UConn begins Diaco era tonight

Bob Diaco, who set out to change the culture of UConn football when he was hired last December, makes his head coaching debut tonight when the Huskies host Brigham Young in a nationally-televised game (ESPN) at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
Bob Diaco, who set out to change the culture of UConn football when he was hired last December, makes his head coaching debut tonight when the Huskies host Brigham Young in a nationally-televised game (ESPN) at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. Jessica Hill/AP Photo

Bob Diaco has a vision of what he'd like to see from his UConn football team in tonight's season opener.

You could hear the excitement building in his voice as the passionate and enthusiastic first-year head coach described his ideal scenario for UConn's non-conference game against Brigham Young at Rentschler Field in East Hartford (7 p.m., ESPN).

"I want to see a team that is focused and resolute," Diaco said. "I want to see an aggressive, intense, tough team that gives great effort. I want to see animation. I want to hear animation.

"I want to see an energy coming from individual players and collectively as a unit and collectively as a team. That's there's great joy in what they're doing. That's what I will expect from the team. I will be disappointed if I don't see that."

Disappointing basically sums up the 2013 UConn football season. The Huskies started poorly, losing nine straight, saw their head coach Paul Pasqualoni fired, and finished under .500 (3-9) for the third straight season.

Since being hired in December, Diaco, considered one of college football's top assistants while at Notre Dame, has injected some much-needed energy into the program.

The Huskies have warmly embraced their coach's fiery message and plan to channel their inner-Diaco when they take the field.

"You only get so many opportunities to do stuff like this," said Graham Stewart, a junior linebacker, "so if you're not fired up, there's something wrong with you. I think the team in general is just revved up and ready to go. And coach Diaco has been motivating us since winter when he got here.

"We want to prove to everybody in the state of Connecticut as well as the nation that this is a new era and this is a new team and when we buckle up our chin straps you're going to see that."

UConn will be decisive underdogs against an older BYU team. Dynamic quarterback Taysom Hill, who had 1,211 rushing yards, 2,645 passing yards and 29 touchdowns last season, leads a potent attack. But the Cougars will be without leading rusher Jamaal Williams as well as a receiver and two starters in the secondary because of suspensions.

"They have a great offense," said senior Byron Jones, a member of an experienced secondary. "They're going to make some plays. Our job as a defense is to minimize those plays."

BYU is coming off an 8-5 season and appeared in its ninth straight bowl game. UConn is searching for that kind of consistent success in its program.

"They're going to be tough," said starting tailback Max DeLorenzo. "They're always a good team, good program. What's unique about them, they're a bunch of older guys and experienced because they do missions."

Diaco is familiar with the Cougars, having coached against them last season while at Notre Dame. But he's more concerned with the way his team plays tonight.

There are numerous questions surrounding Huskies, who return five starters on offense and five on defense. They have some quality skill position players but will rely on a rebuilt offensive line and attempt to plug the holes of a defense that a year ago allowed 30.2 points per game.

Another storyline will be the play of quarterback Casey Cochran, a former New London High School standout who won the starting job during the preseason. Cochran guided the Huskies to all three victories last season and threw for 1,293 yards overall and 11 touchdowns in eight games.

After watching film on UConn, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall came away impressed with Cochran and the Husky receiving corps, including rising star Geremy Davis.

"I certainly think the quarterback is very capable and added a spark and some consistency," Mendenhall said. "So I was impressed there. I actually like UConn's receiving corp. They have some big play potential there."

Tonight is the first of three non-conference home games. Diaco considers this stretch a chance for the Huskies to improve and prepare for the American Athletic Conference season.

Diaco realizes that it will take more than nine months with the program to turn things around.

"We need to get better as a program and get better as a team," he said. "That's where we're at. We're facing a team whose head coach has been at the helm for 10 years. I've been here for nine months.

"The players, all of them, have made a massive investment. The only way they're going to take that next step to getting better is playing in the games."

g.keefe@theday.com

Twitter: @GavinKeefe

Wide receiver Geremy Davis, who became the first UConn player during the FBS era to have more than 1,000 receiving yards, brings some experience to the Huskies' offense.
Wide receiver Geremy Davis, who became the first UConn player during the FBS era to have more than 1,000 receiving yards, brings some experience to the Huskies' offense. Fred Beckham/AP Photo
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