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How UConn football’s throwback hire of Randy Edsall can work ... eventually

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The prodigal Husky’s list of tasks is relatively simple, if not easy.

Rutgers v Connecticut Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

This preview was originally published April 18 and has since been updated.

I pride myself on how many different stats, rates, and angles I can produce from simple lines of play-by-play data, but sometimes you don’t need a ton of numbers to learn all you need to know about a team.

Take UConn, for instance. All you need to know about the 2016 Connecticut Huskies boils down to the number 9.

  • On October 15, Bobby Puyol kicked a 26-yard field goal 7:56 into the game to give UConn a 3-0 lead on USF.
  • A week later, Puyol kicked field goals of 22 and 33 yards in the first 12 minutes against UCF.

In 12 games, those are the nine first-quarter points the Huskies scored.

NINE. Nine points! In the equivalent of three full games!

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that UConn didn’t end up with the worst Off. S&P+ rating in the country. Texas State’s managed to grade out worse. Or maybe the biggest surprise is that, with the second-worst offense in the country and a first-quarter deficit in almost every game, the Huskies still managed to win three games.

After breaking through with a six-win season in 2015 (despite an offense that ranked 115th), Bob Diaco’s Huskies lost any semblance of momentum. The offense plummeted back to 2014 levels, and the defense crumpled. Any first-quarter deficit was virtually impossible to overcome. And in a single year, Diaco went from dragging the program forward to looking for a new job.

Since losing Edsall to Maryland in 2010, UConn lost its way. The school tried the “veteran coach who knows the Northeast” route and brought in Syracuse legend Paul Pasqualoni to keep Edsall’s eight-wins-a-year ship moving. He went 10-18. So the school went with the “hire a major program’s star coordinator” approach, and Diaco went 11-26, with more than half of his wins coming in a single year.

UConn has proved it can put a good defense on the field; the Huskies have ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 50 seven times in the last 10 years and three times in the six since Edsall’s departure. They got as high as 18th under Pasqualoni and 32nd under Diaco.

Meanwhile, the Huskies have also proved offense is really hard. They have not topped 105th in Off. S&P+ since Edsall left, and even in Edsall’s last six years, they ranked higher than 68th just once.

Without an ideal new hire available, the school decided to start over. UConn only once ranked better than 47th overall in S&P+ under Edsall, but 47th is better than anything that happened since he left. Edsall, fired from Maryland a year earlier, was available. It was time to get the band back together.

I’m not a big fan of a recycling hire and gave UConn a C+ last December, but I’ll say this: while the hire might reek of living in the past, Edsall is not. He made an exciting pair of coordinator hires, bringing in Villanova’s aggressive, creative Billy Crocker to run his defense and asking former Auburn play-caller Rhett Lashlee to figure out how to score points.

Granted, Edsall also brought former UConn QB Dan Orlovsky back to fill the nostalgia quotient, but he wants his new Huskies to be fast and (gasp) modern. Consider me intrigued.

Of course, if this experiment fails, we’ll all be writing something condescending about old dogs learning new tricks. At Edsall’s peak, UConn wasn’t the most exciting team in the world.

Plus, it’s going to take a little while for these chess pieces to do what Edsall and company want. UConn has experience at quarterback and in the defensive front six/seven, and there are a couple of viable pieces in the skill corps. Still, when you had the second-worst offense in the country, you can improve quite a bit and still be bad.

Setting the bar low and assuming a Year Zero situation is probably apt, but there does appear to be potential. And the fact that Edsall doesn’t seem to be trying to reset the clock to 2009 is a good sign.

The first time UConn hired Edsall, he was a 40-year-old with just one year of coordinator experience. It worked; he led the Huskies to FBS and, after a couple of years of toil, produced a consistently decent product in the Big East.

This time, UConn is getting a 58-year-old with 17 years of head coaching experience and a good knowledge of what the job entails. You can see the draw. We just don’t know if we’ll see the results.


2016 in review

2016 UConn statistical profile.

Even with the first-quarter troubles, UConn wasn’t completely awful at the start of 2016. The Huskies started 3-3 with wins over Virginia and Cincinnati and tight losses to Navy and Syracuse.

Things went haywire late, though. Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, battling injury all year, lost his job to true freshman Donovan Williams after a 41-3 debacle against a bad ECU. UConn got outscored by a combined 89-13 over the final three games. The Huskies went from bad to horrendous.

  • First 8 games (3-5): Avg. percentile performance: 30% (~top 90) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.9, UConn 5.1 (minus-0.8) | Avg. score: Opp 26, UConn 20 (minus-6)
  • Last 4 games (0-4): Avg. percentile performance: 5% (~bottom 10) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.5, UConn 4.1 (minus-1.4) | Avg. score: Opp 33, UConn 4 (minus-29)

It was a curious decision; Williams completed 47 percent of his passes with one touchdown, five interceptions, and 12 sacks. In a small sample, even averaging 5.6 yards per (non-sack) carry, he graded out as maybe the least effective QB in FBS. Burning a redshirt to play a guy for three games is questionable enough already, but this was downright strange.

Of course, it could have been a sign of mercy. Shirreffs was hurt all season and had taken 23 sacks.

Regardless, a full month after the season ended, UConn athletic director David Benedict decided to let Diaco go after initially deciding the opposite. Evidently he wasn’t satisfied with Diaco’s plans for fixing the offense.


Offense

UConn offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The less said about UConn’s 2016 offense, the better, but I just wanted to share this chart.

UConn offensive efficiency and explosiveness

The AAC had some pretty bad offenses last year. UConn combined inefficiency with a total lack of big-play ability in a way that was pretty unique, even before the late-season collapse. And opponent adjustments weren’t kind.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today is about a massive culture change for an offense that desperately needs it.

Getting Lashlee was a potential coup. Granted, Lashlee — an Arkansas product and longtime Gus Malzahn follower — has never worked above the Mason-Dixon line. And granted, it might take him a little while to figure out what he can do with the talent at hand. But he has long studied under one of football’s great innovators, and while tempo is not a cure-all, it could be good to add some energy to a unit that has spent the last two tenures as an afterthought.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Auburn
Rhett Lashlee
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

One assumes Lashlee will use tempo and motion to create whatever advantages are possible, and he’ll run as much as UConn is allowed to. What assets does he inherit? (Believe it or not, there are a few.)

  • Running back Arkeel Newsome. It feels like he’s been at UConn for about eight years, but the senior-to-be has provided some explosiveness. In the last two years, he’s rushed for 1,507 yards at 4.6 per carry, and he’s caught 70 passes for 738 yards. As far as raw numbers go, these aren’t amazing, but consider the help he wasn’t getting. His explosiveness numbers are strong, and his receiving success rate was somehow over 50 percent last year. If he gets to face a strained defense for once, he could do some great things.
  • Junior receivers Hergy Mayala and Tyraiq Beals. I’m not going to overstate the proven capabilities of these two, but despite seemingly every snap being third-and-long, they combined to catch 30 balls for 392 yards (13.1 per carry, 6.6 yards per target). They’ve got decent athleticism, and again, if the defense is actually distracted, they could get open deep.
  • South Carolina transfer David Williams. The former four-star never lived up to his recruiting hype and got lost in a deep pool of decent backs at South Carolina. At 6’1, 220 pounds, he brings some heft, and he caught nine of nine passes for 72 yards last year. [Update: He’s no longer with UConn.]
  • Three-star redshirt freshmen. Recruiting wasn’t as much of a strength for Diaco as was expected, but he did leave Lashlee with a couple of reasonably exciting athletes. Running back Nate Hopkins is big, and receiver Quayvon Skanes is fast, and they could see the ball sooner than later. Same goes for not-quite-three-stars Ja’Kevious Vickers (RB) and Keyion Dixon (WR).
  • Five linemen with starting experience. Not all experience is good experience, of course.
  • Options at tight end and quarterback. Not all options are good options, of course. [Update: Former three-star TE recruit Jay Rose has rejoined the team as a walk-on after a year off.]

If Lashlee finds first-year success, it will likely be because of the combination of Newsome and either Shirreffs or Williams in the backfield. Williams can run, and Lashlee helped to engineer massive success at Auburn with a converted defensive back (Nick Marshall) at QB. And if he’s just not working, Shirreffs can run a bit, too.

Improvement is guaranteed, but ranking 110th in Off. S&P+ would represent significant improvement. The bar is low.

Houston v Connecticut
Arkeel Newsome
Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images

Defense

UConn defensive radar

That UConn’s offense was awful wan’t that much of a surprise last year. It was, after all, the second time in three years that the Huskies had ranked 127th in Off. S&P+. That the defense sank to 87th in Def. S&P+ was more jarring. The Huskies had ranked 32nd in 2015 and returned experience at each level of the defense.

Despite experience and a relative lack of turnover, though, the pass defense was particularly awful.

  • Passing S&P+ rank: 54th in 2015, then 122nd in 2016
  • Completion rate allowed: 59%, then 64%
  • Yards per completion allowed: 10.5, then 12.0
  • Passer rating allowed: 112.7, then 141.0
  • Adj. Sack Rate rank: 89th, then 118th

The run defense was also worse (from 52nd in 2015 to 74th in Rushing S&P+), but it at least somewhat resembled what we expect from UConn. The regression in pass defense was jarring.

SMU v Connecticut
Jamar Summers
Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

That makes it a little bit of an interesting time to move to a 3-3-5 look. UConn must replace three of its top four from a disappointing secondary and add an extra safety to the starting lineup. Diaco signed a couple of exciting DBs last year (redshirt freshmen Tahj Herring-Wilson, Eddie Hahn), and Edsall added a few more this past February (namely, mid-three-star safety Ian Swenson). Still, any immediate improvement would likely come from the veterans, cornerback Jamar Summers in particular. Even in a disappointing year, Summers finished with four tackles for loss and 11 passes defensed.

Name recognition made Lashlee the headliner of the coordinator hires, but the hire of Crocker might reap as many or more immediate dividends. His 2016 Villanova defense was exciting and awesome.

The Wildcats allowed just 15 points per game and 4.4 yards per play, basically turning every opponent into the UConn offense. Opponents converted just 30 percent of their third downs (which tends to speak to great first-down efficiency), and Nova’s havoc rate of 17.8 percent would have ranked a decent 33rd in FBS. Opponents averaged 3.9 yards per carry (removing sacks from the equation) and completed just 57 percent of passes with 17 picks.

Granted, Crocker’s 2017 defense might not have anyone as good as Nova star Tanoh Kpassagnon on it, but the front seven does have a couple of nice havoc guys. Luke Carrezola can play either end or outside linebacker and has produced 22.5 tackles for loss over the last two years.

Meanwhile, end Cole Ormsby and linebacker Vontae Diggs combined for 16.5 TFLs and 5 sacks in 2016. The loss of linebacker E.J. Levenberry to an ACL injury (he’s due back in October at the earliest) hurts, but to me, the secondary is far more of a concern than the front six. If Crocker has the pieces in the back, he’ll have the pieces in the front.

Connecticut v Missouri
Luke Carrezola
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Special Teams

Bobby Puyol was okay in place-kicking and excellent in rare kickoff opportunities. Punter Justin Wain was solid. Punt returner Brian Lemelle was at least good at fair catching balls before they had a chance to roll for a while. UConn ended up 82nd in Special Teams S&P+ last year, instead of something worse, because of these three. They’re all gone. The only special teams guy back is Arkeel Newsome in kick returns, but he wasn’t actually that good at it. So yeah, UConn’s special teams will be somewhere between a mystery and a disaster. TBD.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Holy Cross NR 25.4 93%
9-Oct South Florida 56 -17.5 16%
16-Sep at Virginia 70 -18.6 14%
30-Sep at SMU 81 -14.1 21%
6-Oct Memphis 61 -17.0 16%
14-Oct at Temple 67 -20.8 12%
21-Oct Tulsa 77 -11.5 25%
28-Oct Missouri 53 -17.9 15%
4-Nov East Carolina 100 -4.7 39%
11-Nov at Central Florida 78 -16.4 17%
18-Nov Boston College 76 -11.5 25%
25-Nov at Cincinnati 75 -16.7 17%
Projected S&P+ Rk 125
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 126 / 98
Projected wins 3.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -16.8 (123)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 104 / 90
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -8 / -2.7
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.2
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (60%, 53%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 2.8 (0.2)

Strangely enough, it doesn’t take many ifs to make UConn a competitive team in 2017.

  • If Newsome is given a chance to thrive.
  • If a new, energetic offense gives UConn top-100 numbers.
  • If Crocker is able to restore competence to UConn’s pass defense.

That’s pretty much it. Give the Huskies those three semi-realistic things, and you’ve got a top-70 or top-80 team. The schedule features eight teams projected 70th or lower. That probably still doesn’t get UConn to a bowl, but the Huskies come close.

Still, this offense was destitute in 2016, and the defense was UConn’s worst in more than a decade. Maybe bad offense fed bad defense, and maybe a blood transfusion will fix all ills, but maybe we just punt on setting any expectations until 2018.

I didn’t love the Edsall hire when it was made; I thought it spoke far more to raising UConn’s floor than it did raising its ceiling. But when you bottom out like the Huskies did, a higher floor sounds appealing. And when your supposedly low-ceiling hire goes out and signs two exciting coordinators, then maybe the hire has more upside than realized.

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