The day was December 26, 2016. With campus quiet as all were back home for Christmas, word came down that morning; UConn had made the call to fire third-year head coach Bob Diaco, who a month earlier had finished a 3-9 season, a year that started with a lot of hope and promise, but one that ultimately spiraled completely out of control. The announcement came one-year to the day of the Huskies’ last bowl game, the lone such appearance in the last 9 seasons.
The date is relevant because it also ties into what has happened with the Huskies’ program since, now the third year of head coach Randy Edsall’s second stint in Storrs. With National Signing Day just 37-days away at the time, the UConn program was in limbo. Two days later, it was announced publicly that Edsall was indeed returning to a program he helped bring from Division 1-AA to the Big East and ultimately a BCS bowl. There were now just 35-days left, five-weeks, to lock in a recruiting class, as February 1st loomed.
That delay in decision making by the administration, led to less time on the recruiting front for the new staff. Edsall, who was traveling between Detroit and Storrs after the announcement as the Lions were making a playoff push, slowly began filling out his coaches. Corey Edsall didn’t officially be named the Tight Ends coach publicly until January 9th. Rhett Lashlee was named offensive coordinator on January 11th. Billy Crocker? He came on board on January 14th as defensive coordinator. Why does that all matter? Well, January 14th meant the new staff as a whole needed to scramble quickly; just 18 days were left before a new class needed to be signed.
As the group made decisions on what commits and players who had existing offers fit the systems that would be implemented, something that occurs across the country any time there is a coaching change, offers were rescinded and other commits decided to go elsewhere. Several talented players who were already committed before the change, took themselves to other schools: Defensive end Max Cummins landed at Texas. Another d-end, Dallas Hobbs, went west to Washington State. Safety target Dawson DeGroot chose Illinois. And d-end Jake Byzcko went just north to UMass.
The reason for that story? You can throw away Edsall’s first recruiting class as his, as it wasn’t even close to a full-month, never mind full-year cycle of his evaluation. Yes, several guys were offered and brought in that year by Edsall’s staff, some who are contributing: WR Garrison Burnett, S Rob King, OL Robert Holmes, WR Cam Hairston, LB TJ Gardner, DE Darrian Beavers (no longer at UConn), DB Brayden Brown (no longer at UConn), RB David Williams (didn’t play a down at UConn) and QB Marvin Washington (no longer at UConn).
That means there’s just two full recruiting classes currently in Storrs that were recruited by Edsall. That translates to a group of true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and some true sophomores. That is important to understand. For a program that is not bringing in the four or five-star guys that can immediately play and compete with the top-level of college football, the development of those guys will take time. It won’t happen overnight; most will take years.
It is exactly why fans need to be patient. Those fans and the media that cover the team can’t have it both ways. Either you believe, as has been written time after time, that Bob Diaco and his staff was one of the worst to ever be in charge of a college football program, or you don’t. Either you do believe the program was left with a group made up mostly of FCS caliber players upon Diaco’s departure, or you don’t.
Because if that is true, which is what the vast majority of those around here believed and preached, well it’s going to take more than just two recruiting classes to change that. It’s why Edsall has talked about getting the program back to where it was before he left a process and it’s also why he looked outside of the program to address some much needed holes across the roster heading into the 2019 season, something that could help expedite that. Leadership was a focus, but so was bringing in players that could make an immediate impact and deliver some traits that weren’t currently present across the roster.
In came NC State transfer Micah Leon and D2 West Florida transfer Mike Beaudry at the most important position, quarterback. At running back, Art Thompkins came from Toledo and WR Ardell Brown brought athleticism and speed as the most talented receiver on the roster. Defensively, LB D.J. Morgan arrived from South Bend and S Diamond Harrell brought ability to the back end of the secondary. Of that group, only Art Thompkins hasn’t missed time. For a team that lacks depth, losing any starter was going to be an issue.
“You bring guys in to plug a hole that you’ve had,” Edsall said during his normal Sunday call when asked about how injuries, particularly those from the older players he brought in, has hurt on-field production. “When you bring them in to fill a need and a position and then they get hurt, you’re back to where you were before. That does make a difference because they are here because they are older, more mature and can play right away.”
“Safety Diamond Harrell has hurt us the last couple of weeks, not having him at that position,” Edsall continued. “LB D.J. Morgan isn’t healthy. WR Ardell Brown isn’t healthy. I looked out there yesterday, a lot of times we had five guys out there who were either freshmen or redshirt freshmen at wide receiver. The wear and tear that college takes on [freshmen], for Cam Ross and Matt Drayton, they aren’t the same that they were earlier in the season. It’s something they just need to get used to.”
And based on what Edsall said this afternoon, perhaps the most important injury happened at quarterback. Yes, Beaudry won the job in camp, but he got hurt in the season opener against Wagner. Yes, true freshman Jack Zergiotis then stepped in against Illinois and performed well before self-destructing on the road. And yes, that led Steven Krajewski to come on and excel in Orlando, before he was ruled out for the past six games due to a broken clavicle, with the hope of a return following the bye week if he gets cleared.
With all that said, it sounds like there was a leader in the clubhouse before the injury to Leon ended his year before it even began.
“The guy that probably would have been our starter this year, has been out for the year,” Edsall said on Sunday, referring to Leon.
DEPTH AN ISSUE
Entering camp, the thinking was the 2019 roster was better, to the point that the Huskies first team offense and defense was good enough to compete with a lot of the teams on their schedule. However, once an injury occurred, things were going to go downhill quickly due to a lack of depth. That’s exactly what has happened.
When your most dynamic offensive player hasn’t been healthy all season, wide receiver Ardell Brown, who missed the very first game of the year and hasn’t returned to his training camp form, that’s a problem. When three starters on defense miss large chunks of the season or play through injuries like CB Tahj Herring-Wilson, LB D.J. Morgan and S Diamond Harrell, that’s another major issue.
That’s not to say the players behind the starters aren’t talented and they won’t be able to contribute or even start down the line, they just need the necessary time to develop. It’s cliché to say they need to get bigger, faster and stronger, but that’s exactly what needs to happen.
Take the UConn defensive line for instance. There you have Travis Jones (stud), Lwal Uguak and Caleb Thomas who are capable of winning one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage with strength. But ask redshirt freshman Pierce DeVaughn or true freshman Eric Watts, both players who can develop into standout players on this roster to do the same this season and it’s just not going to happen. DeVaughn is now 6’4″ but just 251-lbs and Eric Watts is 6’5″ and 244-lbs. In two years, Watts is going to be an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses, but this year, he’s just getting his feet wet at this level.
“All of these kids will get better,” Edsall said. “They will get bigger, they will get stronger and they will get faster. They’ll also know the game more. That’s another thing. Some of these guys just don’t have a good feel for the game yet just in terms of how things happen; football awareness and football savvy. You get that through repetition, through knowing what you’re doing, knowing the game plan and knowing the playbook inside and out. When you’re young and inexperienced like we are and also going against the teams we are going against with seven bowl eligible teams on our schedule, we don’t have the personnel yet to take on seven bowl teams.”
“This is a process,” he concluded. “It’s one where you need to continue to develop people and that’s what is going to have to happen. In this program, we are going to win because we have 5th year seniors. We don’t have a lot of them this year.”