June 01, 2009
A random, too-soon look at UConn's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. Donald Brown racked up more carries last year than all but one other running back nationally, for more yards (and yards per game) than any back, and shouldered a greater share of his team's total production -- nearly 48 percent of UConn's total yards from scrimmage -- than any player, period. He had no choice but to bolt early for the NFL, not only because had practically no chance to improve on his rare, workmanlike 2,000-yard effort, but also because another season of punishment like that would reduce his stout frame to one big, limping, tenderized, 210-pound bruise.
Generically, Brown's exit should signal a de facto shift to much greater balance, or even an emphasis on the passing game: He hogged practically every significant carry, while two starting receivers return for a hotshot quarterback transfer who's not only the sole player on the returning roster rated as a four-star prospect out of high school, but was also more efficient than last year's starter in limited action. There's a new offensive coordinator charged with opening things up with a spread-friendly no-huddle scheme.
The specifics, though, are not so encouraging. Quarterback Zack Fraser, a Notre Dame refugee who also had strong interest as a recruit from Penn State, may have more prep accolades than any of his teammates, but he also had a decidedly rocky debut, leading the offense to a grand total of two touchdowns in his only starts -- losses to North Carolina, which picked Fraser three times, once for a touchdown, and Rutgers -- and offering up another three interceptions in four attempts in his final appearance, a loss to Pittsburgh.
Again, this was a marginally better performance than the guy who's seat Fraser was keeping warm, Tyler Lorenzen, who returned from a midseason injury to complete a dreadful 27 of 72 passes over the last four games. Of the returning receivers, diminutive Kashif Moore led the pack with exactly one (1) touchdown catch.
What's the Same. So there was a very good reason for the excessive reliance on Brown that went beyond "Donald Brown is very good." The passing game was -- and by all indications, will remain -- woeful. If healthy, the spectacularly dreadlock'd Andre Dixon should get a chance to replace Brown as the workhorse; the pair split time almost down the middle in 2007, and probably would have continued on as 1 and 1(a) if Dixon hadn't pulled up lame for virtually all of '08. He won't be another 2,000-yard man, but Dixon -- or last year's No. 2, Jordan Todman, or some combination thereof -- settling into a consistent 20-carry, 100-yard niche is still the best hope for the offense, which thrives above all on taking care of the ball.
Again, Please. I don't know if the Wall Street Journal or anyone else keeps tabs on this sort of thing, but the Huskies' linebackers must be among the most experienced corps in the country: Scott Lutrus, Lawrence Wilson and Greg Loyd have 59 starts over the last two years and ought to be turning another corner as juniors. The possibility that they're still on an upward curve must be encouraging, considering their progress as underclassmen -- the defense as a whole led the Big East in yards allowed and was second against the run, with Lutrus and Wilson as the leading tacklers. The same pair finished second and third on the team as freshmen in 2007, and would cement its status in the ever-expanding annals of UConn history if this outfit even approaches last year's high marks, the Huskies' best overall effort since moving up to I-A a decade ago.
The pressure of sustaining something resembling that standard makes this a crucial year for the defense, which has sent as many defenders to the NFL in the last two drafts (Tyvon Branch in 2008 and Darius Butler and Cody Brown this year, all in the first four rounds) as it had in its entire history prior to '08. As much as the Huskies have managed to defy consistently lackluster recruiting rankings, a significant dropoff defensively might be a sign that the window is closing fast on that recent success.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. The spring game offered an unlikely candidate to break the receivers out of their doldrums: Marcus Easley, a senior walk-on with five catches in three years, opened eyes with 10 catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns, both of them on long throws over the top of the cornerback. A lot of caveats go here -- Easley was running against the second team defense, for one day, and there was that screwy modified scoring system -- but again, nobody on the team caught two touchdown passes all of last season. Beggars can't be choosers.
Realistically, if there's going to be a breakout receiver here, it's more likely to be undersized Florida import Dwayne Difton, only the second four-star signee in school history, who hopes to bring some much-needed pizzazz to the proceedings in the fall.
Best-Case. This is not an imposing team by any means, but in the wide, wide open Big East, there may be a better opportunity to make noise this year than the last two years, which worked out pretty well. Intriguing, back-to-back dates with North Carolina and Baylor set the path for the season: If the Huskies can take both of those games and get out of September at 4-0, a winning record within the Big East -- Louisville, Rutgers, Syracuse and South Florida are winnable home games -- could get UConn back to 8-4 without doing anything particularly shocking. If that sort of season happened to coincide with a downturn in fortunes for West Virginia and/or Cincinnati, the Huskies could plausibly assume the mantle as the most consistent winner in the conference over the last three years.
Worst-Case. The situation is particularly desperate on offense if the running game doesn't gel quickly, and the specter of already being saddled with two losses heading into the conference gauntlet is depressing. It doesn't take much imagination to envision a bleak quarterback carousel that spirals into a 2-5 mark in the Big East amid a very hard fall to 4-8 and the likely end of a short cycle of optimism around the program.
Non-Binding Forecast. As hard as it is to imagine the team holding serve after bidding adieu to easily the best draft class in school history -- Donald Brown, Darius Butler, Cody Brown and William Beatty all went the first two rounds, all higher than any other Husky who came before them -- but as much as Randy Edsall has done here with so little, it's hard to see them sliding completely off the map, too. There's not much talent on paper, even by Big East standards, but if the Huskies can get into the Big East slate at 3-1 and hold their own again in-conference, another low-level bowl bid to the St. Petersburg or PapaJohns.com bowls (assuming either one still exists in September) at 6-6 seems like an acceptable brick in the wall.