AAC preview: Connecticut

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

STORRS, Conn. -- After an offseason of musical chairs, the University of Connecticut Huskies are mired in the American Athletic Conference along with a few other football-playing schools in the former Big East. Unlike current league members Rutgers and Louisville, both bound for greener pastures in 2014, this is the home for the Huskies for the foreseeable future.
That's enough to be a downer for any UConn fan. Also a downer: a pair of five-win seasons that mean the program hasn't played in the postseason since Randy Edsall left the team for Maryland on the way home from the Fiesta Bowl.
One big change the school made to turn things around was on offense. T.J. Weist came over from Cincinnati to take over as offensive coordinator for a unit that has looked miserable for much of Paul Pasqualoni's two-year coaching run. While the Huskies have more quarterback depth than in the past, they're also desperate to see running back Lyle McCombs recover from a disappointing sophomore season.
"Coach Weist has brought unbelievable amounts of energy and I think that's the biggest thing," guard Steve Greene said of the new coordinator. "It's radiated through the entire offense and I think that's going to show in the way that we play."
Energy is one thing. Mistake avoidance is another. UConn turned the ball over 26 times a year ago. It also will need to replace the core of its linebacking corps and secondary,
"I think everyone has a mindset that they're trying to work hard to contribute to the good of the team. That's very pleasing to see," Pasqualoni said.
There's also a clear sense of urgency. A pair of 5-7 seasons doesn't lend itself to job security for anyone, and a third consecutive year without a bowl game could lead to more wholesale changes than an offensive coordinator.
Quarterback Chandler Whitmer showed that he could move the team through the air, but for the Huskies to get back to a bowl game he's going to have to cut down on the mistakes. Whitmer threw nine touchdown passes a year ago -- and 16 interceptions.
Scott McCummings reported to camp overweight and was moved from quarterback to wide receiver just before the start of the preseason practices. That didn't last long, however. McCummings tore his ACL in the first week of practice and is out for the season.
The most important player on the roster is running back Lyle McCombs, who shocked everyone with a standout freshman season in 2011. He was also a shock in 2012, but a bad one, as the Huskies went without a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2007. Given the lack of a consistent passing game, the Huskies aren't going anywhere if they don't do a better job of controlling the game and picking up yards on the ground.
On defense UConn is expecting big things from linebacker Graham Stewart, a Florida transfer. The Huskies need him to bolster a unit that lost standouts Sio Moore and Jory Johnson from last year's squad.
Another newcomer who should help is offensive lineman Kyle Schafenacker, who was the most heralded player in the freshman class. He was among the standouts in early August workouts.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Any UConn fan holding a grudge against former coach Randy Edsall will get their chance to make their feelings known, live and in person. After opening at Towson on Aug. 29, the Huskies get more than two weeks off before hosting Edsall's Maryland Terrapins on Sept. 14. The next game is a little more of a marquee affair -- a home date with Michigan, perhaps the best non-conference home game in the history of the program.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Connecticut has been the king of self-inflicted punishments over the past few seasons. It turned the ball over 26 times a year ago, far too often for a team that doesn't put up big offensive numbers in any other category. When the Huskies don't move the ball on the ground, they often can't get down the field at all, and getting more consistent on that side of the ball is key. The defense should again do its part, but has to overcome some critical offseason losses.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Who's going to play cornerback? Both Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz were among the best corners in the country a year ago, but neither is back on campus in 2013. Byron Jones will make the transition from safety to occupy one starting slot, but that leaves a vacancy at safety. Generating a pass rush is also a challenge, though the return of senior Jesse Joseph should help there.
--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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