The University of Connecticut football team begins spring practice on Saturday and the spring drills will conclude on Saturday, April 16, when the team plays its annual Blue vs. White Spring Game at Rentschler Field. The event is open to the public and admission and parking is free.
PHOTO: The UConn offense and defense line up against each other.
Whenever a change is forced upon the UConn football teams lineup, be it by injury, graduation, or other any reason, head coach Randy Edsall is fond of saying that the new performer is expected to equal or exceed the performance of his predecessor. It is the only way for the Husky program to continue to grow and develop into a power in both the BIG EAST Conference and the national scene.
In the schools Division I-A era, Edsalls mantra has never been more tested than it will as the 2005 season approaches. A senior-laden 2004 squad means that opportunities will abound in 2005 as UConn loses a quarterback (Dan Orlovsky) who holds nearly every school passing record, three starters off of the offensive line (Ryan Krug, Brian Markowski and Billy Irwin) who had combined to start 127 games for the Huskies, and a pair of linebackers (Alfred Fincher and Maurice Lloyd) who combined to make 769 career tackles, amongst others.
PHOTO: Redshirt freshman quarterback D.J. Hernandez
As the program has rapidly grown the past few years, the recruiting classes have likewise become more impressive annually. Now is the time for Edsall to hopefully reap the benefits of that hard work as the battles won on Signing Day hopefully translate into football games won in the fall as talented student-athletes step into their new roles.
This is going to be a very interesting spring, Edsall says. These 15 practices will be very important for this football team as individuals develop through the competition that will occur for roles left behind by last years great senior class. Its exciting to know that we have a good stable of young talent and I am anxious to see which ones step up and rise to the task at hand and transform themselves from potential replacements to key members of this team on the field.
UConns offense was hit hard by graduation. On top of the afore mentioned losses of Orlovsky, Krug, Markowski and Irwin, the Huskies have also had to bid farewell to graduating wide receivers Matt Cutaia and Keron Henry, two of Orlovskys top three down-field targets in 2004. One of the most welcome additions to the offense this spring though will be a familiar face, as opposed to a new one, with the return of Terry Caulley, the nations leading freshman rusher in 2002, who has missed nearly a year and a half recovering for a knee injury suffered early in the 2003 season. A diminutive slasher, Caulley is set to go full speed. Competition will be fierce as he attempts to regain the starting position though. Cornell Brockington (pictured to the right) was by far the BIG EASTs leading rusher in 2004 and does not plan to yield. Tailback is the only position on the initial spring depth chart where the starter is listed with an or as everyone looks to see both how Caulleys knee responds to the layoff and how a great competition plays out. Matt Lawrence, Larry Taylor and Stanley Williams will also compete at tailback. Senior Deon Anderson appears poised to become a four-year starter at fullback. Redshirt freshman Lou Allen is first in line for a backup role vacated by Sam Dorvil who has been deemed medically unfit to play.
PHOTO: Junior quarterback Matt Bonislawski
Edsall will have a close eye on a young offensive line this spring, hoping to see how quickly the depth can sort itself out and the new unit can gel. In fact, six different assistant coaches had their duties slightly modified this winter in a direct attempt to allow Norries Wilson (centers and guards) and Dave McMichael (tackles) to have more face time with their position groups. Both of the returning starters have been shifted with senior Grant Preston moving from right tackle to left tackle while junior Craig Berry moved outside from right guard to right tackle. The initial spring starters in the interior include Matt Applebaum, who will shift over from defensive line, freshman Joe Akers, who graduated high school early and enrolled at UConn in January, and sophomore Brian Kersmanc who saw limited action as a reserve in 2004. Eight other Huskies will push those five throughout the spring and summer as Edsall searches for just who his best five options are to get the job done and form the foundation of the UConn offense.
Junior Dan Murray should continue to grow and develop as UConns starting tight end. The competition for backup positions should be fierce though between Steve Brouse, Ziggy Goryn, Matt Gray and Rob Getek. Goryn saw very limited playing time in 2004 and each of the other three have not played a down in college.
Just as the tailback group will get a boost with the return of Caulley, the loss of Cutaia and Henry at wide receiver will be somewhat offset by the return of junior Brandon Young. Involved in an automobile accident just prior to the start of 2004s fall camp that left him hospitalized, the speedy Young will look to build upon his strong true freshman and sophomore numbers. Edsall will be anxious to see who else will step up amongst a core of highly-touted recruits over the past few years. Seth Fogarty and Brandon McLean saw small doses of playing time as receivers in 2004 while redshirt freshmen Ellis Gaulden and Nollis Dewar gave UConns top defensive back fits on a regular basis last fall as members of UConns scout team. With some veterans like Dan Desriveaux and David Sanchez adding to the pool, wide receiver should be an interesting spot to pay attention to in March and April.
The focal point of the offense though is invariably at quarterback and that post will be no stranger to attention this spring either. Four-year starter Dan Orlovsky is auditioning for a new job this spring as he prepares for the 2005 NFL Draft, leaving junior Matt Bonislawski and redshirt freshman D.J. Hernandez to duel for his old job. Reflecting how close the two are in ability, Edsall does not anticipate anything to be decided during spring practice, expecting to not name a starter until August.
Defensively, UConn is not without holes to fill either, losing five long-time starters, but the Huskies can draw inspiration from its own defensive line to demonstrate just how quickly former starters can be replaced. Collectively, the group stepped up and, instead of a liability, proved to be rather deep in 2004. The group was strong enough to step up around the loss of its senior anchor in Tyler King of half of the season with a broken leg. But, just because the Huskies welcome back four starters in Shawn Mayne, Deon McPhee, Rhema Fuller and Jason Ward, it doesnt mean that competition on the line will not exist. Backups at each of the four positions also rotated in frequently last fall and have the seasoning to battle for starting roles should they continue to improve. Amongst the 2004 backups who will push to possibly start in 2005 are sophomores Dan Davis, Harold Stanback, Afa Anoai, John Baranowsky and Gary Mack, along with junior Ray Blagman.
PHOTO: Head coach Randy Edsall at Saturday's practice.
Since taking over the strongside linebacker role in 2003, James Hargrave has proved to be one of UConns most steady and dependable performers on defense. In 2005, hell also be a leader. Elected as a team co-captain along with McPhee, Hargrave will have to bring along two new linebacker starters. Fortunately, both senior Taurien Sowell (middle) and sophomore Danny Lansanah (weak side) saw significant action in 2004 both as reserve linebackers and on special teams. The two demonstrated the mettle to be worthy replacements for All-BIG EAST picks Fincher and Lloyd. A focal point on defense, Edsall has confidence in how the group can potentially shake out.
This program has been about going above and beyond since I arrived, Edsall says. Im going to play the ones who will step up and do their jobs. Were solid at (strong side) linebacker with James, but Taurien and Danny will have to play as good or better as Al and Maurice. Those are the standards of this program, plain and simple. Im not going to worry about losing their skills and experience. I want to know who will go out and make me forget about it. This is what spring is for. Finding out who will get us there.
Like with the wide receiver corps, UConn will be more athletic than ever in its secondary as the team begins to reap the benefits of better recruiting classes made possible by the programs rapid ascension to the level of a BCS conference member. Just because Allan Barnes, M.J. Estep and Ernest Cole have been starters in the past for UConn, doesnt assure them places in the starting lineup when UConn opens its 2005 season on Sept. 1 against Buffalo.
Each of the starters will be pushed, Edsall says. No one will be able to rest on their laurels. There will be some very interesting competition as we see what the redshirts, and others, can do.
Darius Butler and Dahna Deleston will have their redshirts taken off beginning March 19 and compete for a role in the secondary, along with talented sophomores Tyvon Branch, Ricky McCollum and Marvin Taylor, along with junior Jahi Smith, all of whom saw action in 2004.
Special teams is always of prime importance to Edsall. In 2004 the place kicking situation took care of itself as Matt Nuzie found his stride after the first couple of games and finished the year as an All-BIG EAST pick and chosen as a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nations top place kicker. Competition for the punting chores will occur between Shane Hussar and Chris Pavasaris. Hussar battled through injuries to do a majority of the punting in 2004. One big hole to fill will be at long snapper where Jeff Fox quietly performed for each of the past four years. Kersmanc, Rob Lunn and Thomas Hedus will get looks at the spot first. Meanwhile, UConns team speed will allow for several options at kick and punt returner, competitions that are wide open. Several Huskies, including Young, Larry Taylor, Branch and Jason Williams have excelled in these areas during their Husky careers, while some of UConns redshirted speedsters could yet find themselves leading this pack.
Hopefully these 15 days will give people add experience on both sides of the ball and help shape our 2005 team into the competitive one that wed like it to be, Edsall says. It will be a fun and interesting spring, but I also know that all of the answers wont come over these 15 days alone. Players will have to continue to build on this over the summer and be ready in August to demonstrate why they should be bumped up on the depth charts. Plenty of opportunities are there for the taking, if they want them.