The UConn football team opened spring practice this week with their first three practices as preparations have begun for the 2018 season. With position battles all over the field, needless to say, this year is sure to capture attention. So who has stood out? How is the all-important quarterback position playing out? With a new offensive coordinator in John Dunn, what’s the transition been like offensively? With the loss of so much leadership defensively, how have the younger guys responded? Let’s start at quarterback.
PINDELL SHOWING CONFIDENCE
At quarterback, it’s clear David Pindell has approached the start of spring with the mentality that this is his team. Possessing a great deal of confidence, he looks sharp and has also clearly taken a step forward with his game. Head coach Randy Edsall agreed with that assessment on Thursday.
“He does [look confident] and we are trying to get him to be a little more vocal,” Edsall said. “He’s got plenty of arm strength, but we need to get him to drive the ball a little bit more. That will help him and make things a little bit easier. He does [look confident], having that year under his system, it’s good for him, but we still need to get him to be a little more vocal. I don’t mean yelling or anything like that, but just talking and communicating more with those guys.”
“All those guys have really done a good job in picking up the new offense and being comfortable with it,” Edsall continued. “There haven’t been a lot of problems with formations or false starts, so that is really encouraging.”
With Marvin Washington, Jordan McAfee and Brandon Bisack all looking to separate themselves, Edsall touched on the quarterback rotation behind Pindell in practice.
“We are just really going every two plays,” he said. “So David is taking four reps with the one’s and then as we go with the two’s, it’s two, two, two right now. That’s how we started and we’ll see as we continue to go if there is separation, if those reps need to change.”
WITH DUNN AT OC, OFFENSE HASN’T MISSED A BEAT
When there is a change with any scheme, there is usually a learning curve. However, with the new offense, there seems to be lots of similarities in terms of formations and personnel as was seen a year ago. Predominantly, the unit is still in 11-personnel out of shotgun. Edsall assessed Dunn’s first day on the job following his first practice with the Huskies on Monday.
“John is a pro,” Edsall said. “He’s got so much experience and knowledge. You saw the offense, there wasn’t a whole lot of issues there. That’s a credit to John and his leadership capability and his ability to work with other people to install what they want to install. If you sat back and watch, you couldn’t even tell that it was the first day of a new offense.”
I mentioned on last week’s podcast that I didn’t expect to see much run out of the shotgun this year, but was quickly proven wrong right out of the gate. The Huskies are running out of the gun, but with some differences. Gone thus far are the abundant jet-sweeps seen from the slot last season. There are more, as you’ll see as the spring plays out.
NEW OFFENSIVE LINE
Thus far, line play has been consistent. With a unit that is seeing five players all in new positions, that is promising. Ryan Van Demark has made the highly publicized shift to left tackle with Cam DeGeorge making the shift with him to left guard. Stanley Hubbard is getting a chance at center to prove his worth, while redshirt senior Ryan Crozier is out for the spring. Outside of one high snap that got away in shotgun, he’s been consistent. At right guard, redshirt freshman Robert Holmes, who lost 30-plus pounds from a season ago looks good and he’s flanked by former left tackle Matt Peart. What was the reason for Van Demark and Peart to switch sides?
“It’s one of those things that I spent a lot of time looking at personnel and trying to get guys in the right places,” Edsall said. “When you look at Matt and Ryan, with what we want to do, we think Matt is better on the right side of the line, with Ryan on the left.”
“Matt is getting better, he’s running smoother and he’s a leader,” he continued. “You can pair him with a younger guy (Holmes) and then Ryan and Cam who worked on the same side last year, who have a familiarity with each other, an innate, non-verbal connection just by being together. We thought right now, nothing etched in stone, with Rob Holmes, you have two big guys [on the right] that have some power to them. Rob just needs to play a little bit faster, but that will come.”
OLYANIYAN SHOWING PROMISE
The first player that has impressed has been at cornerback with redshirt freshman Bebe Olaniyan. On day-one, his play was highlighted with two interceptions. He’s been physical, played tight coverage and recorded multiple pass break-ups. It’s not a surprise. Think back to the end of camp a season ago and head coach Randy Edsall was clear that Olaniyan would have been on the two-deep for the season opener had it not been for a lingering injury that slowed him down. Ultimately, he redshirted, but his strong play has been consistent. In a group that is full of inexperience, he has looked the part and may be taking an early lead at one cornerback spot.
RHAKIM WILLIAMS PLAYS WITH EMOTION
One suprise player that has caught my eye has been LB Rhakim Williams and a lot of it has to do with the emotion he plays with. Seeing time with the second team defense from the Will linebacker spot, Williams has stood out more than expected. In one sequence on Thursday, Williams consistently beat his blocker and found himself next to the ball carrier. A confident player, he yelled “you can’t block me,” repeatedly as he made his way back to the huddle in 11-on-11 work. Having redshirted a year ago, it was unclear his role as the page flipped to a new season. Given the amount of experience the Huskies lost at linebacker from a season ago with the departures of Junior Joseph, Chris Britton, Vontae Diggs and E.J. Levenberry, opportunity is abound at the position. Should Williams continue to play at a consistent level, he could start to push for more time.
SEARCHING FOR DEFENSIVE LEADERSHIP
With the entire front-six being replaced, as well as two experienced corners and two safeties, defensive coordinator Billy Crocker will be looking for some leaders to step to the forefront. In the secondary, Tyler Coyle and Tahj Herring have taken the lead. Across the board however, it’s a group that is young. With that in mind, could a leadership council be put in place by the end of spring?
“I’ve been going back and forth on that a little bit,” Edsall responded. “We could have captains, we’ll see how it all plays out. The one thing that I like, these guys, there is a lot of leadership within. There are guys holding each other accountable. That’s the one thing I see, a lot of different guys stepping up, holding themselves and others accountable, which is extremely exciting to see for me.”
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