Monday, September 29, 2014

Former soccer player emerges into team leader for UConn football team

As the most experienced player on a struggling offensive line, it has not been the best of senior seasons for Alex Mateas.

He was whistled for costly penalties on more than one occasion in Saturday's loss to Temple and when I asked UConn coach Bob Diaco how Mateas, a team captain, has been handling his leadership role on a conference call this morning he basically said that he'd like for Mateas to merely focus on his responsibilities and leave the job of working with the other linemen to the coaching staff.

With all that being said, Mateas' journey to becoming a team captain at UConn is a rather unique one.

His father is a former professional soccer player and well-respected soccer coach in Canada, his former AAU basketball coach spent a few years as an assistant with the Canadian national team and yet Mateas has made his mark on the football field. I spoke to Mateas during media day about his soccer background and finally got around to writing the story on how he landed at UConn.


UConn's Melifonwu is "day to day"

On Monday's conference call with the media UConn football coach Bob Diaco said that starting safety Obi Melifonwu, who appeared to injure his shoulder with 4:34 left in the second quarter of the loss to Temple when he dove at the legs of Temple running back Jamie Gilmore, is considered day to day and he is hopeful that Melifonwu will be able to play against Tulane on Oct. 11.

Diaco said Melifowu, who is third on the team with 20 solo tackles, was having his best game of the season before he was injured.

The news is not as promising on starting right tackle Dalton Gifford and backup safety Ellis Marder who Diaco said with both "be out a while" with lower-leg injuries suffered against Temple. I didn't see when Gifford was injured but he barely played at tackle following the opening series. When he did come back, he was clearly hobbled on the play resulting in Temple's second defensive touchdown while Marder, who had two tackles and a fumble recovery on special teams, needed help getting to the sidelines after going down on Saturday. After Melifonwu went down Marder was the player summoned off the bench to replace him and saw the majority of snaps at the position before he was injured.

Although Gifford started, Andreas Knappe played almost the entire game on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Tommy Hopkins will be Knappe's primary backup while Gifford is sidelined.

"He is a freshman trying to get better," Diaco said. "He will do a fine job, tough guy hard worker and wants to be good."

Diaco also didn't make a big deal out of former Hand High star Matt Walsh making his first career start at fullback against Temple saying that he likes both Walsh and Jazzmar Clax, who started three games this season (UConn went with two tight ends and no fullback to open up against Boise State. Diaco said Clax had a good week but also likes the progress he has seen from Walsh.

"I like them both," Diaco said. "I want to be sure we are honoring the preparation, creating accountability. The only way to do to do what we say and what we make important is important. Jazz has some great skills and ability and Matt is coming on too."

The bye week will not only give Melifonwu time to get healthy but should help backup quarterback Tim Boyle heal from his lower-leg pain. Diaco said if Boyle is health enough his plan is to play him every game and he is open to utilizing receiver Deshon Foxx at quarterback in future games. 

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Former UConn OL Beatty recognized by PFF

It wasn't long ago that fans of the New York Giants were calling for former UConn offensive tackle Will Beatty to lose his starting job. Now he is among the top-rated left tackles in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, a site that breaks down game tape to provide individual player ratings.

Beatty and Pittsburgh's Marcus Gilbert were named as the offensive tackles on the PFF Team of the Week. Beatty has given a perfect rating on pass protection and finished with a plus 3.3 rating in Thursday's win over Washington.

Beatty was also named to the PFF Team of the Week after the Giants' week 2 game against the Cardinals. He is the only former UConn player named to the PFF Team of Week although Anthony Sherman was the honorable mention selection at fullback last week.

The American Athletic Conference announced that Oct. 11 UConn/Tulane game will kickoff at 8 and air on ESPNews.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Plenty of highlights for UConn commits over the weekend

Quarterback Tyler Davis ran 30 times for 373 yards including touchdown runs of 30, 64 and 59 yards and was 13 of 20 passing for 143 yards with scoring strikes of 20 and 24 yards as Mepham (N.Y.) defeated Elmont Memorial 42-26.

Chris Lee caught six passes for 96 yards including touchdown receptions of 10, 8 and 7 yards but his Severna Park (Md.) team lost 28-27 to Annapolis in overtime.

Frank Battle had four catches for 116 yards to lead his Belen Jesuit squad to a 10-7 win over South Fort Myers on Friday. Battle has 12 catches for 171 yards in the first four games of the season.

Nazir Williams had five catches for 84 yards including a 30-yard touchdown in Bridgeton (N.J.) High's 27-26 loss to River Dell.

Aaron Garland returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown in Fenwick (Ill.) High's 38-0 win over DePaul Prep

New potential wrinkle in UConn's offense

It is wise not to read too much into any production during the garbage time portion of football games.

As was the case with Tim Boyle's impressive drive late in the Boise State, Deshon Foxx's impressive work running the read option in the closing minutes of yesterday's loss to Temple was done against second-string defenders and a conservative defensive game plan. Still, with an offense that has done little except to prove it can consistently hand the other team glorious scoring opportunities, perhaps UConn has something new to bring to the table.

Foxx has been quietly seeing some time at quarterback in practice since one final concussion ended Casey Cochran's playing career with the Huskies.

It was the way I thought UConn would end up going because I specifically looked for walk-on Will Rishell, who has been listed as the No. 3 quarterback since Cochran stopped playing, to take some snaps in pregame warmups (we aren't allowed into practice once preseason camp ends) and have yet to see it. I didn't even see Rishell among the Huskies who made the trip to South Florida earlier this month. I speculated that Kamal Abrams, a productive high school quarterback, could be the guy but a couple of weeks ago the word was that Deshon Foxx was the one who would be the Huskies' emergency quarterback moving forward.

When Bob Diaco met with the media the day after announcing that Cochran's playing career was over I asked him if Abrams or another player was being groomed to be an emergency quarterback.

"Not any that I am interested in saying" was Diaco's guarded response.

It wasn't an emergency that resulted in Foxx lining up in the shotgun on UConn's final offensive possession yesterday. He handed off to Ron Johnson on the first three times and five times during a nine-play drive.

For those wondering, Foxx said he played quarterback at Brookville High School in Lynchburg, Virginia although his team operated in a spread offense.

On Saturday Foxx ran the ball three times including a 26-yard effort, the Huskies' longest run since Lyle McCombs rumbled for 38 yards against Southern Methodist on Nov. 16. Likely just to give future opponents something else to have to prepare for, the UConn staff had Foxx throw the ball and he completed a 4-yard pass to Noel Thomas.

"It is the end of the game, you don't want to risk anything happening to your two quarterbacks," Foxx said. "I have been doing it here or there.

Foxx, who did not catch a pass in the game, isn't sure if he will get future opportunities to play quarterback but he does offer the dimension of a running threat at the quarterback position which is something the Huskies haven't had since Scott McCummings was used as the quarterback in the wildcat formation a couple years ago.

"If they feel like it will help the offense," Foxx said. "I know they will do whatever for our team to win they will do whatever they have to do."

Diaco made it clear after the Temple game that not only is Foxx viewed as a potential option at quarterback, but he will not just be a running threat if called upon again in live game action.

"Foxx is a quarterback," Diaco said. "He can throw too, he can throw down the field. He can throw the intermediate (routes), he can throw the ball shallow, he can move with the ball and throw on the run and we have a whole package of plays for him, runs and passes."

A trace of a smile came across Foxx's face when he was asked if he could throw the ball down the field.

"I can do a little something, maybe one day we will see," Foxx said.If nothing else, that final drive enabled UConn to finish a game with more than 100 rushing yards for the first time this season.

Max DeLorenzo ran eight times for 31 yards on the opening drive of the game while freshman Arkeel Newsome took a pass from Whitmer 74 yards for the Huskies' only offensive touchdown and the team's longest offensive play since Shakim Phillips' 75-yard touchdown reception in a Sept. 14, 2013 loss to Maryland.

"That was definitely cool," Foxx said of the former Ansonia High star's first collegiate touchdown. "I was very happy that he was able to get the touchdown especially as a freshman to show what he could do. He got into the open field, he made a couple people miss and he was in the end zone quick. That is another weapon we have.

"He doesn't complain, he doesn't say anything. Whatever you tell him to do, he does it to the best of his ability. I am proud of him and happy to have him on our team."

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

UConn continues to make things difficult for itself

It would be easy to think that the members of the UConn football team believe there are bonus points for a higher degree of difficulty.

Beginning with a 31-10 loss to Louisville on Nov. 8, UConn has surrendered multiple non-offensive touchdowns in three of the last 10 games including the two defensive touchdowns Boise State scored in a 38-21 loss on Sept. 13 and the two defensive scores and safety surrendered to Temple today.

"Sixteen uncontested points (on two defensive touchdowns and a safety) make it impossible to win, period," Diaco said. 

"You have some exposure there that creates some of those circumstances," Diaco said. "We are unhappy with the four explosive play passes (allowed) because that is just not what we do. We don't have our defense structured to give up explosive play passes so when they had the four explosive play passes, that was disappointing. They only really had two scoring drives, the other field goals were plus-field setups and we gave up 16 uncontested points. We are all disappointed. 

"We are not crushed, players understand what we are going to do. We have a bye week and we are going to concentrate on getting better."

The win was extra special to Temple junior linebacker Tyler Matakevich, a Stratford native and former St. Joseph High standout.

"We just stuck to our game plan and we get stronger as the game went on," Matakevich said. "We knew the defense was going to keep us in the game. We were playing excellent on defense and that is what we do, that is our brand. We are going to make big plays. It was just a matter of time before P.J. and the guys got things rolling."
Former Ansonia High star Arkeel Newsome drew a charge from the home crowd when he took a screen pass, shook off a tackle at the 30 and zig zagged his way across the field for a 74-yard touchdown.

Any momentum the Huskies might have gotten ended when after a defensive stop, Temple pinned the Huskies at the 2. On the next play there was miscommunication between Whitmer and Newsome resulting in Matakevich getting credit for the safety.

"I thought they were going to blow the play dead because they had people moving on the line and as soon as I saw them stop, I filled the hole and I just whacked him," Matakevich said. "The next thing you know you see the ref putting up the (safety) signal and we started going nuts."
UConn lost starting safety Obi Melifonwu to an upper body injury in the second quarter as he attempted to make a tackle. He immediately came off the field with his shoulder slumped.

"I'd say it is not insignificant," Diaco said. "I would say that he is probably going to be classified as injured. I just don't know if it is going to be day to day of it is going to persist."

UConn  played without punter Justin Wain, who suffered a lower-leg injury in Thursday's practice. 

Geremy Davis, who led UConn with eight catches for 80 yards, left the game but Diaco said is was merely an issue with dehydration and he could have returned to the game. UConn did run for a season-high 133 yards and Marquise Vann led UConn with nine tackles.

UConn still running in place

It wasn't too long ago that UConn was among the most productive running teams in the nation as Husky running backs had 200-yard rushing games seven times from 2003-2009.

However, that seems like ancient history when looking at this year's team.

There are 125 teams playing at the Football Bowl Subdivision level and UConn joins Kent State and Washington State as the only programs without a 100-yard rushing game this season. No, I am not talking about a back breaking into triple digits but a team putting up 100 yards on the ground.

UConn coach Bob Diaco said he is seeing progress. He thought there were more creases in the run game against South Florida than in previous games but the backs, forced to improvise to try to make something out of nothing earlier in the season did so unnecessarily in that game.

"It is getting a lot better," UConn redshirt freshman Josh Marriner said. "Coach is with us every day as far as the running backs and the offense, we just continue to move forward."

So where does Marriner think he can make the most improvement?
"Being a little more patient," Marriner said, "I am kind of quick some on some plays sometimes."

Diaco is still moving forward with the plan of having four tailbacks carry in the ball. Before the season he said he'd like to have one guy get the call 20 or so times but no running back has carried the ball more than 10 times in a game this season. It is a subject I asked Diaco about in Tuesday's press conference.

"It's been one guy one week, one guy the next week and one guy the next week," Diaco said. "We have three talented freshmen backs, I will tell you that. Max (DeLorenzo) is doing a hell of a job in leading the team, leading the offense and being a tough guy for us without a doubt. We are pleased with Max and when you think of Josh, Arkeel (Newsome) and Ron (Johnson) for the next 3 1/2 to four years, it is pretty awesome."

With all the focus on Diaco's decision to abandon the passing game until the closing minutes against South Florida after disastrous results the first four times UConn attempted to throw the ball against USF led to me asking Diaco how a team gets to the point to not being able to drop back to pass regardless of the weather conditions.

"The front right now needs a massive amount of work, the offensive line and tight ends need a massive amount of work in the run game and the pass game," Diaco said. "Rome wasn't built in a day and this won't be either. It is a fair question. they made improvement in the area of the run game and still have a long way to go there but an even further distance to go in the pass game so again you probably have to do even more things to help them and manage the game for them so they can kind of take baby steps in that area of protection."

Temple has given up rushing yardage this season so it will be interesting to see if UConn can establish a consistent running game today.

They always work hard and fight, now they are executing their assignments much better, have a better idea of knowing what to do and when you know what to do, you can play fast and physical. They are starting to do that.

We prepared to win the game and run whatever plays we can. It is not like I just go to sleep on the run game or the receivers aren't blocking. I think they did a good job out there being physical and that is where the long runs come from with the receivers blocking downfield. We can use the weapons both in the pass and run game. You want to stay balanced but you also want to do what is the best for the team.

I think it can be an explosive offense passing and running as well. There are a lot of backs who can really move and play and I think it is exciting. We know what we can do in the pass game as well and when we put it all together, I think we will be explosive.

Progress wel, they kind of got thrown into this with the running back only have two (returning players) so it is great ot have them on the team, great for them to step up to the challenge and do what they need to do so it has been a great asset 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Honoring the true heroes this weekend

It is just a coincidence that UConn's Military Appreciation Day is going to fall on a day when the military was already planning to be at the center of football festivities in the state.

A few hours before a field-sized American flag will be on display during national anthem and a flyover by “Miss Hap”, the oldest surviving B-25 in the United States dating back to World War II, about 1,000 cadets from the U.S. Military Academy will be marching into the Yale Bowl before Army faces Yale.

For those planning to be at both events, it would require an early exit from the Yale game since UConn officials are requesting that fans are in their seats by 3:30 p.m. for the ceremony and the Yale game doesn't start until shortly after 1 p.m. However, it should make for some special moments for fans heading out to either game on Saturday.

As for those wanting to see the Cadets march into Yale Bowl, I would suggest getting there early. The plan is for them to arrive around 9:30 (Derby Avenue will be closed for about 10 minutes around the time of their arrival) and then will proceed across Derby Avenue. There will also be paratroopers coming into Yale Bowl closer to kickoff time.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Freshmen making an impact on defense for UConn

One of the more intriguing aspects of the way UConn has gone about things on the defensive side of the ball has been how the younger players are being utilized more and more with each passing week.

In Friday's loss at South Florida the freshmen class had more solo tackles than either the senior or sophomore classes.

Junior Joseph led the way with four solo tackles including two tackle for losses, Foley Fatukasi had three tackles including one of the Huskies' 10 tackles for loss while Jamar Summers and Luke Carrezola each had a solo tackle.

"Foley played his best game Friday night and I am looking forward to him participating more," UConn coach Bob Diaco, "These guys are going to be around here for a long time. It is not just the end of '14 and '15, these guys are here '15 and beyond, Mikal (Myers, a sophomore defensive lineman), (freshman linebacker) Vontae (Diggs) played a bunch, (Luke) Carrezola played a bunch, Junior Joseph is making a big impact in the games at outside linebacker, it is exciting."

For those interested in the class breakdown, here you go
SENIORS: 6 solo tackles, 5 assists
JUNIORS: 29 solo tackles, 13 assists
SOPHOMORES: 8 solo tackles, 2 assists
FRESHMEN: 9 solo tackles

"I couldn't imagine playing as a true freshman going back to when I was 17/18 years old," said Byron Jones, one of three seniors to have tackles against USF, "I wasn't mature enough, physically mature enough at that time to even think about playing so the fact that those guys are out there and playing well is a testament to their work.

"They have to continue to stay on the right path. It is a long career for them, they have to keep working. They understand that and coach Diaco is going to pull every little piece he can out of them."

UConn's Mueller a semifinalist for Campbell Trophy

UConn senior Adam Mueller is one of 167 players named as semifinalists for the prestigious Campbell Trophy.

Mueller was a member of the Big East All-Academic team in 2011 and 2012 and the American Athletic Conference All-Academic team in 2013 when he was the Huskies' top long snapper for the first 10 games of the season.

Here is the official criteria to be named to the list of semifinalists

Nominated by their schools, which are limited to one nominee each, candidates for the awards must be a senior or graduate student in their final year of eligibility, have a GPA of at least 3.2 on a 4.0 scale, have outstanding football ability as a first team player or significant contributor and have demonstrated strong leadership and citizenship. The class is selected each year by the NFF Awards Committee.

Southern Connecticut State's Jack Mallis, Trinity's Mike Mancini and Yale's Tyler Varga are also among the semifinalists.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Football A-listers react to death of UConn's Toner

Yesterday Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun, the Hall of Fame basketball coaches John Toner hired during his time as UConn's director of athletics, weighed in on his legacy after news hit of Toner's death at the age of 91.

Today courtesy of the National Football Foundation, there are more tributes coming in for Toner, who was UConn's football coach from 1966-70 and the AD from 1969-87.

Toner, a former NFF vice chairman and winner of the organization's Distinguished American Award in 1986, made enough of an impact through his service to the NFF that they established the John L. Toner Award in 1997 given out annually to a college athletic director.

Here are some quotes from Archie Manning, NFF President and CEO Steve Hatchell and Columbia AD Dianne Murphy.

“John Toner stood as a giant among athletic administrators, and the mere mention of his name meant integrity and respect,” said NFF Chairman Archie Manning. “He brought immediate credibility to the efforts of the National Football Foundation, and he served on the NFF board with extreme passion and enormous impact. He put the scholar-athlete first, and his opinions and actions helped shape the NCAA and the college football landscape for decades. Today marks a very sad day for the NFF and all of college athletics. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

“John Toner was a good friend and supporter long before I arrived at the National Football Foundation,” said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell. “And that trust only grew as we served together on the NFF Board. His insights and guidance helped frame the direction of our organization during the past two decades, and he provided critical counsel on numerous occasions, especially as it related to NCAA matters. When John spoke people listened, and it is a fitting tribute that the ultimate award in college administration is given in his name each year. We extend our deepest condolences to his family. We share their loss, and we will work hard to carry on his legacy.”

“I was privileged to know John Toner as both a mentor and friend.  The world of collegiate athletics and Columbia Athletics has lost a wonderful advocate and giant in the business,” said Dr. M. Dianne Murphy, Director, Intercollegiate Athletics and Physical Education at Columbia in a statement on the school’s website.  “John had an amazing and prestigious career at the University of Connecticut.  He was a beloved part of the Columbia Athletics Family and we were always so happy to have him with us at Homecoming and The Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame.  We will miss him.  I will miss him.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

UConn's Lee making an impact on special teams

Wading through UConn's team stats on the NCAA site isn't always the easiest of tasks considering the way the Huskies have struggled in the first four games of the season.

However, while many of the offensive and defensive numbers aren't exactly pretty, the Huskies' special teams' unit has more than held up its end of the bargain.

Not only has kicker Bobby Puyol gone 5 for 5 on field goals and produced four touchbacks on 13 kickoffs but punter Justin Wain is averaging 40.7 yards per kick.

The coverage teams have also been rather special as UConn ranks second among 125 FBS teams allowing 13.6 yards per kickoff return and are 49th nationally with an average of 5.5 yards per punt return.

Junior safety Wilbert "Junior" Lee has been at the forefront of the Huskies' stingy coverage units. In Friday's loss to South Florida he had four tackles on punt returns and another on a kickoff return.

"I just sprinted up the field and made the tackle every time I could,' Lee said.

"When I go out on special teams, if I miss the tackle I am going to go out there and fight to get back in there."

On at least one occasion Lee was knocked to the ground but was able to get up and still be the guy making the primary tackle on special teams which shows that he not only has the talent but desire to be an impact player on special teams.

"My job was to force him inside and make sure he doesn't get outside," Lee said. "I did that and at the same time I was like 'look, he is not going to break anymore tackles' so I sprinted my way and made the tackle.

"I want coaches on the opponent's end to watch film and say 'look, we have to find a way to stop this guy. Most people don't look at it that way on special teams, don't take it to that level but what I do that I get in this zone that these coaches will recognize me in the next game and they will try to find a way to stop me."

Lee is starting to earn more playing time at safety and he plans on being ready whenever his number is called.

"He (head coach Bob Diaco) didn't know me (when he was hired) but the best thing to do is get their trust, earn their trust. Let him know and show him I know all the plays, I know the checks, I know where my fits are in the defense. I strive for that in practice and once he sees that I will continue (to produce) and see if I can get some plays in."

Lee has certainly gotten Diaco's attention.

"He has a nose for the ball, he is very aggressive, he is confident, he studies the game," Diaco said. "He runs full speed, believes he is going to make the tackle and aggressively goes and tackles the guy. He has been a big help to the special teams."

When writing the history of UConn athletics it would not take very long to getting to John Toner's name.

The long-time director of athletics was responsible for hiring some of the program's most legendary coaches. Toner passed away earlier today at the age of 91. While details of how UConn will honor his passing are still in the planning stages, UConn is planning to have a moment of silence in his honor before Saturday's football game.

Trevardo Williams, the all-time sacks leader at UConn, has bounced around a bit this year trying to find a home in the NFL. He was cut by Houston, which took him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, signed and then quickly cut by the Arizona Cardinals and now comes word that he has been signed to the practice squad by the Indianapolis Colts.