2011 Record: (5-7, 3-4 in Big East)
Head Coach: Paul Pasqualoni (5-7 at UConn, 146-83-1 All-Time)
Last Bowl Game: 2010 season Fiesta Bowl: lost to Oklahoma 48-20
Must Win: 8/30 vs UMass, 9/29 vs Buffalo, 10/13 vs Temple
Revenge: 9/22 at WMU, 11/9 vs Pitt, 11/24 at Louisville, 12/1 vs Cincinnati
Swing Games: 9/15 at Maryland, 10/6 at Rutgers, 10/19 at Syracuse
Stat to Cheer: +0.67 turnover margin (2nd in Big East, 19th in Nation)
Stat to Fear: 38 plays of 10 yards or more (last in Big East, 105th in Nation)
Phil Steele’s Returning Starters: (Offense: 6; Defense: 8; Specialists: 1)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Jory Johnson (97 tackles), LB Yawin Smallwood (94 tackles), LB Sio Moore (86 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 3 INT) DT Trevardo Williams (12.5 sacks), CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson (37 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: RB Lyle McCombs (1151 yds, 7 TD), WR Michael Smith (46 rec in 2010), TE Ryan Griffin (33 rec, 3 TD) , OG Adam Masters
CFBZ: If you were grading Paul Pasqualoni on his first season what grade would you give him?
Pete Sonski: Paul Pasqualoni merits a B at this point, roughly 17 months on the job. Every first year head coach has to work with the team of his predecessor, though most would say that UConn underachieved last year.
On the field, the Huskies were 5-7 in 2011, just a year removed from playing in the Fiesta Bowl. UConn lost winnable games to Vanderbilt (24-21), Iowa State (24-20) and Western Michigan (38-31) last season, the latter two at home. A win in any one of them could have put the Huskies in the postseason.
The fans’ biggest complaint, or conundrum, was Pasqualoni’s handling of the quarterback situation. Nobody was happy with his using multiple quarterbacks throughout the entire season.
His grade can’t be limited to on-the-field performance, though. Pasqualoni has decidedly changed the culture at UConn. He’s a Connecticut native who played at Penn State, but previously he coached both at the high school and college level in the state, and had a great run as head coach at Syracuse. He’s the winningest coach in Big East history and has also been a coach and coordinator in the NFL. For Connecticut football fans, his heritage and accomplishments are a source of pride.
That’s not an aspect in grading him, but the fact that he has responded to the positive support he has received among fans and high school coaches by giving attention to Connecticut prospects has been a morale boost and brought new respect to the UConn program. Pasqualoni has been seen in public at key football events in the state and has many Connecticut high schools teams competing 7-on-7 in his spring camp.
Most fans will agree that Pasqualoni’s predecessor, Randy Edsall, did not regard state prospects worthy of consideration for the UConn football program. In recruiting, Pasqualoni has attracted BCS transfer and JUCO players to the program and has received commitments from prospects in Florida and Texas and Pennsylvania. UConn has yet to get any four- or five-star recruits, but those recruits it has under Pasqualoni so far have been equal to or better than recruits in the past.
CFBZ: Three QBs played in at least eight games last year for the Huskies. Where does the QB competition stand right now and who do you see as the best fit for the future?
Pete Sonski: If anything, the quarterback situation may be more complicated this season than last. Last year’s three quarterbacks – Johnny McEntee, Scott McCummings and Michael Nebrich – have been joined on the roster by two January enrollees: freshman Casey Cochran and JUCO transfer Chandler Whitmer.
McCummings was injured for the spring game, but the other four played and Whitmer was head and shoulders above the others. The fans have anointed Whitmer as a result, but Pasqualoni insists all five remain in the running to start. There should be no reason not to name a starter by training camp. In reality there’s always competition, on which Pasqualoni insists, but the starter gets the repetitions and a real chemistry can be established with the rest of the first team. Attempting to give five quarterbacks an equal number of reps in order to win the starting position limits opportunity to form rhythm with the offense. That said, don’t expect a starter to be named until ten minutes before kickoff of the first game of the season.
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic that UConn will improve this season?
Pete Sonski: The Huskies lost two tackles but return the rest of their defensive starters, and the departed players will be replaced by players who were on last year’s roster. They add a lot of depth at linebacker with two redshirt freshmen and they’ll be back to full health in the secondary. The Husky defense was the best in the conference against the run last year. They should be improved against the pass this year too.
On offense, tailback Lyle McCombs rushed for 1,100 yards and was a freshman All-American. The Huskies have had many years of consistent success in the running game. They need to replace a tackle and center on the line however. The Huskies have added a lot of depth at receiver this year, including Michael Smith, who returns from a year of ineligibility, Boston College transfer Shakim Phillips and Clemson transfer Bryce McNeal. UConn should be much better able to stretch the field this season.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Pete Sonski: The Huskies have no FCS opponents on their schedule, although first game opponent UMass has just moved up to FBS. They host NC State, but have only three conference home games: Temple, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Rutgers, Louisville and USF will be particularly difficult games to win on the road, but an upset in any one of them should give UConn a 7-5 season record.
There is more parity in the Big East with the departure of West Virginia, so UConn needs to win close games in conference. An acceptable season means the Huskies win at least three conference games and get to a bowl game. A successful season would include pulling off one or two upsets and finishing with at least a 4-3 conference record.
After four straight winning seasons, the Huskies finished last year at 5-7. The offense struggled as they gained the least amount of yards in the Big East and also had the lowest conversion rate on third downs (28.32%). Only two teams in the FBS converted third downs at a lower rater (UNLV and Akron). UConn also had the least amount of trips to the red zone in the Big East (36) and as we mentioned in our “stat to fear” they didn’t have a lot of explosive plays. The offense must get better for UConn to compete.
The Huskies found a RB last year but they are still searching for a QB to run the show and as Pete talked about in our Q&A it might be a while before a decision is made. Overall, UConn will have a lot more talent and experience at the skill positions this year so I would expect for their offense to improve and it could improve dramatically if they find a QB (but that’s a big if).
UConn’s defense should be the strength of this team. They dismissed Jerome Junior and Kendall Reyes is in the NFL but they return a lot of production from last year. The top three tacklers are back, the three players who tied for most interceptions (with 3) are all back, and the two leading sackers are back (those two combined for 19 sacks). One thing UConn did very well last year was create turnovers as they had 31 which ranked them 10th in the Nation. If UConn can maintain their takeaways and improve their giveaways they could make some noise in the wide-open Big East.
2012 Prediction: 7-5
Previous 2012 Previews:
Big 12: Kansas
Big East: Temple
Big Ten: Minnesota