If we’re being honest, it’s been awhile since the UConn offense has been something to stoke fear in opposing defenses. There have been some talented players to call this side of the ball home in Storrs over the last decade; Geremy Davis, Noel Thomas, Bryant Shirreffs, Arkeel Newsome, Hergy Mayala, Matt Peart, Ryan Van Demark; those are just some of the names, but no offense as a whole has necessarily been explosive or consistent enough to make it formidable.
So as head coach Jim Mora and new offensive coordinator Nick Charlton continue to prepare for their debut in Logan, Utah, they are hard at work figuring out which combination of players are going to best put this year’s offense in position to deliver points more often than not; all within the scheme of what they will be running, the Pro Spread.
Back in the spring, Charlton talked at length about the influences of his offense and what fans should expect; think Sean McVay and what he runs with the LA Rams. No, UConn is not going to be the Rams offense, but the look and feel, how plays are designed, set-up and called will be similar. What exactly the Huskies run will be what their players do well. There won’t be a square peg being forced into a round hole, they will accentuate the strengths of their roster.
“It starts with running the football,” Charlton said back in April. “That’s a big part of it, but a lot of it is running base concepts with a lot of window dressing and misdirection. We have a lot of motion and movements that you’ll see, but we’re running a lot of our base, top concepts that our players will be able to do very well.”
When it comes to running the ball, what is that base? Outside zone will be a major piece, which allows for different formations and personnel groupings, with the main focus of eliminating negative plays. Developed by Mike Shanahan, the run scheme is beneficial for a myriad of reasons; first and foremost your offensive line does not necessarily need to be dominant 1-on-1 blockers. Also called wide zone or stretch, the stable of backs that the Huskies have will suit this system well.
“I’ve been really encouraged by running backs Brian Brewton, Devontae Houston and their speed,” Mora said following practice on Tuesday. “They can both flat out get out and go. You see they are a little bit undersized, but in our scheme, which is a zone scheme, an outside zone scheme, they are able to get outside and do the things you need to do to get yards.”
Each team is different, but when running the outside zone, it’s standard practice that when the back gets the ball, his main focal point is to where the play-side tight end begins on the play, or just outside. As the play continues, it’s up to the back to assess where there is a lane, whether it’s to the outside, downhill or through a cutback. It gives a player options and when guys with speed get the ball in their hands, playmakers are allowed to make plays.
With those two backs, plus Nate Carter and Robert Burns, UConn will be able to attack defenses on the ground in different ways. For Brewton and Houston, however, their touches won’t be limited to just the run game. Lining up outside, coming in motion on a jet or being matched up 1-on-1 against a linebacker will spell trouble for opposing defenses, as both will be able to help in the pass game.
“Both of them will, really,” Mora confirmed. “They are guys that have versatility; that don’t have to line up behind the quarterback. The things you want to do with guys like that is get them the ball in space, let them make one guy miss and see if anyone can catch them, because they are hard to catch.”
When it comes to that pass game, the Huskies have a plethora of talented receivers to attack defenses, so just because the offense may start with the run game, doesn’t mean you won’t see UConn pass the ball, potentially often. They’ve added several pieces to the unit, perhaps none more important than Nigel Fitzgerald, who at 6’5″, brings the size the Huskies were lacking; a deep threat that can go up and get it, while also a player that will be a major factor in the red zone.
Add him to Keelan Marion, Cam Ross, incoming Dajon Harrison and Ethon Williams, Kevens Clercius, Aaron Turner and Matt Drayton, the Huskies have options, who all bring something a little different. Whoever it is at quarterback come August 27th will have weapons and the ability to move the football both in the run and pass game.
“We’ll try to be very multiple,” Charlton said. “We’re into a lot of jet stuff, but we still have under center and gun, we’ll do both. We call ourselves a hybrid because we’re a Pro Spread, we’ll embody both schemes. It puts defenses in a bind since it’s hard to practice both things and if we get good at the things we do well, it’s really hard to stop. There are a lot of moving parts to it, but it starts with running the football, being explosive and efficient in the pass game. You can put in any system you want, but really it’s about moving the ball and scoring points.”
Being able to call a game, make adjustments, have a feel for what opposing defenses are bringing and making calls to set up plays for later in the game is also a large part. That’s where Charlton’s experience comes in, something that has been missing for several seasons. In talking with members of the offense, they like what they’ve seen, including wide receiver Cam Ross.
“We’ve got a lot of guys [on offense]; this is the most talented receiver room since I’ve been here,” Ross said following practice on Tuesday. “We have coaches that can call plays for us now. All it’s going to come down to this season is a matter of execution and I know we’ll do that.”