UConn Football Mailbag: Spring Game Preview

The spring game is only five days away and with that, wanted to get some interaction going with the fan base, so I took some questions for the only mailbag of the spring. Here goes:

Why did they decide to switch the positions of the left and right tackle this year, between Matt Peart and Ryan Van Demark?

Matt Peart has been a multi-year starter protecting the quarterback’s blindside for the last two years, but with the emergence of true freshman Ryan Van Demark last season, head coach Randy Edsall liked the athleticism and versatility he could bring to the left side, something Edsall addressed earlier this spring.

“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,” he said during the first week of practice. “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.”

Peart has handled the adjustment to the right well.

“Matt is getting better, he’s running smoother and he’s a leader,” Edsall continued. “Ryan and Cam [DeGeorge] made sense. The two worked on the same side last year, they have a familiarity with each other and an innate, non-verbal connection just by being together.”

With moves on the offensive line, what do you see for that group this year?

I see confidence, athleticism and a physical group that is going to be experienced and plays with a lot of confidence. Edsall said on Friday at the fan event that there are at least 8 guys they would feel confident in playing. The surprise of the spring has been at right guard, as Bryan Cespedes unseated redshirt freshman Rob Holmes at right guard within a few weeks of practice. Cespedes did not look to factor into the rotation prior to the start of the spring, so his emergence is a head turner and speaks to the buy-in the coaches have achieved from a season ago. A promising recruit heading in, Edsall credits Cespedes’ turnaround by removing some of the negative outside influences in his life.

At center is redshirt freshman Stanley Hubbard, who has impressed and will give Ryan Crozier everything he can handle once he returns to the practice field in the summer. More on the line later.

Is there anyone on the current roster who looks they can pressure a quarterback consistently?

You’re going to see pressure come from the 2nd level this year, at a consistent pace. That said, up front you’ll likely see Phillipe Okounam and James Atkins as the top defensive ends on Saturday. If they can remain healthy, they will remain in the rotation once the season begins, but you’ll also see a young group vying for playing time with the freshmen class arriving in the summer.

The line is an inexperienced group, as not one member of the unit has started a game in their college careers. At defensive tackle, Kevin Murphy brings a lot of leadership and experience. Other guys you’ll see on Saturday at defensive end include AJ Garson, Carlton Steer and Connor Freeborn, if healthy, as he got banged up a week ago and missed a practice or two.

The coaches seemed comfortable with 8 to 10 linemen. Can you name them and specifically, Bryan Cespedes was brought in as a project but seemed to get some run with the 1’s this spring. Can you speak toward his progress?

In addition to the top five of Van Demark, DeGeorge, Hubbard, Cespedes and Peart, James Tunstall, Holmes, Nino Leone and Crozier all seem to be more than serviceable, making this potentially the deepest line, in several years. As has been mentioned on here before, it’s going to take some of the younger talent to gain experience and develop and after a year or two in the program, that development is coming at a rapid pace. Between wide receiver, offensive line and quarterback, the offense possesses the deepest units’ on the roster. 

Who’s going to be Center? Is Crozier coming back any time soon? If not who’s most likely to be filling that position?

Longtime starter Ryan Crozier will be healthy and ready to go for summer camp. Rehab has gone well for the redshirt senior and he’s on track to reclaim his job and start his 19th game for the Huskies in the season opener on August 30th. That said, Hubbard has looked good at the position and will try to put on a fight for the starting role. With Crozier and Hubbard, depth is not an issue at the position this season.

Is the defense closer to the 2016 defense or the 2017 defense?

2016. Why? The two pictured in the featured image at the top of this page, as well as LB coach Jon Wholley and DL coach Dennis Dottin-Carter is a good start, but it’s much more than the coaches. The players that were already in the program are grasping the defense well and the communication on the back-end has been impressive. Coaches Crocker and Cox have a coaching style that makes life difficult for members of the secondary, but once the players step off the field, it’s time to learn. Being close to the teaching, players are fully into the system and want to learn and are learning. Youth will lead to some mistakes, but there will no longer be hesitations mid-play like there was a season ago. Roles are understood and that will lead to better defense than what we saw a year ago.

Crocker was also vocal at the start of the spring that he was unable to put in a lot of his pressure and schemes that disguise coverages last season due to the learning that was still taking place. You’ll see a defense that is much more aggressive in 2018, but what the ultimate results look like remain to be seen, but you will see improvement from ’17.

What do you project the defensive line two deep to be based on what you have seen thus far?

For the spring game, I’d project the following:

Phillipe Okounam, Kevin Murphy, James Atkins.

AJ Garson, Caleb Thomas, Carlton Steer

Connor Freeborn will also compete for snaps if healthy, but I did not include him on the two deep after he got banged up and has missed some practices over the last week. NOTE: Thomas could very well move up to the 1st team by the time the season opener comes around.

Who else is getting snaps at center aside from Hubbard?

Harrison Newman is the backup center right now behind Hubbard and you’ll see him with the second unit on Saturday.

While you probably cannot name names, are you getting any indications that we have transfers coming in?

I do not expect any transfers between now and the season opener.

Are any of the incoming freshman if any (early graduates) on campus and practicing yet?

There are three, two are practicing, both on the defensive side of the ball as Malik Banks has been placed at the Husky position, while Shamel Lazarus has already worked his way up the depth chart, solidifying himself in the two-deep at cornerback. Lazarus also saw time with the one’s last week, when Jordan Swann was sidelined. I wrote about Lazarus over the weekend following an interview with him last week. In it, I mention how physically and the way he moves reminds me of Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a player I got to see on a daily basis back in 2011. The coaches think he can become a good one and he should continue to solidify a spot in the rotation at corner over the next four months. He’s one of the guys I’d keep an eye on come Saturday.

MATT SCHONVISKY / SITE CREATOR

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