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Big East Spring Football Primer: UConn Huskies

Freshman All-American tailback Lyle McCombs of the Connecticut Huskies carries the ball against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Rentschler Field (Elsa/Getty Images).
Freshman All-American tailback Lyle McCombs of the Connecticut Huskies carries the ball against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Rentschler Field (Elsa/Getty Images).
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The Connecticut Huskies finished 3-4 in conference play last year (5-7 overall). After claiming the Big East co-championship and facing the Oklahoma Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl to culminate the 2010 season, UConn did not qualify for postseason play last year.

As they begin their second under new head coach Paul Pasqualoni, the Huskies have a number of questions on the offensive side of the ball.

Starting in the trenches, the Huskies bid farewell to First Team All-Big East tackle Mike Ryan and Second Team All-Big East center Moe Petrus. While these two starters were solid last season, some would admit that the offensive line underperformed, a situation which may be explained in part by the transition to a different offensive system under new offensive coordinator George DeLeone.

Longtime line coach Mike Foley has been reassigned this season to working with the tight ends while DeLeone will coach the line.

Adam Masters and Steve Greene likely will be starters. Both were a part of last year’s line although Masters may move from guard to tackle. Jimmy Bennett, who has battled injuries throughout his time in Storrs, seems like to join them if healthy. Also in the mix are Kevin Friend, Tyler Bullock and Gus Cruz, who have been in the program, as well as Alex Mateas, a transfer from Penn State. Another interesting possibility is greyshirt freshman center Kyle Bockeloh.

They will need to protect one of five quarterbacks vying for the starting position: Johnny McEntee (a senior walk-on who started last season), sophomores Scott McCummings and Michael Nebrich (dual-threats who each received some playing time in 2011), JUCO transfer Chandler Whitmer (who has three years of eligibility remaining) and newcomer Casey Cochran (two-time Gatorade Connecticut H.S. Player of the Year).

Last year saw a basic pro-style system under McEntee with an occasional Wildcat package run by McCummings. While the approach may have been billed as a means to keep opposing defenses guessing, evidence suggests that it was better described a season-long audition in which no one emerged a clear choice as starter.

The Huskies lost quarterback Michael Box (the heir apparent under former head coach Randy Edsall) to transfer at the end of last season’s camp. With five signal callers – four of whom have three or more years of eligibility – more transfer activity would be no surprise.

Tailback Lyle McCombs ran for more than 1,100 yards as a redshirt freshman last season, earning All-American honors. He follows a line of UConn running backs who have been top performers in the Big East, including Jordan Todman, Andre Dixon and Donald Brown.

Pasqualoni has expressed preference for a feature back to receive the bulk of the carries, which seems to favor McCombs. Senior D.J. Shoemate (a transfer from USC under Edsall), a medical redshirt in 2011, is also expected to see playing time, but he has lost two weeks this spring with a shoulder injury that may end his threaten his remaining college career. Greyshirt freshman Joe Williams has received a lot of praise so far this spring. Redshirt freshman Max DeLorenzo and junior Martin Hyppolite could backup McCombs as well.

At receiver, Kashif Moore and Isiah Moore are gone, but senior Michael Smith is back after a missing the 2011 campaign for academic reasons. Nick Williams, another senior had some impressive receptions last season although he was also the Huskies return specialist. Two other returning receivers are redshirt sophomores Tebucky Jones Jr. and Geremy Davis. A running back last season, sophomore Deshon Foxx has switched to wide receiver. Transfer Shakim Phillips (Boston College) is in the mix this spring as well as Kamal Abrams, both sophomores. Junior transfer Bryce McNeal, who will graduate from Clemson this spring, will join the team for training camp and be eligible in the fall.

At tight end, redshirt seniors Ryan Griffin and (transfer) John Delahunt have the edge over sophomore Mark Hansson and freshman Sean McQuillan.

On defense UConn has depth. Defensive coordinator Don Brown lost only defensive tackles Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin. Senior Ryan Wirth and junior Shamar Stephen seemed poised to become starters on the inside of the line, along with returning seniors Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams on the ends.

Seniors Sio Moore and Jory Johnson return as starting linebackers together with sophomore Yawin Smallwood. They’ll be aided by redshirt freshmen Jefferson Ashiru and Marquise Vann, as well as senior transfer Ryan Donohue, who played under Brown at Maryland. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Steg has caught some eyes this spring too.

At cornerback, senior starters Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz are likely to be backed up primarily by junior Taylor Mack. Redshirt sophomores Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown will start again at safety with junior Gilbert St. Louis and redshirt freshman Wilbert Lee as the expected substitutes.

The Huskies also graduated their all-time leading scorer in placekicker Dave Teggart. Junior Chad Christen is his likely replacement, although highly regarded recruit Bobby Puyol will be added to the roster in training camp. Punter Cole Wagner, a junior, is back too.

Connecticut lost Joe Moorhead from its coaching staff. The former quarterbacks coach (and offensive coordinator under Edsall) accepted the head coaching job at Fordham. He was replaced by Shane Day who coached the Chicago Bears quarterbacks for the past two seasons.

UConn’s annual Blue-White (spring) game will be played April 21 at Rentschler Field. The regular season schedule includes nonconference home games against UMass, N.C. State and Buffalo, and road games against Maryland and Western Michigan. In Big East play, the Huskies will host Temple, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, while traveling to Rutgers, Syracuse, South Florida and Louisville.

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