Just hours from the kickoff of the spring game at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field, there are several areas to point to that you should keep an eye on throughout the game if you are heading to The Rent. From offense, to defense and even special teams, there is noticeable improvement across the board. Here are nine things to watch for on Saturday, in no particular order:
(1) OFFENSIVE LINE: New offensive line coach Frank Giufre has done a phenomenal job for a group that sees new starters at each position. Desite the new positions, it is an experienced group who are only getting better. Head coach Randy Edsall flipped the two tackles during the offseason, moving two-year starter at left tackle Matt Peart to the right side, which was previously filled by Ryan Van Demark. Van Demark and in turn, right guard Cam DeGeorge both flipped to the left side of the line. At center is redshirt freshman Stanley Hubbard and perhaps the surprise of the entire spring sits at right guard with Bryan Cespedes. Behind the top unit, there is talent, consisting of Robert Holmes, James Tunstall and Harrison Newman, who is filling in at center, as well as true freshman Noel Ofori-Nyadu, who returned to the practice field in recent weeks. Watch Hubbarb, who will be making his first snap at The Rent and Cespedes, to chronicle the vast improvement he has made throughout the offseason.
(2) EARLY ENROLLEES: CB Shamel Lazarus, HUSKY Malik Banks & OL Noel Ofori-Nyadu will all suit up later today in their first time on the field at The Rent. From the first practice, I focused on Banks and his frame, but it may be Lazarus who has proven the most throughout the spring, moving up from 3rd team, all the way to the top unit at times. Physically and how he moves, Shamel reminds me of former UConn CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts on a bigger stage. In last week’s scrimmage, he gave up two touchdowns, something that DB Coach Curome Cox referenced during practice on Tuesday, but Lazarus has proven to be a quick learner. Expect him to improve upon last Saturday, as he should stand out often today.
(3) QUARTERBACK: David Pindell has made drastic progress. Confidence, communication and accuracy will come to the forefront, but he also looks a step faster. He has clearly looked like the top guy throughout the spring as he is firmly entrenched in the starting role. Brandon Bisack has continued to make good-to-great throws at times and Jordan McAfee is making his Rentschler debut today. A highly touted recruit coming out of Massachusetts, McAfee will finally be showing fans what he can bring to the table, as he sat out last year’s spring game due to injury. He can throw it, has command of the huddle and make plays with his legs, althought not as fast as Pindell or Marvin Washington, who will not play today, as you’ll see more on him down below.
(4) RUNNING BACK: Even without Kevin Mensah, this will be an entertaining group to watch today, particularly with the improvements made by Nate Hopkins and the emergence of Zavier Scott, who recently transitioned from wide receiver. Scott brings versatility that didn’t exist at the position before his move, bringing with him a unique skill set that you are seeing more and more from running backs at the next level. It’s fitting that OC John Dunn, coming from the NFL, now has a back in Scott that can run effectively between the tackles, but also motion and split out wide and run crisp routes down the field to bolster the passing game. He’s an added layer to the offense that opposing defenses will have to contend with.
Hopkins has also improved his all-around game; as a back, a pass protector and he is now able to make some plays in the screen game. He’s lost some weight and being lighter, is making quicker cuts and has become a little more elusive. With Mensah out, only Donevin O’Reilly will also see time today from the position. O’Reilly, who walked-on mid-year from Glastonbury last season, just looks like a football player who knows what he’s doing at running back.
(5) TIGHT END: Aaron McLean also finds himself in a new position, having moved from wide receiver. A big target, he finds himself with his hand on the ground at times and gives Pindell a big target with great hands to join starter Tyler Davis as the lead guys of the group. As you’ll see today, UConn will predominantly be in 11 or 12-personnel out of the gun, meaning you’ll see two tight ends on the field often. This will also be Jay Rose’s debut, a former highly sought after recruit from Southington, who will see time with the 2nd team offense this afternoon.
(6) LINEBACKERS: The program lost their top five linebackers from last year’s roster in Junior Joseph, Vontae Diggs, Cam Stapleton, EJ Levenberry and Chris Britton. JUCO Santana Sterling is back for his second year, as is Ryan Gilmartin, Darrian Beavers, Eddie Hahn, TJ Gardner and Rhakim Williams. Hahn has earned the yellow jersey in practice three times in the last several weeks, showing the progress he made after moving over from safety during training camp. Gilmartin is entrenched as the quarterback of the group in the middle, taking over for Joseph, who could see his name called in this month’s NFL Draft. Beavers brings pass rushing ability from the linebacker spot and is more comfortable in the role now that he has a year at the position under his belt. And then there’s TJ Gardner, who after Edsall questioned how much he cares about the game of football about halfway through the spring, has emerged and looked reenergized, now making plays and working his way up the depth chart. It will be Gardner’s first game with UConn at The Rent, who is a native of Windsor and grew up a Huskies fan.
(7) OFFENSIVE PLAY CALLING: New OC John Dunn will be on display for the first time today, showing some of the cards he will play with during the season. From pace of play and formations, fans will get a sense of what the offense could look like this season. While they will be no-huddle, it won’t be at a frantic pace like it was last year. Dunn is methodical at times, but switches up tempos to show a different hand to defenses. You won’t see the full repertoire today, but you’ll get a sense of what the offense will look like against UCF on August 30th. Look for 11 and 12-personnel throughout the day from the gun.
(8) SECONDARY: A much maligned group last season, the secondary is ready to turn the page. Omar Fortt and Tyler Coyle lead the group from the safety position and you’ll likely see Jordan Swann and either Bebe Olaniyan or Shamel Lazarus starting opposite him with Tahj Herring-Wilson’s availability in question, as you’ll see below. It’s a group that has gotten better and you’ll be able to see and hear their communication today. Watch how DC Billy Crocker and DB Coach Curome Cox coach this group up throughout the day. They are loud, but effective, making every opportunity a teaching and learning moment. Olaniyan has made several plays throughout the spring, so look for him to also turn some heads this afternoon at The Rent.
(9) DT CALEB THOMAS: Defensive line is a major question mark for the defense, now faced with a unit that has not started one game at the FBS level. One player that has turned heads and pushing at the heels of the experienced Kevin Murphy, is Caleb Thomas, a redshirt freshman from Mansfield, TX. Thomas possesses strength and a frame that is ideal for the position and he’s made more and more progress with each practice. Look for him to be a player that stands out on the defensive line this afternoon.
MISSING IN ACTION:
There will be several players unavailable on Saturday for a myriad of reasons. On the injury front, WR Hergy Mayala and DE Connor Freeborn will be sidelined, as will C Ryan Crozier, who has missed the entire spring recovering from surgery. CB Tahj Herring-Wilson has also been in concussion protocol all week, so his status is uncertain.
Also missing will be RB Kevin Mensah, QB Marvin Washington and DE James Atkins, who will not play for disciplinary reasons related to academics. This is the second consecutive spring that Washington has missed the spring game due to academics, but Edsall stressed he believes he understands exactly what he needs to do off the field to preview a similar instance in the future (watch):
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