UConn football's off-season theme: Get bigger, faster, stronger

UConn head coach Randy Edsall feels like the Huskies made some promising improvements in 2017, despite finishing 3-9 for the second straight season. (Gary Landers)/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)
UConn head coach Randy Edsall feels like the Huskies made some promising improvements in 2017, despite finishing 3-9 for the second straight season. (Gary Landers)/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)

With a rocky season over, the UConn football program shifts its focus to making the necessary improvements to continue the rebuilding project.

The off-season theme will be to get bigger, faster and stronger.

That's certainly not a revelation to anyone watching the Huskies play this season. Their competitive heart couldn't overcome their physical deficiencies.

Coach Randy Edsall noticed those issues as early as last spring.

"Some of the other things that we need to really get good at, we couldn't address during the season and that's get bigger, faster and stronger," Edsall said last week. "That will happen starting a week after (the regular season finale).

"I addressed this at the end of the spring when we tested our guys. I went through everything. I sent an email to all of the coaches and (athletic director) David (Benedict) and (chief operating officer) Beth (Goetz). I just told them that we're not a strong enough team and we're not a fast enough team. Those are the two areas to me that were glaring when I finally got a chance to look at everything and see guys compete and also see guys in terms of what they were doing in the weight room."

This will be Edsall's first full off-season since returning for his second stint as head coach. He was hired late last December, getting a late start on rebuilding a team that went 3-9 last season.

Record-wise, the Huskies didn't improve, finishing 3-9 again. They had one more win (2-6) in the American Athletic Conference and placed last in the East Division, just as forecasted in the league's preseason poll. They finished with a season-high five-game losing streak.

But there was progress, some of which can't be measured in statistics.

"Practice-wise, we've gotten better in terms of knowing how to practice and practicing at the expectations that we have," Edsall said. "It still wasn't good enough, but it's gotten better. And also just competing. If you put the film on at the beginning of the year to where we are now, you see a whole different intensity level and a whole different situation in terms of guys going hard. If you don't have those things, it doesn't matter if we got better.

"Guys got better at fundamentals and techniques."

It was a challenging season for players and coaches. The Huskies had to learn a new system on both sides of the ball. Veterans had to adjust to yet another coaching change while inexperienced underclassmen were thrown into the fire with predictable results.

Statistically, the Huskies were even a more porous defense than the previous season. They rank last in the FBS in passing defense (333.9 yards per game) and 122nd in scoring defense (37.9 points). They allowed a single-season program record for points (454).

UConn is losing four of its top six tacklers, its starting defensive line and two first-team linebackers, so there's holes to fill there. A young secondary will be benefit from having extended playing time.

Offensively, the Huskies took a noticeable step forward under coordinator Rhett Lashlee. The Huskies went from averaging 14.8 points per game last season to 23.6 this fall. That still wasn't potent enough to compete in the high-powered AAC and 102nd overall in the country. They struggled to finish off drives, leaving too many points on the field instead of the scoreboard.

Edsall got a good long look at quarterback David Pindell, who started the last three games after taking over for injured senior Bryant Shirreffs.

Pindell showed some promise, especially in the regular season finale loss at Cincinnati on Saturday. He threw for a career-high 273 yards, rushed for 95 yards, and capped off late touchdown drive with a scoring pass to Hergy Mayala. A missed extra point prevented them from forcing overtime and produced a painful 22-21 loss.

In seven appearances, Pindell, a junior in his first season at UConn, completed 52.8 percent of his passes, threw for 937 yards and four touchdowns while being intercepted six times. He also rushed for 289 yards and three scores.

Pindell will likely be the frontrunner for the starting job in 2018. Redshirt sophomore Brandon Bisack finished the fall as the backup.

The Huskies will return their two leading rushers in freshman Kevin Mensah (561 yards, four TDs) and redshirt freshman Nate Hopkins (343 yards, seven TDs) as well as three starters on the offensive line. The top five receivers, who each had at least 30 receptions, also will be back.

There's still a glaring need to improve the overall talent and depth. Edsall and his coaching staff will search the recruiting trail looking for players who'll embrace the program slogan of "it's earned, not given."

"We can't afford to make a mistake," Edsall said. "We've been working diligently since we've been here. And we've got to find the right type of guys. ... The generation I grew up with, you have to work for everything you got. Now everybody wants a handout. Everyone wants something for nothing. They want to be enabled and entitled. That's hard for me.

"I'll never embrace that. ... It's not going to happen as long as I'm the head coach here. Guys are going to work. ... I know we're on the right track in terms of having those people here and getting our guys to really understand that message."

The departing Huskies have confidence that the program is in good hands with Edsall.

"I believe in coach Edsall and his plan for the program to bring the program back to its greatness," redshirt senior Foley Fatukasi said. "I would say continue to have a lot of faith in us because it will get there."

g.keefe@theday.com

Quarterback David Pindell, who started the final three games had his best passing game in the season finale at Cincinnati, will return to UConn in 2018 along with a number of young skill position players. (Gary Landers/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)
Quarterback David Pindell, who started the final three games had his best passing game in the season finale at Cincinnati, will return to UConn in 2018 along with a number of young skill position players. (Gary Landers/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)

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