Fall workouts officially start for the University of Connecticut football team on Saturday, and the air was filled with hope as the Huskies prepare for a 2014 campaign that will offer a fresh start from last year’s train wreck of a season. After putting on a game performance against perennial powerhouse Michigan at Rentschler Field, Connecticut quickly went in the tank. Indeed, the Michigan game represented the third straight loss for the Huskies, who opened the season with back-to-back losses to Towson, a D-1A school, 33-18, and ACC rival Maryland, coached by former Husky head coach Randy Edsall, 32-21. That set Connecticut on a streak of nine straight losses to start the season, costing head coach Paul Pasqualoni his job, and quarterback Chandler Whitmer his starting job.
Brought in with much fanfare after Edsall’s defection (Pasqualoni came into the job as the all-time winningest coach in Big East history having put together an imposing 107-59-1 record at Syracuse) Pasqualoni, a Cheshire native, was fired after a dismal 41-12 loss at Buffalo—the Huskies’ fourth straight to start the season—and was replaced by offensive coordinator T.J. Weist. Weist fared no better, however, as the Huskies proceeded to drop five straight under his helm. (Editor’s note: Pasqualoni has since landed on his feet as defensive line coach for the Chicago Bears.)
Weist’s first move was to change up quarterbacks, replacing Whitmer, the a junior, with true freshman Tim Boyle. Whitmer, the Huskies’ starting QB in 2013, had an extremely poor TDs-to-interceptions ration that season (9-to-16), and also proved to be slow afoot in the pocket, having been sacked 33 times.
After four more consecutive losses, Weist replaced Boyle with redshirt freshman Chandler Whitmer, a local product.
A former two-time Connecticut All-Stater and 2011 Gatorade Connecticut Player of the Year who led both New London High and Masuk to state titles during his illustrious schoolboy career, Whitmer was at the helm when Connecticut lost its ninth straight game, 38-21 at SMU, but then led the Huskies to three straight wins over Temple, Rutgers and Texas to end the 2013 campaign.
Which opened the door for hope for the future for the Husky football faithful.
Heading into 2014, the Huskies will be coached by Bob Diaco, who has spent the past four years as the defensive coordinator at perennial national power Notre Dame. Plenty of starting spots are open on the Huskies’ roster, including left tackle, left guard and right guard on the offensive line, and both defensive end spots, one defensive end, two linebacker spots, and cornerback on the defensive side. Special teams are looking to fill place-kicker, punter and holder spots.
The Huskies biggest name player is Lyle McCombs, a redshirt senior tailback from Staten Island who also suffered through a sub-par 2013. Last year, McCombs rushed for 670 yards with five touchdowns after rushing for 860 yards and six TDs in 2012, also caught two touchdown passes last season.
The most important decision for Diaco is who will be over center, and the Cedar Grove, NJ native maintains the competition is wide open for starting quarterback. Cochran, Whitman and Boyle are all in the mix.
The key to who will play most will be who protects the ball best. Turnovers will not be tolerated by the new coach, who promises an offense predicated on the ground game.
“I’ll hand it to the back 55 times, seriously, then we’ll have a chance,” he says. “If you turn the ball over you have no chance.”
And having three quarterbacks, all with starting experience, puts Diaco in a situation few college coaches enjoy. One will start, the the others will be “on call” at all times. Could we be looking at a QB-by-situation state of affairs? Diaco won’t say exactly, but he did admit that, “We’re going to have a starting quarterback, but we’re going to have more than one quarterback playing the games.”
On Saturday, practice was moved into the indoors facility on campus, the Mark R. Shenkman Training Center, because of the rain.
Louisville (ACC), Rutgers (Big 10) have left the AAC, while East Carolina, Tulsa, and Houston have joined as the conference expands from 10 to 11 teams.
The University of Central Florida is the defending conference champion. Navy will join the AAC in football only beginning in 2015.
What follows is a team-by-team rundown of the AAC provided by the conference:
- Cincinnati has won at least nine games six times in the last seven years and has reached double digits in wins five times in that stretch. The Bearcats went 9-4 in 2013 – the first year at Cincinnati for veteran head coach Tommy Tuberville, who has 16 starters returning. The Bearcat offense returns starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver and has an anchor on the offensive line in the form of offensive tackle Eric Lefeld, who was a unanimous all-conference selection last year. The defense loses three all-conference players from last year, but has veterans across the board, including second-team all-conference defensive end Silverberry Mouhon (9.5 sacks in 2013).
- UCF was the runner-up to Cincinnati in the 2014 preseason poll, but the Knights were the outright American Athletic Conference champions in 2013. UCF went 12-1 last season, capped by a 52-42 win against Big 12 champion Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, and finished the season ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll. Head coach George O’Leary has 17 starters returning from that team, but will have to replace the 2013 American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year as quarterback Blake Bortles declared for the NFL Draft and was selected with the third pick. Linebacker Terrance Plummer, the Defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl, leads a group of nine returning defensive starters
- Houston went 8-5 overall and was 5-3 in the American Athletic Conference last year and has the benefit of 19 returning starters and the brand new TDECU Stadium for third-year head coach Tony Levine. While Houston made its name on offense in recent years, it was defense that carried the Cougars last season as Houston led the nation with 43 turnovers gained in 2013. Safety Trevon Stewart had four interceptions and six fumble recoveries on his own and will lead a defense that returns 10 starters. Quarterback John O’Korn was the 2013 American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year after he threw for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns.
- East Carolina was fourth in the preseason poll with 262 points, just six points behind Houston. Coach Ruffin McNeill led the Pirates to a 10-3 season last year, including a win against Ohio in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, but East Carolina has just 11 starters back from that team and faces a schedule that includes two top-10 teams from last year (UCF, South Carolina). Quarterback Shane Carden, who ranked second nationally in completion percentage last season (70.5 percent) returns after he was named the Conference USA Most Valuable Player
- SMU edged USF for fifth in the poll as the Mustangs had 158 points to the Bulls’ 157. SMU saw a streak of four consecutive postseason appearances end with last year’s 5-7 season, but coach June Jones has never had back-to-back losing seasons in 15 years as a head coach. Wide receiver Darius Joseph had 108 receptions last year, good for second in The American, and was eighth nationally in receptions per game (8.6).
- USF was sixth in the poll, one point behind SMU. The Bulls went 2-10 in Willie Taggart’s first year in Tampa, but return 16 starters that will be augmented by a recruiting class that was projected as the strongest in The American. Wide receiver Andre Davis returns after he set a school record with 735 receiving yards, despite having four different starting quarterbacks deliver the ball last year.
- Memphis was tabbed for seventh in the preseason poll with 133 points. Coach Justin Fuente welcomes 18 starters back from last year, including eight from a defense that ranked 12th nationally against the run last year. Defensive end Martin Ifedi is a contender for national honors after he registered 11.5 sacks last year, while cornerback Bobby McCain led The American with six interceptions despite missing three games due to injury.
- Temple was eighth in the poll with 105 points. The Owls went 2-10 overall and 1-7 in The American in the first year for head coach Matt Rhule, a record that belied how competitive Temple was in 2013. The Owls have just seven seniors on their 2014 roster, but have no shortage of top-end talent. Quarterback P.J. Walker ranked third in The American in pass efficiency (150.8) as a true freshman, trailing only Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich led the nation in solo tackles (8.8 per game) and is a strong candidate for national honors.
- UConn and Tulane tied for ninth in the poll with 98 points each. The Huskies welcome first-year head coach Bob Diaco, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator, who inherits a team that won its last three games of the 2013 season. Wide receiver Geremy Davis is a standout on offense following a season in which he registered 71 catches for 1,085 yards.
- Tulane has 14 returning starters from last year’s team that went 7-6 as Curtis Johnson’s squad improved by five wins from the previous season. The Green Wave will christen the new Yulman Stadium this season as All-America cornerback Lorenzo Doss leads Tulane against seven teams that played in bowl games last season.
- Tulsa was pegged for 11th in the poll with 94 points, but the Golden Hurricane was just 11 points away from the No. 8 spot in the ranking. Recent history suggests that Tulsa will outperform its projection – the Hurricane won the Conference USA title just two years ago and Bill Blankenship has 19 returning starters back from last year’s squad. Defensive back Michael Mudoh, who had 133 tackles last year, leads a group of 10 returning starters on defense.
The Huskies open the season on Friday, Aug 29 when they will entertain BYU at Rentschler Field. Kick-off is slated for 7:00 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN and broadcast on the UConn IMG Sports Radio Network. The schedule includes a visit from Boise of the Mountain Conference. For a complete 2014 UConn schedule, click HERE.