching under Fry before taking on a new job about every year since.
It appears he's staying for a second year at UConn -- the first time he's held the same job in back-to-back campaigns since 2007-08 -- which suggests that he delivered a lot of what Diaco wanted in 2015.
The identity was clear last fall even if the results were lacking. UConn was going to take minimal risks, run the ball frequently, eat as much clock as possible, and occasionally try to get quarterback Bryant Shirreffs on the edge where he could make some plays. Shirreffs completed 60 percent of his passes and gained at least five yards on 57 percent of his non-sack carries. He got hurt against Houston and missed the dud against Temple, but it probably shouldn't be a surprise that his three best games were UCF (185.5 passer rating), USF (146.2), and ECU (136.9).
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Bryant Shirreffs||6'2, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7444||168||279||2078||9||8||60.2%||34||10.9%||6.1|
|Garrett Anderson||6'1, 224||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||2||2||53||1||0||100.0%||1||33.3%||15.7|
|Tyler Davis||6'4, 231||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8005|
|Donovan Williams||6'4, 205||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8348|
|Arkeel Newsome||RB||5'7, 180||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8519||183||792||6||4.3||5.1||33.3%||1||1|
|Bryant Shirreffs||QB||6'2, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7444||120||662||3||5.5||3.1||56.7%||7||3|
|Ron Johnson||RB||5'11, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8106||88||224||5||2.5||3.2||26.1%||2||1|
|Noel Thomas||WR||6'1, 199||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8414||5||22||0||4.4||2.0||60.0%||0||0|
|Nate Hopkins||RB||6'0, 212||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8214|
4. Shirreffs needs help from the run game
Shirreffs was decent if inconsistent, but UConn's biggest problem was that it was a run-first offense that couldn't run very well. Running backs Arkeel Newsome, Ron Johnson, Josh Marriner, and Max DeLorenzo combined to average 23 carries per game but averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. Only 30 percent of their carries gained even five yards, which meant that the primary purpose of these 23 carries per game was killing about 40 seconds of game clock.
Newsome did show a little bit of explosiveness on the rare occasion that he saw open field. His average of 5.1 highlight yards per opportunity was solid, and he averaged 8 yards per target out of the backfield, good for a running back. At 5'7, 180, he isn't the prototype water-carrier, but he's an asset overall. If he can improve enough to prevent Shirreffs from throwing most of his passes on second- or third-and-long, then a seasoned passing game would benefit greatly.
UConn returns two decent receivers in Noel Thomas and Tyraiq Beals (and a lot is expected of sophomore Hergy Mayala) and two efficient tight ends in Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers. Each of last year's top six targets are back, but down-and-distance need to favor this group a bit more than it did last year, through either more varied play-calling (and, in theory, more first-down passing) or.more effective rushing. Shirreffs' dual-threat nature already opens him up to sacks and hits, but having him pass mostly in obvious-pass situations doubles that risk.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Noel Thomas||WR||6'1, 199||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8414||92||54||719||58.7%||28.7%||7.8||55.4%||51.1%||1.38|
|Arkeel Newsome||RB||5'7, 180||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8519||58||45||465||77.6%||18.1%||8.0||53.4%||41.4%||1.79|
|Alec Bloom||TE||6'6, 257||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8056||36||22||314||61.1%||11.2%||8.7||47.2%||50.0%||1.56|
|Tyraiq Beals||WR||6'0, 183||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7933||32||24||275||75.0%||10.0%||8.6||43.8%||43.8%||1.94|
|Tommy Myers||TE||6'5, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7818||20||16||232||80.0%||6.2%||11.6||65.0%||65.0%||1.59|
|Hergy Mayala||WR||6'2, 203||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8126||20||7||80||35.0%||6.2%||4.0||70.0%||30.0%||1.26|
|Aaron McLean||WR||6'5, 220||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7826||6||4||56||66.7%||1.9%||9.3||16.7%||33.3%||2.32|
|Ron Johnson||RB||5'11, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8106||6||4||29||66.7%||1.9%||4.8||16.7%||16.7%||2.40|
|Brian Lemelle||WR||5'10, 170||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8522||2||2||27||100.0%||0.6%||13.5||50.0%||100.0%||1.07|
|Chris Lee||TE||6'7, 257||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7908|
|Frank Battle||WR||6'5, 193||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8076|
|Zordan Holman||TE||6'5, 250||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7633|
|Quayvon Skanes||WR||5'10, 175||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8309|
|Jay Rose||TE||6'4, 225||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8261|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Richard Levy||RG||6'6, 316||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519||13||25|
|Andreas Knappe||RT||6'8, 319||Sr.||NR||NR||13||20|
|Brendan Vechery||RG/C||6'6, 307||Jr.||NR||NR||13||13|
|Tommy Hopkins||LG||6'6, 316||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7995||11||11|
|Ryan Crozier||C||6'4, 296||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7811||0||3|
|Trey Rutherford||RG||6'5, 309||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7808||2||2|
|Matt Peart||LT||6'7, 291||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7683||0||0|
|Steve Hashemi||LG||6'6, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7433||0||0|
|Daniel Oak||C||6'3, 295||So.||NR||0.7000||0||0|
|Kyle Schafenacker||OL||6'3, 282||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8425||0||0|
|Cameron DeGeorge||OL||6'5, 260||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8466|
|Nino Leone||OL||6'5, 335||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7979|
5. Real, real big
Simply having a big line doesn't mean you have a good line. Indeed, a full quarter of UConn's rushes were stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage, and the Huskies had one of the eight worst adjusted sack rates in the country. Even though running backs and Shirreffs almost certainly contributed to those poor stats ... these are really poor stats. With minimal help, the line still wasn't good enough.
But if you're going to stink, you might as well stink while making opponents run a long way to get around you.
Above, I list 12 offensive linemen, 10 of whom are returnees. Nine of the 12 are at least 6'5, and five of six with starting experience are at least 307 pounds. That's some solid beef, and the experience of the beef is a bit stronger than it was last year. UConn entered 2015 with 35 returning career starts; the Huskies boast 52 this time around. This only means so much if the talent isn't there, but it is a sign of what Diaco, Verducci and Cummings want to build.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||39.6%||53||Succ. Rt. +||101.2||63|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.4||81||Off. FP+||28.7||93|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||3.5||11||Redzone S&P+||114.8||21|
|Q1 Rk||45||1st Down Rk||82|
|Q2 Rk||67||2nd Down Rk||90|
|Q3 Rk||57||3rd Down Rk||35|
6. Major improvement on D
Only 13 teams allowed fewer 30-yard gains than UConn, only three gave up fewer 30-yard passes, and only 10 allowed fewer points per scoring opportunity. Despite a little bit of inefficiency versus the pass (and a pass rush that didn't help out just a ton), UConn pulled off a respond-and-react style of defense quite well in 2015. The Huskies stiffened when the goal line came within view, and few defenses did as well in short-yardage situations.
Few defenses improved more than UConn's in 2015. The Huskies basically lopped a touchdown per game off of their (opponent-adjusted) season averages, and while there was some injuries luck in there -- if you define a "regular" as someone who averages at least one tackle per game, then 16 regulars combined to miss only 10 games (plus, in a different form of injuries luck, Houston's star quarterback Greg Ward Jr. barely played against UConn because of injury) -- the progress and identity were clear. Now we'll see what happens with more experience and, yes, probably more injury.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Folorunso Fatukasi||DT||6'4, 310||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7961||12||42.5||6.2%||8.0||7.5||0||0||4||0|
|Luke Carrezola||DE||6'3, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7801||13||36.5||5.3%||11.5||6.0||0||1||2||0|
|Mikal Myers||DT||6'1, 325||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8139||12||19.0||2.8%||4.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Cameron Stapleton||DE||6'4, 252||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7956||13||12.0||1.7%||4.0||2.0||0||2||0||0|
|Cole Ormsby||DE||6'3, 262||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7900||8||9.0||1.3%||2.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Sean Marinan||DT||6'1, 291||Sr.||NR||NR||12||5.5||0.8%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dallas Parker||DE||6'4, 251||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7844|
|James Atkins||DE||6'5, 278||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7333|
|Kevin Murphy||DT||6'1, 285||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8150|
|David Ryslik||DT||6'4, 307||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8292|
|Philippe Okounam||DE||6'5, 285||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8118|
|Felton Blackwell||DT||6'2, 331||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7891|
|Noel Brouse||DE||6'5, 265||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8006|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Junior Joseph||LB||6'1, 242||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8306||13||67.0||9.7%||3.5||0.0||1||0||0||0|
|Matthew Walsh||LB||6'1, 245||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7860||13||33.0||4.8%||4.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|LB||6'3, 245||Jr.||4 stars (5.9)||0.9226||13||16.0||2.1%||1.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Vontae Diggs||LB||6'2, 225||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8322||11||10.5||1.5%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jon Hicks||LB||6'2, 237||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8124||12||8.0||1.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Omaine Stephens||LB||6'3, 232||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||11||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jalen Stevens||LB||6'3, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8309|
|Chris Britton||LB||6'1, 235||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8233|
|Nazir Williams||LB||6'3, 252||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.8190|
|William Richardson||LB||6'2, 246||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7988|
|Connor Freeborn||LB||6'5, 259||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7973|
|Ryan Gilmartin||LB||6'1, 230||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8092|
7. A few spots to fill (and a lot of candidates)
Of those regulars referenced above, UConn returns four of six on the line, three of five linebackers, and three of five defensive backs. That's not bad, but some talent did leave Storrs. Linebacker Graham Stewart, perhaps UConn's most disruptive defender against the run, is gone, as are end Kenton Adeyemi, tackle Julian Campenni, and linebacker Marquise Vann. There will be new names on the two-deep.
That said, it's hard to worry too much. Ends Cole Ormsby and Cameron Stapleton, tackles Mikal Myers and Sean Marinan, and linebackers Matthew Walsh, Vontae Diggs, and Jon Hicks all spent some time in the rotation. Plus, UConn welcomes a host of redshirt freshmen into the competition, plus Florida State transfer E.J. Levenberry. Stewart might be particularly tricky to replace, but the list of candidates for the new open spots is large and exciting. I'm figuring the front seven probably improves this year.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Obi Melifonwu||FS||6'3, 216||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8189||13||73.0||10.6%||2||0||2||5||0||0|
|Jhavon Williams||CB||5'10, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7988||13||48.5||7.0%||2||0||3||7||0||0|
|Jamar Summers||CB||6'0, 185||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7981||13||32.0||4.6%||0.5||0||8||3||0||0|
|Javon Hadley||CB||5'10, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8248||9||7.5||1.1%||1||0||0||1||0||0|
|John Green||CB||5'10, 186||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8069||11||7.5||1.1%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Brice McAllister||CB||5'11, 193||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7865||13||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||2||0|
|Nick Vitale||CB||5'8, 175||Sr.||NR||NR||12||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony Watkins||S||5'11, 200||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7785|
|Aaron Garland||S||5'11, 193||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8141|
|Marshé Terry||S||6'4, 206||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7983|
|John Robinson IV||CB||6'2, 181||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7948|
|Tahj Herring||CB||6'1, 188||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8400|
|Eddie Hahn||S||6'3, 190||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8318|
8. Lucky and good
UConn were a bit lucky in the injuries department, and the Huskies got some decent bounces, too. They benefited by about three points per game in the turnovers department, primarily because they might have been unsustainably good at reeling in interceptions. The trio of Obi Melifonwu, Jhavon Williams, and Jamar Summers combined for one interception and 12 pass breakups in 2014; the same three had 13 picks and 15 breakups last fall. On average, you end up with one INT for every three to four PBUs. A few of those picks hit the turf, and UConn's season might take on a different complexion.
That said, these three are clear play-makers. They have, after all, defensed 41 passes over the last two years while also recording eight tackles for loss (mostly from Melifonwu).
One area of concern in the back: UConn is maybe one injury away from being perilously thin at safety. Williams and Summers are back, as is basically every other cornerback, but the loss of Andrew Adams, Junior Lee, and Ellis Marder means Melifonwu will be surrounded by some new faces. Sophomore Anthony Watkins was evidently solid in the spring, and big redshirt freshman Marshé Terry and junior Brice McAllister are both options as well. If Melifonwu has a solid partner in the back, and the luck of the bounce doesn't swing too hard in the other direction, this could easily be a top-30 defense.
|Justin Wain||6'3, 216||Sr.||75||38.2||6||39||22||81.3%|
|Michael Tarbutt||6'0, 184||So.||26||57.7||5||0||19.2%|
|Bobby Puyol||5'10, 180||Sr.||25||60.4||12||0||48.0%|
|Bobby Puyol||5'10, 180||Sr.||21-24||12-13||92.3%||4-5||80.0%|
|Michael Tarbutt||6'0, 184||So.||0-0||0-0||N/A||0-1||0.0%|
|Arkeel Newsome||KR||5'7, 180||Jr.||19||22.6||0|
|Nick Vitale||PR||5'8, 175||Sr.||3||-4.3||0|
|Brian Lemelle||PR||5'10, 170||Sr.||2||7.5||0|
|Special Teams S&P+||25|
|Field Goal Efficiency||23|
|Punt Return Success Rate||127|
|Kick Return Success Rate||107|
|Punt Success Rate||18|
|Kickoff Success Rate||98|
9. Punting on punt returns
Thanks mostly to kicker Bobby Puyol and punter Justin Wain, this was a solid special teams unit last year. Neither kickoffs nor kick returns were a strength, but that wasn't a big issue because there weren't many kickoffs in UConn games.
The biggest issue was punt returns -- UConn didn't really have any. Opponents punted 57 times in 2015, but the Huskies attempted returns on only five of them ... and those five returns gained all of two net yards. Yuck. There are worse things in the world than a fair catch, but if the Huskies can at least generate occasional yardage on returns, it would very much help in the field position battle: UConn ranked only 77th in field position margin last year.
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|15-Oct||at South Florida||41||-12.8||23%|
|29-Oct||at East Carolina||78||-5.5||38%|
|19-Nov||at Boston College||50||-10.2||28%|
|Projected wins: 5.8|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-16.1% (93)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||83 / 77|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||9 / 1.8|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||+3.0|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||82% (94%, 70%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||5.7 (0.3)|
10. Lots of tossups
If the UConn offense becomes less awful and the defense produces at a top-30 or top-40 level, that's a solid team. Because last year was the first sign of hope in a while, S&P+ projections keep the Huskies at a conservative 81st this year, which makes sense. But it's not hard to see them at least cracking into the 70s.
Even at 81st, though, the Huskies have a decent shot at returning to a bowl. They are projected to go about 6-6 with three likely wins, four likely losses, and five games with a win probability between 38 and 50 percent. With a bit more offensive improvement, something like 8-4 is within reach. With a little less luck in the injuries and bounces departments, a regression to 4-8 is an option, too.
I appreciate what Diaco is building. it seems like a sustainable way of building competitive teams in a region with plenty of defensive talent but few offensive difference-makers (at least, few who stay in the region). But in a conference where seemingly every program has made an intriguing hire and is improving, UConn will have to continue growing to maintain a bowl presence.