Season preview: UConn Huskies
LARAMIE -- On Aug. 5, 2020 at 7:30 a.m. Eastern Time, the University of Connecticut sent out a press release.
This was the title:
"UConn football announces cancellation of 2020 season due to ricks associated with COVID-19."
"After receiving guidance from state and public health officials and consulting with football student-athletes, we've decided that we will not compete on the gridiron this season," UConn director of athletics David Benedict said. "The safety challenges created by COVID-19 place our football student-athletes at an unacceptable level of risk."
The Huskies were the first FBS program to pull the plug and one of three to not play a single game last fall. Many others followed suit, including the Mountain West Conference, but eventually used advanced testing measures to salvage a modified 2020 season.
"We engaged and listened to the concerns of our football student-athletes and feel this is the best decision for their health, safety, and well-being," head coach Randy Edsall said. "Our team is united in this approach and we will use this time to further player development within the program and gear ourselves to the 2021 season."
Wyoming was originally slated to travel to No. 2 Clemson in Week 4. After a $1 million buy out, the Cowboys will now head to East Hartford, Connecticut to take on a program that has gone 9-39 since 2016.
Let's take a look at the matchup:
Who: Wyoming at UConn
When: Sept. 25, 2021 at 1:30 p.m. MST
Where: Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium, East Hartford, Connecticut
Television: CBS Sports Network
Series: First meeting
UConn's returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (8), Specialists (1)
UW's returning starters: Offense (10), Defense (11), Specialists (4)
What to watch for when the Huskies are on offense:
Plenty of question marks surround this team.
Taking a year off from football will do that. Taking a year off after a 2-10 season simply magnifies things.
One certainty is the Huskies have a workhorse in the backfield in Kevin Mensah.
The 5-foot-9, 198-pound senior in 2019 became just the second UConn running back in history to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark twice in a career. Just 1,200 more will put him in some rarified air with Donald Brown, the school's all-time rushing leader.
Mensah averaged 4.5 yards per carry in '19 while amassing 1,013 rushing yards. He added nine touchdowns. In the Huskies' two victories -- 56-35 at UMass and 24-21 versus Wagner -- Mensah combined to rush for 308 yards on 55 carries.
A pair of sophomore receivers -- Cameron Ross and Matt Drayton -- give the Huskies a couple of legit threats on the outside. Ross, a 5-foot-9, 170-pound honorable mention All-American, snagged 60 balls for 723 yards and four touchdowns in 2019. Drayton caught 21 for 278 yards and a pair of scores. Tight end Jay Rose also hauled in 27 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns.
Now the main question is: who will throw it to those guys?
Three different signal callers stepped under center in 2019 with Jack Zergiotis receiving a majority of the snaps. The sophomore threw for 1,782 yards and nine touchdowns to go along with 11 interceptions. He completed nearly 60% of his throws and was sacked an eye-popping 21 times.
Steven Krajewski, who is currently listed as the back up, completed just 24 passes for 292 yards and three scores. He was sacked three times.
Micah Leon could be the starting quarterback on opening day.
The junior sat out the 2019 campaign after transferring from North Carolina State. He got to Raleigh in 2017 and has yet to take a college snap.
We'll go out there and practice for five days, and then we'll have a film review day," Edsall told UConnHuskies.com about selecting his starter. "After that, we'll take a look and maybe two guys will emerge and those guys will get the majority of the reps and the other guys will fight to see who the number three guy is. As soon as we can make a determination, then we will. I do think it's important for whoever is going to be the starter to have as much time working with the rest of the offensive players on that first unit."
UConn welcomes back just two offensive linemen with starting experience -- left tackle Ryan Van Demark and right guard Christian Hayes. This unit was partially responsible for allowing 28 sacks and 83 tackles for loss, which ranks the Huskies No. 105 out of 129 FBS teams in 2019.
Edsall's team scored just 19 points per game. That ranked them 120th in the country.
What to watch for when the Huskies are on defense:
UConn has eight returning starters on defense in 2021.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
In 2019, the Huskies statistically featured the worst defense in Division-I football, allowing more than 617 yards per game. Opponents averaged almost nine yards per play, more than a full yard worse than Oregon State.
And it gets worse.
UConn gave up nearly 41 points per outing. The rushing defense allowed 224 yards per game. Passing, that was around 243.
The Huskies' linebacking corps -- DJ Morgan, Jackson Mitchell and Ian Swenson -- all return in 2021. Those three combined for 154 tackles, three sacks, four fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Three players on the line are back, too. Kevon Jones, Travis Jones and Dillon Harris all have experience in the trenches. They combined for eight sacks in 2019.
Lwal Uguak is a returning role player on the defensive front. He led the team in '19 with four sacks.
Aside from safety Diamond Harrell, the Huskies will replace their entire secondary. There are some veterans on the backend, but Harrell is the only returner with an interception in 2019. He snagged two.
You probably already figured this out, but the Huskies were one of the worst teams in the country at getting off the field on third down. In fact, opponents converted on exactly half of their attempts (65-of-130). In 67 red zone attempts, UConn's opponents scored 62 times. Fifty of those were touchdowns.
Edsall said his team may have had last season off, but they didn't lounge around.
"When it's player-driven, you've got a great chance – and it's player-driven," Edsall said. "These kids are much more confident. They are much more ready to win."
Huskies' special teams:
Ross is not only the Huskies' leading receiver, he is also their best threat in the return game though he has limited stats to prove it.
UConn did land one of the best placekicking prospects in the nation in Joe McFadden. The Southlake, Texas product was the third highest ranked kicker in the country by 247 Sports. He was named an Adidas All-American, First Team All-District, First-Team All-Area and First Team preseason All-State.
But, he's a rookie.
Haydn Kerr will handle punting duties for the Huskies in 2021. The freshman is from Penrith, New South Wales, Australia.
He's also a rookie.
UConn's coaching staff and players swear the year off helped them when it comes to development.
That's a nice thought, but nothing replaced live game action.
The Huskies are going Independent in 2021. That means putting together a schedule that doesn't include conference foes. Wyoming may not be getting that crack at the Tigers in Clemson this fall, but UConn is. They will also travel to UCF and Vanderbilt, along with hosting Purdue.
History tells us trouble is awaiting the Huskies.
The last time the program had a winning record was way back in 2010 when they claimed a Big East championship and played Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Since, they've gone 30-79 and suffered three double-digit loss campaigns.
This matchup isn't ideal for the Cowboys.
For one, a 3,800-mile roundtrip to the northeast is never a simple task. Secondly, Wyoming doesn't recruit the area. This was about finding a last-second game after Clemson paid up.
Luckily for Craig Bohl's boys, a bye week awaits after this long haul.
UConn 2021 schedule:
Aug. 28 @ Fresno State
Sept. 4 vs. Holy Cross
Sept. 11 vs. Purdue
Sept. 25 vs. Wyoming
Oct. 2 @ Vanderbilt
Oct. 9 at UMass
Oct. 16 vs. Yale
Oct. 23 vs. Middle Tennessee
Nov. 13 @ Clemson
Nov. 20 @ UCF
Nov. 27 vs. Houston
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