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It’s Year 0.5 for Randy Edsall at UConn

This rebuild will take time.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

I believe I first saw the term “Year Zero” in an old Dr. Saturday piece by Matt Hinton.

1. Term describing a head coach’s first season over a program in disarray, often characterized by extreme youth, lack of depth, high attrition and low expectations.

2. Unremarkable season later viewed as laying the groundwork for a return to prominence in subsequent seasons.

When you write 130 previews a year, this term can be useful. When I’m talking about a pretty bad team breaking in a first-year coach, it allows me to punt. Call it Year Zero, say there’s a chance things work out, and don’t worry about anything more substantive until the next year.

Of the 21 new FBS head coaches last year, Edsall faced maybe the most obvious Year Zero situation. Others ended up burning their two-deeps to the ground and starting over — Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Minnesota’s PJ Fleck, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell — but for Edsall, there was nowhere to go but up.

UConn had finished 2016 with just three wins and a No. 123 S&P+ ranking, the Huskies’ worst since they resumed FBS play in 2000. It evidently made the school long for the glory days of eight-win seasons and rankings in the 40s, so UConn hired the coach who’d left six years prior.

After five years as Maryland’s head coach and one as the Detroit Lions’ director of football research, Edsall returned to East Hartford/Storrs to revive a flagging program. And to his credit, he wasn’t envisioning a return to the 2000s. He was dreaming up a new way to push the program forward.

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.

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.

UConn remained 3-9 and “improved” to 119th in S&P+. They eked out home wins over Holy Cross and Tulsa, upset Temple right before the Owls got their own first-year ship righted, and lost seven games by at least 17 points. They played four teams that finished in the S&P+ top 40 and lost by an average score of 52-22.

But that alone was different. They didn’t lose by an average of 38-8 — they were scoring points. Under Lashlee, UConn’s offense improved to 74th in Off. S&P+, its highest rating since 2009. Unfortunately, Crocker didn’t have the pieces in the secondary. With two freshman safeties patrolling the back and virtually everyone else going down with injury at some point, UConn ranked 121st in Passing S&P+ and 126th in overall Def. S&P+.

The depths of Year Zero don’t really matter, though. The only thing that matters is if you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Edsall may have done that, though there’s a pretty good chance that Year One will only be so much better than Year Zero. Lashlee left to take the SMU coordinator job — he was so far away from his home base that you didn’t figure he was going to stay for long — and while Crocker’s still around and has a semi-intriguing secondary to work with, his front seven is completely starting over.

The chess pieces aren’t yet where they need to be. But with sophomores and juniors playing key roles in basically every position unit sans quarterback (which will likely be starting a senior for the second straight year), we’ll get a pretty clear view of what UConn might be capable of in 2019 and beyond.

Offense

UConn’s run game was awful last year, but of course it was. With two freshmen — Kevin Mensah and Nate Hopkins — taking most of the carries and eight offensive linemen starting at least one game (and freshmen and sophomores occupying half the starts), there was really never a chance for ground success. The Huskies averaged 4.8 yards per carry in their first three games and 3.2 thereafter. Neither freshman topped 4.5 yards per carry for the season, and UConn ended up last in FBS in Rushing S&P+.

That made the semi-success of the passing game pretty impressive. With Bryant Shirreffs behind center, the Huskies ranked 83rd in Passing S&P+ despite constant second- or third-and-longs and a senior-less receiving corps.

John Dunn takes over for Lashlee, and if he had a known entity at QB, it would be pretty easy to talk yourself into UConn taking another step or two forward this year. As it stands, that will depend on new QB David Pindell.

Dunn has paid his dues. He spent basically seven years as a graduate assistant, or something approximate, at UNC and LSU before landing his first major gig on Edsall’s Maryland staff. After five years in College Park, he spent the last two as a lower-level Chicago Bears assistant.

Edsall thinks highly of Dunn, even using all-caps in a quote for Dunn’s UConn bio: “He has an outstanding offensive mind and understands how to attack people and take advantage of personnel match ups. His philosophy of being a multiple, no huddle offense that ATTACKS using multiple tempos, personnel groupings and formations defines our vision offensively.” Without that level of faith, this would be a really strange choice to continue UConn’s up-tempo evolution.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Central Florida
Kevin Mensah
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll see how the Dunn-Pindell pairing works out, but they’ll have quite a bit of experience around them. Mensah and Hopkins showed big-play potential on the rare occasions in which they saw open field, and they’ll no longer be running behind fellow freshmen.

Granted, half of last year’s eight primary linemen are gone, which opens the door for maybe a bit more youth, but two 6’7 tackles return (junior Matt Peart and sophomore Ryan Van Demark), and there’s experience on the interior with senior center Ryan Crozier and sophomore guard Cam DeGeorge.

If the run game can at least reach general competence and mediocrity, the passing game will have a chance to thrive. Pindell did start and finish the season on the first string, so he’s got experience with this receiving corps, even if it’s not all good experience. His passer rating was just 103.1 to Shirreffs’ 153.6, but he established a pretty good late rapport with two big targets: 6’3 sophomore Keyion Dixon and 6’5 senior Aaron McLean, who’s moving from WR to TE. They’re back, as are possession men Quayvon Skanes and Tyraiq Beals and all-or-nothing No. 1 target Hergy Mayala.

Mayala had three 100-yard receiving games, and in back-to-back games against Tulsa and Missouri, he caught 13 passes for 247 yards. But he managed only 15 catches for 157 yards in the final four games and had just a 52 percent catch rate for the season.

Mayala was the most targeted receiver, but five players were targeted at least 40 times each, and all five return. With Dunn’s apparent “find a matchup advantage and repeatedly exploit it” ethos, there’s at least a chance that this can create some advantages. But a lot will depend on Pindell — and if not Pindell, then one of two redshirt freshmen (Marvin Washington or Jordan McAfee) or true freshman Steven Krajewski.

Pindell’s mobility is intriguing (he averaged 5.2 yards per non-sack carry and didn’t take nearly as many sacks as Shirreffs), but he’s got to deliver the ball.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Connecticut
Hergy Mayala
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Amid a bunch of terrible stats, you at least got a peek into Crocker’s mindset. UConn ranked 62nd in Adj. Sack Rate and 83rd in linebacker havoc rate (tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed divided by total plays), and on the rare occasion that the Huskies forced a third down, it was a third-and-long (average yardage to go: 7.4, 32nd in FBS).

But with this secondary, third downs were few and far between. Freshman safeties Tyler Coyle and Omar Fortt and sophomore Marshe Terry were basically the only DBs who could stay on the field; veterans Anthony Watkins and Brice McAllister missed a combined 15 games, and 2016 star corner Jamar Summers missed time as well.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Temple
Tyler Coyle (25)
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The result: misery. Opponents completed 67 percent of their passes (127th in FBS) for 4,007 yards (129th) with 34 touchdowns (130th) to only six INTs (110th). The run defense wasn’t all that great, but opponents didn’t bother finding out about it. They ran just 49 percent of the time on standard downs, the fourth-lowest rate in the country.

So yeah, until the secondary improves, nothing else matters. Coyle, Terry, and Fortt are back, but if anything, this secondary is younger than last year’s. With the top three corners gone, he sophomore trio of Tahj Herring-Wilson, Jordan Swann, and Ian Swenson will take on a heavy burden. Meanwhile, Edsall signed nine freshman DBs in his 2018 recruiting class. He’s probably not going to redshirt all nine.

The best-case scenario is that Crocker finds his lineup. UConn’s pass defense is only going to improve by so much, but a stable lineup could produce in 2019, at least.

Stability in the back would allow Crocker to address his other pressing issue: a front-seven restart. Five of the top six tacklers on the line are gone, as are each of the top three linebackers.

In all, only three members of this year’s front seven made even 10 tackles last year: junior tackle Kevin Murphy (10 tackles, no havoc plays), senior outside linebacker Santana Sterling (12.5 tackles, 1 TFL), and sophomore OLB Darrian Beavers (12 tackles, 3 sacks). Beavers is exciting, and two other sophomores — Eddie Hahn and Ryan Gilmartin, who saw playing time over the last two games — combined for three TFLs in limited action. So maybe there’s some attacking talent there. But there’s not a single known entity up front.

It’s going to take Crocker another year to figure out what he’s got, but the positive spin is that the core will return in 2019, then return again in 2020.

NCAA Football: Holy Cross at Connecticut
Santana Sterling (47)
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

UConn was below average in special teams but wasn’t really terrible at anything. That’s some more positive spin!

Kicker Michael Tarbutt has a big leg (3-for-6 on FGs over 40 yards, plus a 62 percent touchback rate on kickoffs) if an unstable one (two missed PATs, three missed under-40 FGs), and sophomores like Quayvon Skanes and Jordan Swann were okay in the returns game.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug UCF 17 -26.1 7%
8-Sep at Boise State 26 -27.2 6%
15-Sep Rhode Island NR 17.5 84%
22-Sep at Syracuse 71 -16.7 17%
29-Sep Cincinnati 88 -8.3 32%
6-Oct at Memphis 42 -22.3 10%
20-Oct at USF 56 -19.8 13%
27-Oct Massachusetts 102 -4.5 40%
3-Nov at Tulsa 108 -8.1 32%
10-Nov SMU 74 -11.3 26%
17-Nov at East Carolina 125 -2.1 45%
24-Nov Temple 81 -10.4 27%
Projected S&P+ Rk 124
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 75 / 127
Projected wins 3.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -11.0 (116)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 96 / 96
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -8 / -4.7
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 61% (75%, 47%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 2.6 (0.4)

S&P+ basically sees what I see here: UConn is still probably a year away from true competitiveness. And that’s fine — Edsall’s taking his time. He didn’t load up on JUCOs and transfers; he’s rebuilding the depth chart with five-year recruits, and most of last year’s most intriguing players are now sophomores. That means a clear path forward for 2019 and beyond.

It also probably means pain in 2018. S&P+ projects the Huskies 124th overall with 3-9 as the most likely record. There will be a chance for more — they host Rhode Island, Cincinnati, UMass, and Temple and visit shaky ECU and Tulsa teams — but defensive issues and, likely, a still-iffy run game will hold them back.

You’d like to at least get to four or five wins, but 2019’s the goal here.

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