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    Thursday, February 02, 2023

    UConn football benefits from break with BC on the horizon

    UConn freshman tight end Justin Joly chats with the media Tuesday at the Burton Family Football complex. (Gavin Keefe/The Day)
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    Redshirt freshman defensive back Malcolm Bell, whose football journey started in his hometown of Montreal, has made an impact in his first season at UConn. (Gavin Keefe/The Day)
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    Storrs — A much-needed bye week allowed the UConn football team to rest, recharge and reset.

    Players enjoyed some time off after starting the season with eight straight games.

    “I enjoyed it,” freshman tight end Justin Joly said Tuesday. “It was fun to get a little break. … The bye week definitely helped. I definitely relaxed. I got to see my mom. I’m a momma’s boy, so I love seeing her. I was happy to see her, my dog and my sister.”

    It also gave first-year coach Jim Mora an opportunity to evaluate his team — find out what’s working and what’s not, what his team needs to improve on, and what adjustments need to be made. He also did some recruiting, including watching a couple high school games, and met with his players.

    Now it’s back to work for the Huskies (3-5), who host Boston College (2-5) at noon Saturday at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

    “Good bye week,” Mora said. “We got a couple of days of practice in. We gave the players a chance to rest, focus on academics and spend a little time with their families. The coaches got a chance to get a little bit of a head start on Boston College.

    “We got out on the road and did some recruiting and got a chance to rest a little bit ourselves, but not much. But it was a productive week and the players came back in a really good state of mind. … People always worry that you’re going to be rusty coming off a bye. Well, I didn’t feel that today. I felt a great energy, so I’m excited for these next few weeks and certainly this week.”

    Mora is pleased with the team’s progress.

    And he should be.

    The Huskies have already matched the victory total from the previous two seasons combined.

    And by securing just one win in the last four games, they’ll have their best season since going 6-7 in 2015.

    “I’m very encouraged every single day I’m around these players,” Mora said. “Just by their attitude, the way they work, the direction we’re headed, the progress that they’re making. I just feel like we’re heading in the right direction.

    “It’s a long road. I don’t have to tell you what this program was like, they struggled. For whatever reason, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m ecstatic with the players that we have and the attitude that they have and the work ethic that they have. They’re intent on becoming better. It’s fun to be around.”

    Mora and the Huskies are far from satisfied.

    They’d love to have the Ball State game back after blowing a 21-10 halftime lead and falling 25-21 on Oct. 15 before heading into the bye week.

    On the plus side, Mora has seen growth in his team, especially in the younger players.

    Joly and redshirt freshman defensive back Malcolm Bell are two examples. Their roles have expanded to the point that they’re now key contributors.

    In the last four games, Joly has caught 12 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.

    “What you’re seeing with Justin and you’re seeing it with a lot of our young players, is they’re starting to feel comfortable doing what they’re doing,” Mora said.

    Bell blocked a field goal, had a career-high nine tackles and broke up three passes at Ball State. He’s an interesting story in that he forged his own path to becoming a college football player. His hometown of Montreal wasn’t a football hotbed.

    “Nobody recruited me,” Bell said. “I just went to a prep school and wanted to try to see if I could make it. I’m here now, thank God. Why take that risk? Because I want to be somebody. You’ve only got one life. I’m seeing everybody on TV, NCAA and all that, and I’m like, `Why can’t I be one of them?’ … I just wanted to chase my dream.”

    Injury updates

    Wide receiver Keelan Marion, a starter who’s been sidelined since suffering a broken collarbone in the season-opening loss at Utah State on Aug. 27, has returned to practice. There’s a chance that he’ll be available on Saturday.

    Redshirt sophomore Cam Ross (broken foot), another injured receiver, is making progress. He’s been cleared to start doing some light activity but still has a ways to go before playing in a game.

    “I think that always gives your team a boost when a couple of guys like that come back,” Mora said.

    Two other key Huskies are also close to returning.

    Sophomore Devontae Houston, the team’s second leading rusher, is recovering from a high ankle sprain. He worked on the side during Tuesday’s practice.

    “We’d love to see him on Saturday,” Mora said. “We need all the depth that we can get at that position.”

    Starting linebacker Ian Swenson (concussion), the team’s fourth leading tackler, also benefited from the bye week break. He participated in some non-contact drills on Tuesday.

    “We’re always going to proceed with extreme caution when it comes to the head, neck and spine,” Mora said. “So our doctors will make the decision whether or not he’s cleared to play. … And I’ll respect that decision.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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