Cochran just wins

East Hartford

Casey Cochran's ongoing education at UConn has fortified a vocabulary that already extended beyond the pedestrian, "can't," "doesn't" and "isn't." And yet the words, like the blanket behind Linus, are always there trailing him. And kind of a drag.

Can't run.

Doesn't have a big arm.

Isn't tall enough.

No word whether Cochran fails to brush between meals, mixes colors with whites in the laundry and drives 55 in a 45.

But this much we know: the son of Jack and Shannon, New London kid at heart, passes the most scientific test of all in sports: It.

Casey's got it.

And we're seeing it on the field now, the 'it' nobody can describe, the great intangible. But you know it when you see it.

Cochran is the new quarterback at UConn, waiting his turn since what felt like the time Ford pardoned Nixon. And now the Huskies, once winless and hopeless, have a new life to the football season, winners of two straight with the captain of can't, doesn't and isn't.

Cochran threw in excess of 300 yards Saturday in the 28-17 over Rutgers, drawing hosannas from teammates and coaches who know the new sheriff in Storrs is the kid who does earnestness as a habit, not a reaction.

"Ever since he got the starting role, the approach to every practice has changed," receiver Geremy Davis said Saturday. "If we mess up, he wants to do it again. He takes the blame for any mistake we make. If we go three and out, he's picking us up. A leader on offense."

And this, really, is the primary path to "it." You are a uniter or you aren't. This is how you unite: By preaching accountability but assuming responsibility. Deflecting praise.

By being the guy who, even if unwittingly, removes the pressure from everyone else.

This is where it begins with Cochran. The demeanor. Maybe we shouldn't be so stunned, at least not in this corner of the world. If you know Casey, you know he didn't merely grow up around sports, but perpetual success. Casey was there with Jack and his teams, all the winning teams. He grew up around Shannon, the rock of the family, the complement to Jack's occasional spasms.

What an education.

"Casey is the same guy today he's been every single day," interim coach T.J. Weist said. "Through all the changes he has been Casey. It's not like all of a sudden he's some super quarterback now. He has the same mentality and demeanor. He doesn't panic. Up or down, he's the same guy. You need that from a quarterback."

And it's authentic leadership. Leaders, in spite of how narratives are spun, aren't the garish, demonstrative muggers for the camera. They are the preachers of positive, bearers of burdens.

"A lot of guys can chirp," Weist said. "but unless you can back it up, guys aren't going to trust what you say. He backs it up. He doesn't have a great arm. It's not like he's slinging all around the field, slinging it deep. He just makes good decisions."

Some of us questioned Cochran's ascent to the starting job, critical of burning freshman Tim Boyle's redshirt. But you can't ignore the results. The body language. They block harder for him. They catch the ball with more regularity. They believe.

Sure, Boyle was saddled with the defenses of Louisville, Cincinnati and Central Florida. Cochran has benefitted from SMU, Temple and Rutgers, none of which might be able to stop Ansonia. But the players have spoken without speaking. Just look at them. Look at how they've rallied around the kid who can't, isn't and doesn't.

"Looks can be deceiving," Davis said. "You see he wants to be good."

And this is the story of the football season nobody saw coming a few weeks ago. Maybe they've found their quarterback.

There is a week remaining now, one more test for Cochran, before a new coach comes along. They kickoff at 1 next week at Rentschler. You'll find Shannon Russell pacing atop Section 118 with the other season ticket holders just like always. You'll find Casey in the huddle in complete command. And you just might forget everything else Casey Cochran isn't.

This is the opinion of Day assistant sports editor Mike DiMauro.


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