Friday, February 12, 2016

Hard work is rewarded for UConn's home-grown talent

About 10 years ago Sean Marinan and Nick Vitale were youth football teammates on the Cromwell Lions, brought together by a love for football and a quest to win a district championship.

Little did they know that their future endeavors would include taking the field for a UConn team which would play in the program's first bowl game since the 2011 Fiesta Bowl. Then, just a couple months after their junior seasons ended with a loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl, they would two of four Connecticut products to earn scholarships

Marinan, a defensive lineman who had nine tackles as a redshirt junior, was the first to make the move from former walk-on when it was announced to the team on Jan. 18 by UConn coach Bob Diaco that he had received a scholarship.

"We had a conversation around the bowl time but nothing was set in stone, it was all up there," Marinan said. "We came to our first meeting, he had all of this stuff and at the end he gave me this really nice introduction and he said that. He started talking about me as a person, as a teammate and then he said my name and said 'we will be putting him on full scholarship.'

"It is amazing reward, I can't thank him enough."

Marinan, who has been honored for attaining a 4.0 grade-point average during a semester at UConn, has already earned his undergraduate degree in management information systems. He will have his graduate school paid for now that he is a scholarship athlete.

"It is a little bigger than that," Marinan said. "The money for school, it is great but my parents have
been helping me out so I can't thank them enough. It is a symbol to me that I am trusted by the coaches and that means the most."

On Monday Vitale, quarterback/kicker Will Rishell and running back Jason Thompson received the same reward for their team-first attitude and relentless work ethic when they also were given full scholarships.

"At the end of our winter conditioning, he explained the whole situation and said 'I am going to put all three of these guys on full scholly,'" said Vitale, a former Hand High star who originally went to Stony Brook. "The team went crazy. It means more to me and them because obviously we are from Connecticut, we love what we do and we love our state. We have such a small state, we take a lot of pride being from here.

It was pretty cool to experience it. They all lost it, they were all hugging me. I got the long hair so they were all rubbing it in and getting it all messy but it was great, definitely a great memory.
It was definitely a hard mountain to climb seeing how I went from full scholarship at Stony Brook University and I walked away from it, I came here and I knew I was going to have an uphill battle when I came here my sophomore year. Every single day I came here, I worked hard and didn't say a word the last four years and the hard work paid off."

Being to share that moment with Rishell, a Hebron native, and Thompson, a former Shelton High star running back, made things all the more special for Vitale, who took over as UConn's primary punt returner when Brian Lemelle was injured.

"They are just like me, they come every day and work hard, they don't say  a word and it really shows in the work ethic," Vitale said. "What really stood out to me was how they went about it after they received (the scholarship), it is just like any other day. They still came the next day, went to work and didn't say a word and to me that says a lot because I am that way as well."

I am working on a story that will appear on the Register's site later on today and will likely run in the paper on Monday.

One aspect of this story that will play out at a further date is that the addition of Marinan, Rishell, Thompson and Vitale puts UConn (according to my computations) at 88 scholarship players so I would expect there to be some attrition since the Huskies need to be at 85 players on scholarship by the time fall/summer camp starts in August.


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Thursday, February 11, 2016

UConn commit Dixon wins state title

UConn football commit Keyion Dixon had a day to remember with the Glastonbury indoor track and field team.

Dixon won the long jump at the Class LL championships in New Haven with a winning leap of 22 feet, 3 inches. finished second in the 55 meters and was sixth in the high jump.

In the long jump, Greenwich junior took the lead with jumps of 21-6 3/4 and 21-7 3/4 on his first two attempts. Dixon was comfortably in second place with a jump of 21-3 3/4 on his second leap. On his final attempt Dixon came through with his winning effort.

Dixon advanced to the finals in the 55 with a time of 6.66 seconds and in the finals he posted a time of 6.57. Danbury's Devonte Clark won the title with a time of 6.47.

Dixon missed on his first attempts in the high jump at 5-8 and 5-10 before clearing both heights on his second jump before failing on three tries to clear 6-0.

Dixon had 19 of Glastonbury's 47 points as the Tomahawks finished third behind Danbury and McMahon.

UConn commit Tyler Coyle is seeded first in the high jump and third in the long jump in the Class L championships, set for Saturday at the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven.

No UConn products invited to NFL combine

For the first time since 2006, no players from UConn have been invited to the NFL scouting combine.

There are some UConn players on the NFL radar. Andrew Adams might be the best prospect among the seniors on the 2015 UConn squad while Kenton Adeyemi, Graham Stewart, Marquise Vann, Tyler Samra and Julian Campenni are among the players out of UConn who could draw interest from NFL scouts.

Stratford's Tyler Matakevich, a former All-American linebacker at Temple, will be headed to Indianapolis later this month for the combine.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

UConn career sacks leader headed to CFL

Trevardo Williams, who holds UConn's career record with 30 1/2 quarterback sacks, was signed by the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts on Monday

The former Bridgeport Central High School star was taken by the Houston Texans in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft (the fourth UConn defensive player selected that year).

Williams had 3 1/2 sacks in four preseason games during the 2013 season but injuries prevented him from playing in a regular-season game with the Texans. He was signed and released by the Arizona Cardinals and then made his regular-season debut with the Washington Redskins when he had five tackles in the final three regular-season games in the 2014 season.

Early tests highlight UConn's AAC schedule

The American Athletic Conference released its football schedule earlier today. While the opponents both home and away were previously announced, know there are dates to go with the matchups.

The combined 2015 record of UConn's first four conference opponents is 39-14.

It begins on Sept. 10 when the Huskies play at Navy. The Midshipmen lost many of its offensive playmakers to graduation including star quarterback Keenan Reynolds so perhaps getting to play Navy that early in the season could be a blessing for the Huskies.

Then on Sept. 29 comes a game at Houston that I would think the Cougars will be ready for since the only thing which kept Houston from a perfect season was a stunning loss at UConn.

The Huskies will host Cincinnati on Oct. 8 and play at USF on Oct. 15. That will be followed by a home game against Central Florida on Oct. 22, a road contest against East Carolina on Oct. 29 and then a Nov. 4 home game against Temple. The Huskies will wrap up the regular season by hosting Tulane on Nov. 26.

It was previously announced that the Huskies would host Maine on Nov. 1, Virginia on Nov. 17 and Syracuse on Nov. 24 before wrapping up its non-conference schedule with a Nov. 19 game at Boston College.

UConn returns every offensive player who started in the St. Petersburg Bowl as well as six of the top eight tacklers from one of the best defenses in the conference. 

Here is the schedule with times and most of the TV information to be announced at a later date
SEPTEMBER
Thur., 1                 MAINE
Sat., 10                 at Navy (CBS Sports Network)
Sat., 17                 VIRGINIA
Sat., 24                 SYRACUSE
Thur., 29              at Houston (ESPN)
OCTOBER
Sat., 8                    CINCINNATI
Sat., 15                 at USF
Sat., 22                 UCF
Sat., 29                 at East Carolina
NOVEMBER
Fri., 4                     TEMPLE (ESPN2)
Sat., 19                 at Boston College
Sat., 26                 TULANE

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

State players highlight UConn's recruiting class

In between the time that Paul Pasqualoni was fired and Bob Diaco was hired at UConn I went to a CIAC football function featuring players and coaches from the state finalists back in 2013. I went around the room and asked many of the coaches what UConn should be looking for in their new coach. More than one of them mentioned the ability to attract the best players from Connecticut is near the top of priority list.

I recall shortly after Diaco completed his coaching staff and we were able to sit down with the assistant coaches and one of the coaches mentioned the plan to reach out to every school in Connecticut. Now it is easy to say that but another thing to do it.

The first sign that the Huskies were serious about recruiting Connecticut came when Shelton's Steve Hashemi was the first player to commit to UConn after Diaco was hired. Then last year New London's Bryan Cespedes was one of the recruits to sign and four others came in as walk-ons.

Today came the second full class recruited by Diaco and his staff and four of the 16 signees hail from Connecticut.

"We are trying, it is not for lack of trying but we are trying to get into so many schools, some of the schools we went in - it predates many coaches, they'll say 'we haven't had a UConn in here for 19 years' or 'we haven't had a UConn coach in for 12 years,'" Diaco said. "We are having a lot of those conversations out there and we are trying and it is working. We are winning over the schools slowly but surely through care, honesty and transparent behavior.

"You can't take everybody, you can only take so many guys, there are different needs and sometimes it fits and sometimes it doesn't fit. We are growing that piece and we have made a lot of strides."

Diaco called Southington's Jasen Rose "a flagship kind of guy" who passed up some offers from Power 5 Conference teams because he wanted to lead his home-state university. He mentioned the incredible high jumping ability of Windsor's Tyler Coyle (he leads all Connecticut athletes with a 6-10 clearance in the indoor season) and the speed of Glastobury's Keyion Dixon (No. 1 on the Connecticut indoor track list in the long jump at 22-3 and had some nice things to say about Tahj Herring as well.

There was plenty of other non-Connecticut athletes to draw praise from Diaco in the press conference and from the assistant coaches during a meet and greet with UConn season ticket holders after the press conference.

Let's start with quarterback Donovan Williams.

"A very special guy for our team," Diaco said. "There are others who could quarterback our team but Donovan is "the" quarterback, he was brought in for that purpose. It could be argued whether he was a national recruit but he was close. a 20-40 offer player. A spectacular young man, high achiever in all areas, make all the throws, athletic, fast and every time I see him he gets bigger."

Diaco's best line might have came when talking about defensive back recruit Eddie Hahn.

"We are sitting there eating, he is tapping his foot and almost can't relax," Diaco said. "Between the two of us we will almost spontaneously combust."

Diaco also touted the punt return and kickoff return potential of Chicago's Quayvon Skanes. He loves the size of linebacker commits AJ Garson and Ryan Gilmartin and the running back tandem of Nate Hopkins and Ja'Kevious Vickers, believes long snapper Nick Zecchino has the best chance to get on the field right away from this class and also the benefit of giving punter Brett Graham a season to get acclimated to the college game as he could redshirt this season with Justin Wain set to be a senior. Diaco also said that if Graham is the guy, he will get on the field.

Finally, in the meet and greet with the fans, Diaco officially announced that former Michigan assistant coach Erik Campbell has been named UConn's receivers coach. Campbell also had stints at Navy, Ball State, Syracuse, Iowa as well as the CFL's Montreal Alouettes.

Signing with UConn "one of proudest moments" of Tahj Herring's life

As Tahj Herring, one of four in-state prospects to sign with UConn on national signing day, posed for a series photos the number of people from various stages of his life made their way to the front of the room.

Somehow that seemed rather fitting that the Hartford native would share a moment he called "one of the proudest in my life" with those who made it all possible.

Before I headed into the room used for all the national letter of intent signings inside the College Counseling Building at Suffield Academy, I heard from so many of his supporters and it had little to do with his ability as a shut-down cornerback. Stories were being tossed around about Herring's growth of the last five years, how he embraced all facets of life at Suffield Academy and last by not least, how he has an unforgettable smile.

Having already caught up with fellow Connecticut products Tyler Coyle, Keyion Dixon and Jasen Rose as the Walter Camp Foundation's Breakfast of Champions, I decided to make the drive up to Suffield to catch up with Herring and I am glad that I did.

Herring spoke about so many topics including the pride he feels in making the jump to college which is something that not every kid with his circumstances have managed to accomplish.

"There aren't that many kids who do more than just sell drugs, not finish school and just get into a lot of trouble," Herring said. "I know it is not like that, not every kid is the same so for me to make it out and see so many other kids make it out of Hartford, to go out and do big things shows that we are not a city of violence."

Herring also spoke with great pride about every recruit expected to sign with UConn did just that. If you go on social media today, there are so many posts about a committed recruit flipping to another school. Sure, lineman Mike Lonsdorf decommitted from UConn and signed with Rutgers today but the Huskies were able to hold onto the rest of its pledges even though many of them had offers from teams in Power 5 conferences.

"It is a beautiful thing because a lot of times you hear about kids flipping their commitments three or four times," Herring said. "For us to be able to keep just about everyone shows that they believe in the same thng I believe in.
"You always have a lot of colleges contacting you trying to make you change your decision but I think with the coaching staff, them continuously showing me love and contacting me it just made me feel like they cared. I think that was key is that they showed that I was important to them and not that I was just another number, another commit."

Herring, who was in attendance at the Villanova and East Carolina games at Rentschler Field, had chances to head to the SEC or ACC but never wavered on his desire to play at UConn. Coming off a trip to the St. Petersburg Bowl, Herring is pretty fired up about UConn's potential moving forward.

"We are headed in a great direction coming off a season where we made a bowl game," Herring said. "The prior season we went 2-10 so it is all about progress. For us to be able to win four more games than we won the previous year under a second-year head coach, I think it is phenomenal and I only see us going forward.

"I feel like everything that he (UConn coach Bob Diaco) said to me was genuine. I believe he is going to be the same way when he was recruiting me to when I am there and that is what is important. A lot of coaches, they switch up a little bit. They try to make everything seem a lot easier and better when they are recruiting you but then they are very different when  you are at the school."

When I spoke to Rose he mentioned how valuable the group chats with all the recruits have been in keeping the class together throughout the process. Herring feels like he already has formed a bond with the rest of the incoming freshman.

"When we went on our official there wasn't a dull moment," Herring said. "We knew enough about each other that we could talk about anything and not feel awkward. It felt like we all knew each other already and that is just amazing because a lot of kids, they never speak before they see each other at fall camp. It is more important to build a connection beyond just football, become friends with each other.
"There have been times when I have been on visits and you can just tell that some of the kids didn't like each other. It seems like nobody had a problem with each other and everybody loved each other. I think building a bond like a family with your teammates is very important."

Herring has an added advantage as his former Suffield Academy teammate Brice McAllister is a defensive back with the Huskies.
"He didn't really try to sway me to go to UConn," Herring said. "He was there for me and when I went up to visit I usually stayed with him, him being one of my best friends just made it that much easier to be comfortable. He didn't try to rush me with my decision, it was more of 'take your time, make sure it is place you want to go to and it is the best fit for you.' I feel like UConn was that."

Herring weighed 145 pounds when he first arrived in Suffield five years ago but his potential was evident even back then. Herring has shown remarkable growth as a player but also as a person.

"He is not an in your face type kid, he is a little more laid back and quiet but you saw his confidence grow in the time that he was here," Suffield Academy coach Drew Gamere said. "You saw the people kind of gravitate towards him as they do for any leader so that to me was the biggest growth. He was always a great kid, an outstanding family that was very involved from the start and normally that leads to great character

"For him what is special is he is a Hartford kid and he really had his mind set on UConn from the start so for him, this is kind of fulfilling a dream. He has worked really hard and earned everything that he has got."

Gamere has dealt with plenty of college recruiters in recent years and he said he is as impressed with how Diaco and his staff handles things as any other program.

"I am really impressed with their staff, very professional," Gamere said. "I know they are headed in the right direction and I think this year really showed it. We have Brice McAllister there now who is contributing, wants to do a little bit more but is contributing on special teams. He is extremely happy and confident in the coaches and direction of the program. Certainly my interaction with them have been all positive and I have been really impressed with them."

Speaking of Suffield Academy and recruiting, I had to ask Gamere about the reaction when Christian Wilkins not only made an impact as a freshman at Clemson, but had a huge catch on a fake punt in the national semifinal victory over Oklahoma. When it was revealed that the play call was titled "UConn" because Wilkins played in Connecticut it might have provided the most positive press from the national media than anything else football related in recent memory.

"My phone about blew up, it kept going and going," Gamere said. "We had watched Christian or kept an eye on him and knew he was doing a great job. Leading into that game, there was a lot of build up, a lot of people watching. It was certainly an exciting play. It didn't surprise any of us because it had been four years of doing some really remarkable things. I think I would have been surprised if he had dropped it but it was exciting."

I will have more on the recruiting class after the press conference with Diaco later on today at Rentschler Field. However, I figured I would provide links to blogs I wrote about Keyion Dixon and Nino Leone when I covered games that they played in during the season.

While 16 players signed with UConn, the class will be larger than that thanks to preferred walk-ons including Avon's Teddy Allmendinger and Valley Regional's Jack Giaconia.

Here are the players who signed with the Huskies this morning
Noel Brouse, defensive end
Tyler Coyle, safety
Keyion Dixon, receiver
Cam DeGeorge, offensive line
AJ Garson, linebacker
Ryan Gimartin, linebacker
Brett Graham, punter
Eddie Hahn, safety
Tahj Herring, cornerback
Nate Hopkins, running back
Nino Leone, offensive line
Jasen Rose, quarterback
Quayvon Skanes, receiver
Ja'Kevious Vickers, running back
Donovan Williams, quarterback
Nick Zecchino, long snapper

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Valley Regional OL/DL Giaconia headed to UConn as preferred walk-on

According to my colleague Mike Pucci, Valley Regional/Old Lyme lineman Jack Giaconia will attend UConn as a preferred walk-on.

Giaconia had 75 tackles and two sacks as a senior. He had 190 tackles during his career.

He will be the second member of the 2014 Valley Regional/Old Lyme team which went 13-0 and won the CIAC Class S Large Division title to head to UConn as a preferred walk-on as Chris Jean-Pierre is a safety at UConn who redshirted during the 2015 season.

Speaking of in-state recruits heading to UConn, here is the story I wrote on the five Connecticut natives set to sign with the Huskies on Wednesday

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Former UConn AD Manuel holds court with media one last time

I first started covering UConn athletics on a regular basis 18 years ago and not only would I say that Warde Manuel was the most approachable athletic director at UConn but I don't even know who would be in second place.

Manuel flew back to Connecticut today after meeting the media on Friday as he was introduced as the AD at Michigan, his alma mater. Before the game UConn women's basketball SID asked the media who would want to interview Manuel at halftime and I figured it was a rhetorical question.

Manuel addressed plenty of topics including his legacy at UConn and the prospects of the Huskies getting into the Power Five conference.

"I have been through this before, I am winding down here and winding up at a new place but I love the fact that I get to spend time and say goodbye in the sense that I won't be here to the staff and to my friends. I am very appreciative that I have time to do that. I will be back and forth to Ann Arbor for some things but for the most part until after the women's conference championship, I will be around.

"When you approach any job you hope you leave it better than you found it," Manuel said. "I will leave it to others to talk about my legacy here. I am proud of our academic success ... We got through the transition of the breakup of the Big East and the transition to the American as well or better than people expected.

"I leave sad because of the relationships and the people I won't see on a consistent basis but I leave happy knowing that the people here know how to win, know how to be extremely successful and the future is very bright for UConn."

UConn had tremendous on-court and on-field success during Manuel's time at UConn but many will view his legacy as incomplete because the Huskies were not able to secure a bid from a Power 5 conference under his watch. When he was introduced as Michigan's AD, he said he thinks of UConn as a Power 5 program.

"It is not like I have any magic statement," Manuels said. "It is what I believe. I believe our success already puts us in the level of the top tier of universities in this country so it is a statement that I will continue to believe but I don't know how close we are. I know in terms of success, we are (a Power Five program).

"Because we are not in the Power 5 that we are somehow second-class citizens, I never approached this job that way, I don't talk much about it and people criticize me for not talking a lot about it but I just don't think you talk and get into something. You don't talk about it and all of a sudden an application appears, you have to work at it, you have to have the success we've had and you have to continue to show people who we are. Guess what if you don't let us in, we are still going to beat you and if you let us in, we are still going to beat you. That is the attitude, the way I approach it and the way I drive the staff, coaches, our student-athletes to be the best no matter where you are. I think if UConn highly, I always will and it has been a great place for me and my family."

There is a prevailing notion that having Manuel at Michigan could help UConn if the Big Ten opts to add more teams. Manuel made it clear that his main focus will be on doing what is best for the Wolverines but he will certainly have positive things to say about UConn.

"At the appropriate point if there is a point in the conversation about it, certainly I will talk very highly about UConn because I try not to mince words, sometimes I get all jumbled up and get caught off guard but I don't say things I don't believe and I believe in this place," Manuel said. "I believe in this place as much as I did when I took the job. The success we have had speaks for itself. The prestige of this university speaks for itself. The people here, the fan base, the things that we have, if you look at media households in close proximity (to major markets), you look at our dominance in the New York market when we go down there to play, the fans that we have, there are so many positives about UConn and for me it is not hard to say it if it comes up in conversation."

Manuel was quick to emphasize that all the talk of securing a Power 5 invite should not take away from their time in the American Athletic Conference.

"The American Conference has been a great conference," Manuel said. "I am proud we are in the conference and representing the American, I don't want anything to take away for it or take away from the strength of these colleges that have come together to play in the American, the great colleagues I have in this conference are working hard."

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Friday, January 29, 2016

Committee formed to aid in search for UConn's new AD

With Warde Manuel being named the new director of athletics at Michigan today, UConn president Susan Herbst announced the names of those who will serve on the search committee to find Manuel's replacement including interim AD Rachel Rubin

Andrew Bessette (’75) UConn Board of Trustees 
Scott Brown, UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology, NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative
Andrea Dennis-LaVigne (’03), UConn Board of Trustees (Committee Chair) 
Doug Elliot (’82), President of The Hartford
Thomas Ritter (Law ’77) UConn Board of Trustees
Rachel Rubin (’77), Chief of Staff to the President & Executive Secretary to the Board of Trustees
Nancy Stevens, Head Coach, UConn Field Hockey

Here's a statement from Herbst on Manuel's departure

"The only downside to hiring fine leaders for key positions at UConn is that their experience and skills are sought after by other institutions across the nation, who also want to hire strong leaders.

When Warde Manuel, our Athletic Director since 2012, told me he was interested in the AD position at the University of Michigan, I was not at all surprised; Michigan is his alma mater where he spent years of his life as a student-athlete, playing football for Bo Schembechler, participating in track and field, and earning his degrees, later becoming assistant and associate AD there.  

I was also not surprised when he was recently named to the position; Warde is a terrific AD and any university would be lucky to have him.

While we are sorry to lose him at UConn, we also understand how much the position at Michigan means to him and we wish him all the best.

Warde is expected to begin at Michigan in March. Rachel Rubin, who began her career at UConn as an Associate Athletic Director and is currently Chief of Staff in my office, will serve as interim AD.

We will begin a national search for a permanent successor immediately.