UConn freshman Turner relishes chance to play on the big stage
Storrs – Since his youth football days, Zion Turner has always played on winning teams.
Turner lost only two games in high school, going 37-2 and winning three state championships during his career at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Now as the starting quarterback at UConn, Turner, a true freshman, is in unfamiliar territory. UConn carries a 1-3 record into Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game (NESN+, YES) at No. 12 North Carolina State, a Power Five program from the Atlantic Coast Conference, at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.
Turner is determined to help turn the struggling Huskies into a winner. That was a major factor in his decision to come to Storrs.
“Coming here, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Turner said earlier this week. “When you have a team that was what they were last year, it’s going to be hard to turn things around. It’s not going to happen the first week or second week. It’s going to take time.
“Now I’m in the starting role, I have to get the chemistry going, get everything flowing in the pass game and run game and everything.”
For the second straight week, UConn will face an unbeaten nationally-ranked on the road. The Huskies are coming off a humbling 59-0 loss at No. 4 Michigan.
The Huskies are out to prove that thet’ve better than they showed last week.
“We’re coming out with a chip on our shoulders,” Turner said. “That performance definitely wasn’t us. We’re over that. We’re really locked in right now.”
Entering the season as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart, Turner was forced into action in the first half of the season-opening loss at Utah State on Aug. 27 when Ta`Quan Roberson suffered a season-ending knee injury.
So far, Turner’s completed 44 of 86 passes for 390 yards and four touchdowns while throwing three interceptions, guiding an attack that’s averaging only 280.5 yards and 15.5 points per game. UConn’s offense has been conservative with the true freshman in charge.
Turner has been protected by a strong offensive line, which has allowed only four sacks.
“They’re doing a great job,” Turner said. “I have to be better for them. They’ve given me time back there. I have to be way better for them shooting the ball down the field or even just throwing short passes to get our offense in a rhythm.”
Injuries have gradually piled up, putting Turner in a tough spot.
On Saturday, the Huskies will be without their top two running backs, including their most productive offensive player – Nate Carter – who’s out with a shoulder separation. Graduate transfer Nigel Fitzgerald (knee) is the latest player to join the injury list and the third receiver overall to be sidelined for the season.
“This is challenging, but it also is an opportunity to grow,” coach Jim Mora said. “We have to develop depth, so it gives young guys a chance to play and be thrown into the fire sometimes before they’re either physically or emotionally ready. And it helps you grow up.”
The absences in the backfield mean that freshman Victor Rosa, the ex-Bristol Central star, will see more playing time as will sophomore Devontae Houston, who returns to action after missing last week’s game with a shoulder injury, and veteran Robert Burns. Freshman Cam Edwards of Norwalk recently switched from defensive back to running back to add depth.
Turner has faith that other teammates will step up.
“Our running back room, they’re working hard,” Turner said. “We’re down some guys but we’re pushing through.”
Turner and the Huskies will be facing a Wolfpack team that has allowed an average of 12.3 points in wins over East Carolina, Charleston Southern and Texas Tech.
He relishes the chance to play on a big stage.
“This is all I ever dream of,” Turner said. “Now that I’m here, I have to play up to standards that I know I can play up to. It’s something that I’ve been waiting for all my life. When you have this opportunity, you have to take advantage of it.”
If Turner needs advice, he can turn to his older brother, Zahir, who started out as a quarterback during his playing days and eventually became a receiver.
They often worked out together growing up and remain close.
“He’s kind of like a coach,” Zion said. “Even to this day, after games he’ll hit me with a text, (saying) he saw this, I need to do that. … He knows that I have a great opportunity at hand, so he’s always giving me advice.”