As season opens, Huskies are game for passing
Paul Pasqualoni waited until the start of training camp to name Chandler Whitmer his starting quarterback.
But those who witnessed Whitmer's performance during UConn's annual Blue-White Spring Game four months earlier certainly weren't surprised with Pasqualoni's decision.
Whitmer, a junior college transfer from Butler Community College in Kansas, was solid from start to finish that April afternoon, completing 18 of 27 passes for 187 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
And when he steps into the huddle tonight for UConn's 2012 opener against UMass at Rentschler Field (7:30 p.m., SNY), the Husky faithful - not to mention Pasqualoni and his entire coaching staff - hope the 6-foot-1 sophomore can jump-start a passing game that's been rather anemic since Dan Orlovsky led the Huskies to their first bowl appearance in 2004.
"It's something I've dreamed about since I was a little guy," Whitmer said earlier this week as he prepared for his first FBS (formerly Division I-A) start. "And now it's my opportunity."
Whitmer, who arrived in January and beat out four other players for the No. 1 job - including 2011 starter Johnny McEntee - becomes the third straight new opening day starter and the eighth different QB to start a game since 2006.
The Huskies need stability and productivity at the position, something Whitmer must provide in order for UConn to bounce back from a disappointing 5-7 season in 2011, Pasqualoni's first year as head coach.
Orlovsky averaged 279.5 passing yards per game in 2004 and 290.4 the previous season, throwing 56 touchdown passes. By contrast, eight different UConn quarterbacks have combined to throw only 59 TD passes the past five seasons (with 54 interceptions) and the Huskies averaged more than 200 yards passing just once (Zach Frazer and Cody Endres combined for 216.5 yards per game in 2009).
Pasqualoni doesn't expect Whitmer to put up Orlovsky numbers, but something close would be nice. It would also take some of the pressure off of sophomore tailback Lyle McCombs, who became the fifth back in four seasons to surpass 1,000 rushing yards when he ran for 1,151 yards in 2011.
"I think we're where we want to be at this point and we're ready to go," McCombs said.
The Huskies have size and experience up front, led by fifth-year seniors Adam Masters (right guard) and Jimmy Bennett (left tackle). They also return a pair of fifth-year senior tight ends in Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt.
Whitmer also has one of the deepest wide receiving corps since the Huskies joined the FBS ranks. Senior Mike Smith, who missed the 2011 season (academic casualty) after leading UConn in receptions (46) in 2010, returns and is joined by senior Nick Williams and Shakim Phillips, a 6-foot-1 transfer from Boston College gives UConn its first deep threat since Marcus Easley in 2009.
The Huskies haven't had a receiver average more than 1,000 yards per game in the FBS era, but Phillips has that kind of potential.
"We've got some great playmakers," Whitmer said. "I'm excited about all the weapons we have on offense."
Defensively, UConn returns eight starters, including senior corners Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz. Outside linebacker Sio Moore is the emotional leader while end Trevardo Williams had 12.5 sacks in 2011. All four have NFL potential. The Huskies are inexperienced at tackle after losing All-Big East performer Kendall Reyes (second round pick of the San Diego Chargers) and Twyon Martin to graduation. Veteran Shamar Stephen (knee) will miss tonight's opener.
Tonight's game against UMass, which is making its FBS debut under first-year coach Charley Molnar, is the first of five straight nonconference games to open the season. They play host to N.C. State in Week 2, play back-to-back road games at Maryland and Western Michigan, then return home to face Buffalo before starting Big East play on Oct. 6 at Rutgers.
"Everyone is excited," Trevardo Williams said. "We have 16 seniors and this is our last year. We're trying to go out with a bang."
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