Offensive improvement vital to UConn's success this season
Momentum is clearly on the UConn football program's side entering the 2016 season.
Bob Diaco has restored respectability and built a firm foundation in his first two seasons as head coach. He's instilled a positive culture and winning attitude in his players who've responded by increasing their overall investment in the program.
The Huskies return the heart of a team that earned a bowl bid for the first time since the 2010 season and won four more games (6-7) than in Diaco's first season (2-10).
Everything is in place for the program to take another significant step forward.
"The momentum is great," Diaco said. "We had a large mass to move. We've moved it and we're moving it at a particular rate now. And it takes a lot of force. ... That's the kind of momentum we're talking about."
UConn looks to continue its climb this season starting with Thursday's season opener against nonconference foe Maine at 7 p.m. at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
Optimism is sky high.
"We're starting at a level that we've never experience before," senior captain Matt Walsh said. "We have a base, a foundation and a building. Now we're just putting another whole floor on it."
Last season, they leaned heavily on a stout defense that led the American Athletic Conference. They ranked 15th in the country in scoring defense, allowing 19.5 points per game. They should put up a defensive stone wall once again this season.
"We believe we can be the best defense in the country and that's what we strive for every day," redshirt senior defensive back Obi Melifonwu said.
Whether the Huskies reach another level will likely depend on offensive production. They sputtered with the ball last season, scoring only 17.2 points. They scored fewer than 14 points in five of their seven losses.
"I think it's pretty obvious that we'd like to make an improvement with our offense," Diaco said. "I've heard the quote that they've struggled and that's not entirely true. They did improve. We improved from 2014 to 2015. I'm really looking forward to the improvement from 2015 to 2016. There's a lot of returning players that have played a bunch of plays.
"Now we have system continuity. ... I would anticipate a surge that's more profound than the other two phases with our offense."
So what can Husky fans expect from the offense?
Certainly not a high-flying, machine gun-style attack.
The run-oriented Huskies are all about limiting turnovers, sustaining drives and field position. Improvements are expected in the execution department. Their finishing skills also will need to be better.
"We're really a little bit old school here," offensive coordinator Frank Verducci said. "It's not much different than the model here in the early 2000s in that it's complementary football. ... All three pieces have to fit together. So part of our deal is zero turnovers, time of possession, run the football and it complements what we do defensively. And then the kicking game plays into the field position aspect of it.
"We're not a flash and dazzle, we're not an offense of the year type of thing. We want to be spectacularly consistent. ... At the end of the day, I'd be lying to you to say you're not aware of rankings and numbers. But at the end of the day the thing you remember is wins or losses."
That doesn't mean the Huskies will never waver from their conservative game plan. They used a trick play — reserve quarterback Garrett Anderson threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Noel Thomas — to upset Houston last season.
With 10 starters back, including quarterback Bryant Shirreffs who's known as a fierce competitor and threw for 2,078 yards and nine touchdowns last season, there's a greater comfort level with the unit. Shirreffs will operate behind a battle-tested offensive line.
"It's more evolved," Shirreffs said of the offense. "A lot of people say we have a lot of returning players and some really talented players coming back. I think it's more about preparation and our mindset in the off-season. ... I'm really satisfied with the work that was put in in the off-season and the whole attitude of the program.
"So that's why I'd say we're definitely excited and eager to get out there."
The Huskies plan on taking advantage of their playmakers, including the explosive Arkeel Newsome (a team-best 792 yards rushing in 2015) who's a threat as a runner, receiver and kick returner. Backup tailback Ron Johnson, who's coming off his best preseason camp, is another weapon as well as Thomas, a senior wide receiver who had a team-high 719 receiving yards and scored three touchdowns last season. Tommy Myers headlines a strong group of tight ends.
Tonight's game might not provide an accurate read on the offense's progress given the opponent. The Black Bears play in the Football Championship Subdivison. First-year head coach Joe Harasymiak is looking to put his stamp on the program. He takes over a team that went 3-8 overall last season.
It's a chance for Maine to show it can compete against Football Bowl Subdivision teams like UConn.
"I just think there's excitement playing in these games," Harasymiak said. "We're out to prove something. ... It's a great measuring stick for us. But we're going to be focused this year on earning people's respect."