True freshmen are already contributing for UConn football

UConn head coach Randy Edsall works the sidelines during the season opener against Holy Cross on Aug. 31 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)
UConn head coach Randy Edsall works the sidelines during the season opener against Holy Cross on Aug. 31 at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. (AP Photo/Stephen Dunn)

Storrs — When evaluating young players, UConn coach Randy Edsall can tell a lot by looking into their eyes.

Edsall is searching for a competitive spirit and confidence that could help those Huskies overcome inexperience and a lack of size.

He's spotted those traits in a number of true freshmen on the roster. Ten of those newcomers saw action in UConn's first two football games.

"One thing you always look at, do they have the confidence in themselves to go out and handle that situation?..." Edsall said. "I can look in a kid's eyes and can tell that he's got that competitiveness ... and he's not going to back down even though he might not be as strong as he's going to be or put on as much weight as he's got to put on.

"... That's what they showed me. If they make a mistake, they've got a short memory. They let it go and then they move on. But then they also have some abilities to make up for maybe a technique mistake that they might make."

Six true freshmen, including starting defensive back Ian Swenson, are listed on the depth chart for Sunday's American Athletic Conference opener against East Carolina (0-3) at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

Kevin Mensah, a 5-foot-9, 198-pound running back from Worcester, Mass., earned a spot in the rotation after playing well in Saturday's 38-18 loss at Virginia. He rushed for 49 yards on six carries, scoring a touchdown on a 30-yard scamper.

A knee injury during preseason camp proved to be only a temporary setback for Mensah, who planned to attend St. Thomas More before Edsall came calling.

"Coach Edsall, when he brought me in, he said you have a chance to play and that kind of motivated me,"  Mensah said. "You've got to step it up as a freshman and give your all. Once you get your opportunity, you've got to show him what you can do and I think that's what I did."

Mensah provides the kind of speed and explosiveness that no other running back on the roster can supply.

"We saw it from the day that he came in here," Edsall said. "He probably would have been playing from the beginning if he didn't get hurt during training camp. You could see that he's got burst and some explosion. He's still got a lot to learn now, don't get me wrong. But he gives you some things that we don't have at that position."

Swenson is another true freshman who took advantage of his opportunity, filling in redshirt junior Anthony Watkins who out went with a concussion against Virginia.

In his first extended action, Swenson had six tackles on Saturday. Adjusting to the speed of the game is the biggest challenge, he added.

"It's really cool being out there and getting a lot of reps," Swenson said. "I had a few mental mistakes but we're getting that fixed."

With Watkins in concussion protocol, Swenson will start against East Carolina.

"He has the ability to be a very good player," Edsall said. "He's very athletic and a tough kid, too."

It fairly uncommon for a true freshman to play significant minutes on the offensive line, but that's just what Ryan Van Demark is doing at the tackle position as a backup.

At 265 pounds, Van Demark won't overpower bigger and stronger opponents. His athleticism is a big plus, though.

"Since I'm athletically gifted, I guess, it helps me without being that heavy to compete," Van Demark said.

Van Demark is working hard to put on weight. He's suppose to consume close to 6,000 calories per day. He eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every night before bed.

"Some of the older guys are helping me with that," Van Demark said. "Matt Peart will follow me around in the dining hall and load me up. They're all helping me try to gain that weight."

Mental mistakes are bound to happen with true freshmen. That's where UConn's veteran leaders come into play.

Redshirt senior linebacker Junior Joseph says he can't imagine how tough it must be for a true freshman to step right in and play at the Division I level. 

Joseph offered his young teammates some advice, telling them:

"You guys were brought in here for a reason. You are Division I athletes. You've got to man up and play like men. Just envision yourself as the best freshman at your position in the country. You've got to walk like that and carry yourself like that. It breeds confidence in yourself. So when you're on that field, you have that swagger that you're the best.''

He added: "I just keep reminding them of that every day and eventually they're going to come along. I have confidence in those freshmen. It's still early in the season."

g.keefe@theday.com

 

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