Starting anew. Returning to form. Making a comeback. These are all synonyms for what the UConn football program has been working towards since the clock struck triple zeroes 453-days ago in Philadelphia, PA, the last time the Huskies took the field on game day. So much has happened since then. A global pandemic, a lost season, player turnover and two recruiting classes.
There are still 184-days until a return to game day, but after talking with Ryan Van Demark, Travis Jones and head coach Randy Edsall on Wednesday, you’d have thought at times it was mid game-week.
“If you think about it, we really haven’t put on our pads in awhile,” offensive tackle Ryan Van Demark said via Zoom. “This is the first time [Monday] that we’ll be putting on the pads. I’m pretty sure the team is going to be amped to just get out there in shoulder pads and start hitting each other. It definitely changes the attitude. I think we are all motivated and ready to go for the season. Everyone has the same mindset of doing the best they can and trying to be the best football player they can be.”
The time away enabled the players within the program to grow, to develop and to build. Yes, there are three words surrounding a college football program as common as the rising of the sun and it’s setting. Bigger. Faster. Stronger.
For UConn, the growth of the program is directly tied to the growth of the players; growth physically, mentally and emotionally. And perhaps more so than anything since the final game of 2019, building a true team, one that is completely bought in to the mission at hand and one that puts team ahead of self.
“I’ve been on this team personally since Coach Edsall came here the second time and I can just see a glaring difference this year,” Van Demark said. “We have more kids bought in, more kids trying to get after it every day. Everyone has a shared mentality. The sky is the limit for us. I’m super-excited about this year because everyone is motivated, you can see it.”
Pressed on what’s different, Van Demark expanded and shed some light on some of what has been plauging the Huskies program over the last few years.
“We’ve had ups and downs, bumps in the road; there were definitely guys that thought they were greater than the team,” he said. “Coach Edsall and our leadership council have done a much better job of getting everyone on the same page, put egos aside and just work every day. I think we’ve done a great job of that. You could see guys who thought they were bigger than the team before, that are now acting differently. You can see how motivated they are in the weight room. It’s exciting.”
That unity will translate. But the mindset is only one aspect of getting this ship righted. Bigger, faster, stronger might be coach speak, but they perhaps won’t ever be more important than the situation in Storrs, right now.
“You can definitely see guys bodies’ changing,” Van Demark said. “Guys are definitely faster. We are looking like a well-oiled machine, well-oiled team. I’m just looking forward to what we are going to be able to do come game time.”
Edsall has also seen a change and is confident things are going in the right direction. It’s coming directly from the players, not the coaches. Accountability. Trust. Discipline.
“The good thing is, I don’t have to say as much anymore,” Edsall said. “I’ll let what Ryan said speak for itself because those are the guys that see it, those are the guys that live it. I see a whole different approach, a whole different attitude and a whole different mindset than any of the groups we’ve had since I’ve been back.”
“I’ve been pleased with the discipline of our team as well,” he continued. “They’ve done a really good job of getting themselves prepared for spring practice. We’re going to have great competition.”
That competition will be across the board. Perhaps the only area locked in is at long-snapper, with Brian Keating, Edsall joked.
And there’s good reason for that; most of the 2021 team you will see on the field is already on-campus. Only nine scholarship players won’t participate this spring, as they are in-line to join the program as true freshmen at the end of June.
And the time away last year did wonders for the product that will be seen on the field in August. First there’s the time that the players were able to spend in their respective meeting rooms, working with their coaches and developing a rapport with their fellow players and position groups.
“I do think it really helped us to have the quality meeting time and walk-thrus that we’ve been able to do with our guys to get them to better understand our schemes and what we want to do offensively and defensively,” Edsall confirmed.
And then there’s the individual work, the player development that will add something that has been lacking the past few seasons. Depth.
“You will see it first hand when you get a chance to see these guys from a physical standpoint,” Edsall said proudly. “That’s what stands out first and foremost. I do feel good with where we are from a depth standpoint.”
“It’s one of those situations where this spring is going to be very, very competitive,” he added. “You take a look at the secondary, linebacker up front [on the defensive line], it’s going to be very, very competitive. There are a couple guys that have played, but you need a lot of guys up there [on the line]. Two guys like Nick Harris and Collin McCarthy have really grown in one year. Add them to Lwal Uguak, Justin Moore, this group looks totally different. Some of the guys don’t have experience, but now we know they can go on the field and play because they are capable of it physically.”
“Same thing offensive line wise,” Edsall continued. “Rayonte Brown, Chase Lundt, we have some guys where we have the depth that if we get an injury, it won’t decimate us as much. I’ve said before at wide receiver we have more depth there since I’ve been here all these years. I like what we have at running back. We’ll have a great competition at quarterback too. That’s what’s exciting about this spring, guys will have to go out and compete.”
And then this optimistic view from the head coach.
“I told the guys yesterday morning, you can see the communication and guys walking around with more confidence,” he said. “Everything is trending in the right direction. Now we have to go take advantage of these 15-practices and meetings that we have from March 1st to April 2nd.”
Van Demark finished by echoing his head coach.
“Now I know I’m giving my team a lot of praise, but we aren’t where we need to be,” Van Demark concluded. “We definitely need to put in more work, have to go through spring, go through camp and polish the car. We need to finish up this offseason strong, but I like where we are at right now.”
LEADERSHIP GOES A LONG WAY
The Huskies will again utilize a leadership council this season, but will also choose captains at the end of spring. What does Edsall want to see from his leadership group?
“Guys that do it the right way,” he said. “Guys that work hard and get it done in all phases of the program. It’s hard to have someone on the leadership council that isn’t a leader or isn’t bought into what you want to establish in your program. You sit back, observe, watch and put the guys on it and let them do their job. At the end of the spring, we’ll have the team vote for captains and we’ll have them in place, but we’ll still keep the leadership council to aid the captains in the job that they will have to do.”
Entering the spring, who does Edsall view as leaders?
“[OL] Ryan Van Demark, [QB] Micah Leon, [TE] Jay Rose, [WR] Cam Ross, [CB] Jeremy Lucien, [CB]Myles Bell, [LB] Omar Fortt, [LB] Ian Swenson, [LB] Jackson Mitchell, [DL] Travis Jones, [DL] Lwal Uguak, [LS] Brian Keating,” he said. “There are also other guys just because of the way that they work, that guys will listen to.”
“That’s another thing, guys are holding each other accountable to do the things that they’re supposed to do,” he said. “As a coach, I haven’t had to do as much. As I’ve always said, when it’s a player driven team, it’s so much better and you’ll win a lot more than when it’s coach driven.”
CONSISTENCY OF COACHING STAFF
This will be the third consecutive spring with the same coaching staff in place. That consistency will only be a benefit.
“It helps a lot as the players are hearing the same voice,” Edsall said. “For us as a staff, we haven’t had to change terminology or the schemes. We’ll tweak things based on what we’ve studied from our own personnel in 2019. We were able to implement some of those during the Fall and now we get to do it live in the spring. That has been a tremendous asset to us to be able to have the same guys here. The continuity is always welcome from a head coaching standpoint. That, to me, will only help us get better as well.”
INJURIES WILL LIMIT SOME PLAYERS THIS SPRING
LB Terrence Ganyi tore an achilles while home over Christmas break and will be out this spring.
WR Darius Bush also tore an achilles after he arrived back on campus. He’s already had surgery.
TE Brendan Heatherman will be limited as he had a knee redone from a nagging issue from high school.
TE Jay Rose will also be rehabbing from a pectoral tear.
Given current COVID related restrictions, media will not be attending practices, however each Wednesday, different members of the leadership council and one member of the coaching staff will be made available for interviews.