clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

UConn football almost literally can’t get worse. So there’s that.

New, comments

Randy Edsall’s Huskies hit rock bottom with maybe the worst defense of the 21st century. How much improvement is actually possible?

NCAA Football: Connecticut at East Carolina
Randy Edsall
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

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

  • The 1995 UNLV Rebels took on one of the nation’s weakest schedules and allowed 47.3 points per game. They allowed 38 points to two-win Rice, 42 to four-win Utah State, 52 to three-win SJSU, 57 to three-win Iowa State, 58 to four-win Hawaii, and 62 to three-win NIU.
  • In 1996, Kent State gave up 44.7 per game to an almost equally weak schedule.
  • 1997 Louisiana-Lafayette gave up 50.3 per game in a 1-10 campaign.
  • 2001 Idaho scored more than 28 per game, but the Vandals went just 1-10 because they allowed 45
  • 2008 North Texas, led by Texas high school spread wizard Todd Dodge, gave up 571 points in 12 games (47.6 per game). Only two opponents scored under 40; Rice scored 77.

Using S&P+, the teams above all graded out about as poorly as UConn did last year. And none of them hold a candle to the dreadful defenses of old — the 1939 Chicago team that gave up 300 points in five major-opponent games, the 1924 Whitman College team that allowed 55 to Washington and 63 to Gonzaga, etc.

This sport has seen a lot of bad defenses. That’s the best encouragement I can give to UConn fans at the moment.

I’ll be honest: I kind of wanted no changes made. As a pure thought experiment, I wanted Edsall to retain defensive coordinator Billy Crocker, and I wanted no Huskies to transfer. I wanted to see how much a unit could improve after it had reached a state of total hopelessness, and UConn’s 2018 defense was defiantly hopeless.

Edsall and Crocker didn’t inherit a ton from Bob Diaco in 2017 and didn’t know what to do with what they had. They stumbled from 83rd to 125th in Def. S&P+ that year, then lost almost their entire first string. Crocker’s a havoc-happy coordinator when he’s got the pieces, and he was trying to attack and create mistakes with a lineup primarily of freshmen and sophomores.

Worse, the Huskies played a rough schedule. Of their first five opponents, four would win at least 10 games (UCF, Boise State, Syracuse, Cincinnati). Three others would attend bowls, and even the lesser opponents — SMU, ECU — could score some points.

The result: a 605-point season. Six hundred and five. An average of 50.4 per game.

UConn gave up at least 49 points in 10 of 12 contests. The Huskies’ lone win was a 56-49 shootout against Rhode Island, which averaged only 26 points in the FCS’ Colonial Athletic Association. They gave up points until opponents got tired of scoring them. Just three years earlier, the Huskies were in the Def. S&P+ top 50 — in 2018, they fielded, at the very least, the worst defense of the decade.

Let’s put this another way: UConn had its best offense in nine years and went 1-11.

So yes, change came. Crocker was replaced by former UCLA coordinator and Alabama analyst Spanos. A couple of starters — defensive end Darrian Beavers, nickel/LB Marshé Terry — transferred.

In his first tenure as head coach (1999-2010), Edsall proved that you can build a respectable program in Storrs and East Hartford. This decade, however, hasn’t been kind to this program.

  • UConn was left behind by conference realignment and ended up in the AAC, a solid conference that is geographically unfriendly to a school that far northeast.
  • When Edsall left to take the Maryland job and deal with a nonstop series of quarterback injuries, UConn replaced him with Paul Pasqualoni, whom Syracuse had deemed past his sell-by date nearly a decade earlier.
  • When Paqualoni inevitably failed, UConn overcorrected in a quest for young energy, bringing in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He briefly built traction on defense but didn’t have the temperament or the offensive chops. UConn won four of six games in 2015, enough to eke out a bowl bid. He otherwise went 7-24.

The program Edsall rejoined in 2017 was clearly different than the one he left in 2010. The landscape has changed, and UConn has neither invested nor hired as it needed to. The “Drop football? Drop to FCS?” chorus is growing louder and more logical, even if the UConn athletic department hasn’t joined it. And there’s no reason to think the team will get a lot better this fall.

I mean, the defense is not going to get worse. That much we know. But the offense, which showed growth last fall, must now replace its quarterback and three leading receivers. And the schedule features six opponents projected 75th or better, meaning win opportunities are limited.

Edsall has been genuinely honest about the long-term rebuild, but for the sake of both his and his program’s future, it would be a very good idea for him to win some games this fall. I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

Offense

That wasn’t a throwaway line above: UConn’s offense really was its best in nine years. That says more about recent history than anything else — ranking 99th in Off. S&P+ should not be a high-water mark — but it’s true.

At its best, UConn was able to control the ball. The mind reels at what the defense might have succumbed to had the offense not had competent moments, but the Huskies were 59th in rushing marginal efficiency and 37th in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least four yards). And when they were able to stay in third-and-manageable, quarterback David Pindell produced — he completed 64 percent of his passes on third-and-6 or shorter.

Connecticut v Syracuse
Marvin Washington
Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Pindell brought more to the table with his legs than his arm, but he still managed to miss a 2,000/1,000 season by just 38 passing yards. He was solid enough that it’s no guarantee his replacement will match his production.

Who will that replacement be? Likely either sophomore and 2018 backup Marvin Washington or West Florida transfer Mike Beaudry. Washington was just 9-for-24 passing last year, but all of those attempts came in blowout losses to Syracuse, Cincy, and Memphis. Beaudry, meanwhile, is intriguing: he threw for 3,215 yards at UWF in 2017 (granted, at just 6 yards per attempt) before missing most of 2018 with injury.

My guess is that if Washington develops, the job is his. But Beaudry and three-star redshirt freshman Steven Krajewski could make for decent competition.

Ball State v Toledo
Art Thompkins
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

New coordinator Frank Giufre was UConn’s line coach last year. Generalizing about the styles OL coaches-turned-OCs usually bring, I’m going to assume that not much will change about UConn’s run-heavy approach.

That’s good for two reasons:

  1. UConn’s best offensive players are running backs. Kevin Mensah is a grinder. He could be pushed by Toledo transfer Art Thompkins, plus sophomore Zavier Scott, who showed major potential before missing the final three games with a knee injury. Scott had almost as many receptions (33) as rushes (34). Three-star redshirt freshman Dante Black could also carve out a niche, as could senior Donevin O’Reilly, who is also coming off of a knee injury.
  2. The receiving corps is a crater. Scott is the only returnee who caught more than 11 passes last year. The return of Quayvon Skanes, who missed last year after catching 35 balls in 2017, will help. But when your two most proven receivers are running backs (Scott and Thompkins), that’s problematic.

Junior Keyion Dixon and redshirt freshman Heron Maurisseau might have potential, and Edsall went the small-school-transfer route again in picking up Seton Hill transfer Ardell Brown, who had 1,267 yards at the Division 2 level. But replacing your starting QB and most of your top targets is typically a recipe for regression. We’ll see if UConn can break that trend.

Defense

Behold, the worst radar you will see in this entire 2019 preview series:

If that doesn’t do it for you, how about this one?

Junior safety Tyler Coyle recently called Spanos “a little crazy.” You probably figured that out already, though — Spanos did, after all, take this job.

Here’s my best positive spin, beyond “it almost literally can’t get any worse”:

  • Spanos has coached in a lot of schemes at a lot of places. He isn’t married to a system — he’s going to figure out his most talented players and scheme them onto the field. He’s going to experiment, and if you can’t be good, you might as well be weird.
  • Even with the transfers, UConn’s going to have all sorts of experience this fall. That’s what happens when — and I swear I’m not making this up — 16 of your top 19 tacklers are freshmen and sophomores. UConn was almost impossibly young last year, which makes 2018’s depths of misery seem more realistic.
  • The Huskies obviously didn’t make enough havoc plays last year, but almost everyone who made some are back: sophomore tackle Travis Jones (5.5 tackles for loss), linebackers Eddie Hahn and Kevon Jones (combined: 10 TFLs, 2.5 sacks), cornerback Tahj Herring-Wilson (five pass breakups), safeties Omar Fortt, Oneil Robinson, and Ian Swenson (combined: nine TFLs, seven passes defensed).
NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Connecticut
Kevon Jones
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

That’s something, right? To either Edsall’s credit or noble detriment, he’s not attempting many stopgap solutions. He did bring in Columbia grad transfer Mike Hinton (seven TFLs last year) and JUCO linebacker Dillon Harris, but there were not a lot of panic signings. He’s going to live or die with five-year recruits.

Despite last year’s youth movement, you figure there’s room for another few true or redshirt freshmen on the two-deep: mid-three-star ends Eric Watts and Justin Moore, perhaps? Redshirt freshman linebacker Jordan Morrison? Mid-three-star freshman DB Myles Bell?

NCAA Football: East Carolina at Connecticut
Ian Swenson
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Of all the freshmen who saw the field last year, punter Luke Magliozzi might have been the best. He averaged 42.9 yards per kick and ranked 20th nationally in punt efficiency, for a team that desperately needed field position juice.

Magliozzi’s return is a boon; it might not offset the loss of kicker Michael Tarbutt, though. Tarbutt went 5-for-7 on field goals longer than 40 yards and ranked 38th in FG efficiency. He’s now a Golden Gopher. UConn was 37th in Special Teams S&P+ with this duo, but a drop in place-kicking would trigger an overall drop.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
29-Aug Wagner NR 17.3 84%
7-Sep Illinois 91 -18.4 14%
21-Sep at Indiana 46 -33.6 3%
28-Sep at UCF 27 -38.9 1%
5-Oct USF 71 -23.2 9%
12-Oct at Tulane 98 -20.0 12%
19-Oct Houston 73 -22.5 10%
26-Oct at Massachusetts 125 -7.3 34%
1-Nov Navy 118 -5.9 37%
9-Nov at Cincinnati 44 -34.3 2%
23-Nov East Carolina 113 -7.8 33%
30-Nov at Temple 66 -29.4 4%
Projected S&P+ Rk 129
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 115 / 129
Projected wins 2.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -15.5 (122)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 114
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -17 / -8.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -3.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (36%, 91%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 0.4 (0.6)

Just show signs of hope. That’s it.

Maybe the new receiving corps takes root, and a new starting QB can make enough passes to open up space for an exciting set of RBs. Maybe the defense, with new leadership and a boulder-sized chip on its shoulder, confounds a few opponents. Maybe UConn improves back into the 100s in S&P+ or something.

It’s not inconceivable, but it’s also not going to result in many wins. That’s beside the point.

UConn’s going through an existential crisis, and finding hope of any kind — improvement, an upset win or two, a set of young players to get excited about — is all that matters right now.

2018 was rock bottom. Hell, the 2010s have been. In 2019, we find out if the 2020s might be different.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.