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Huskies hit the road to play Vanderbilt of the SEC

An infusion of young talent has injected some life into the UConn football team.

While still searching for their first win of the season, the Huskies (0-5) have shown signs of improvement in recent weeks.

With only 10 seniors on the roster, they're one of the youngest teams in the country.

"I think we're a youthful team in general because we're all like the same age," interim head coach Lou Spanos said. " I'm 50 going on 18. ... Everyone is upbeat. You bring in recruits to make the team better and we're making our team better."

For a combination of reasons, the Huskies are relying on underclassmen to carry the workload on offense and special teams.

In some cases, injuries have forced Spanos to turn to younger players. Other underclassmen have simply earned starting roles like freshman quarterback Tyler Phommachanh, who will be making his third straight start Saturday at Vanderbilt (7:30 p.m., CBSSN) in Nashville, Tenn.

Phommachanh is one of five freshmen starters on offense while two other starters are redshirt freshmen.

On special teams, the placekicker, punter, long snapper and two kick returners are first-year players. The defense is more experienced but still has two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and a freshman on the first team. Leading tacklers Jackson Mitchell and Hunter Webb, two linebackers, are both sophomores.

The freshmen have brought a youthful enthusiasm and energy to the team.

They've also been productive.

Nathan Carter is the team's leading rusher. Brian Brewton returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Aaron Turner and Keelan Marion rank first and second, respectively, on the team in receptions. Joe McFadden booted his first three collegiate field goals last week.

With Phommachanh at the helm the last two games, UConn has averaged 21.5 points compared to 9.3 points the first three games.

"The team has responded well and we're getting better," Spanos said. "We've been talking since the new season started that we're going to put our best players out there and compete," Spanos said. "The freshmen are doing a good job.

"... The good thing about the young players, the more reps they get, the better they become."

The "new season" started when Spanos was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach after Randy Edsall retired following a stunning loss to Holy Cross.

Spanos is still searching for his first win but the Huskies are getting closer to breaking a nine-game losing streak dating back to October 2019. For the first time this season, they led in the fourth quarter before falling to Wyoming, 24-22, last Saturday.

Vanderbilt (1-3), a member of the mighty Southeastern Conference, also is struggling. The Commodores are coming off a 62-0 blowout loss to No. 2 Georgia. Their only victory came at Colorado State, 24-21, on Sept. 11. They're averaging just 12.5 points per game, using a two quarterback system, and allowing 36.8.

Spanos says Vanderbilt is better than its record indicates.

"It's a very good opportunity and very good competition," Webb said. "As long as we keep going up and keep going forward in the right direction, I think we're going to have a good game."

It's a big game for Vanderbilt because its schedule stiffens after hosting UConn, playing seven straight SEC opponents to end the season.

"UConn is going to put forth a challenge," Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said in a story on the school's website. "They played their best football last weekend and they're going to come in with the confidence of a team that's ready to win a game on the road. We're going to have to play our best and battle all the things that have shown up to hold us back."

The two programs last met in 2011, with UConn losing 24-21 in Nashville.

UConn's last road win was at UMass on Oct. 26, 2019.

Spanos is encouraged by the positive signs he's seen in recent weeks.

"First of all, I think the culture is changing for the better," Spanos said. "The team is on the same page. Also, you see the special teams performing at a higher level. You see the offense getting in sync and you see the defense playing better football.

"Is there room for improvement? Most definitely. But they're playing for each other and they're working hard. Getting a win, that's the next step."

g.keefe@theday.com

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