Monday, September 01, 2014

UConn game a homecoming for Stony Brook coach

If there is one person who can appreciate what it is like to win games in the Hartford area it certainly is Stony Brook head coach Chuck Priore.

Before taking over at Stony Brook he posted a 39-9 record in six seasons at Trinity's head coach including a 31-1 mark in his final four seasons. He still owns a house in Wethersfield and admits that he comes back to Connecticut quite often.

"I still have a lot of friends that will be at the game and I am certainly looking forward to getting back up there and playing in (East) Hartford," Priore said on Monday's Colonial Athletic Association weekly conference call. "We will compete and hopefully we will show up and give UConn a good game.

"I am excited (to play at Rentschler)," Priore said. "I have watched some games from the stands and I have spent some time in the press box at different events so it will be exciting to coach the game. We have a couple of local kids who I know are very excited about  it also."

Priore is grateful for the experience at Trinity, his first head coaching gig.

"That was a tremendous experience for me," Priore said. "It was my first head-coaching job, I worked some great people, the institution, the presidents I worked for. The athletic director, Rick Hazelton, certainly gave me the opportunity to grow as a head football coach. I really appreciated my time in Connecticut both living and also as an employee at Trinity."

As for UConn, Priore was impressed with what he saw on tape.

"I see a team that has great potential," Priore said. "I thought Coach (Bob Diaco) did a great job, they played a lot of kids and he is still getting a feel of his talent level. It is one thing to evaluate kids in practice and another to get them on the field. I think their kids stepped to the plate, a lot of young kids and I think he played 40 or so kids on offense and defense which is quite a bit at this level. They have good physicality on defense, their linebackers played downhill, they ave a real good cover corner, the D-line is stout. On the offensive side, I like their quarterbacks, they went at you with a number of running backs and they have some size on the offensive line. They are learning what they need to do BYU, in that game it was all about the quarterback. If that quarterback's not there it is a much closer game. It is a talented program at the FBS level, they've got the scholarships and I think the kids played hard which is what you need the kids to do."

The game will kickoff shortly after noon on Saturday and will be televised on SNY.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

13 state products see time in UConn opener

Casey Cochran was one of 13 state products to play in UConn's opener
As I mentioned in the days leading up to Friday's season opener, there was going to be a chance for local products to shine at Rentschler Field.

I went back through the online box scores dating back to 2006 to see how many Connecticut players took part in the season opener. I would have gone back further but the 2005 box did not include a player participation list and this is just the third time that at least 10 Connecticut natives played in the Huskies' opener as 10 players saw snaps in 2008 and 2006. 

According to the participation chart, 13 Connecticut players got into the game

Here is the breakdown

DT Kenton Adeyemi (Wethersfield): Had three tackles
QB Casey Cochran (Monroe): Started and was 17 of 31 passing for 171 yards with an interception
TB Max DeLorenzo (Berlin): Started and finished with a team-high 38 rushing yards
DB Chris DeBerry (Torrington): Saw time on special teams
CB Byron Jones (New Britain): Started and had five tackles
DL Sean Marinan (Higganum): Saw time on special teams
TE Sean McQuillan (Glastonbury): Started and had 33 yards on three receptions
TE Tommy Myers (Coventry): Had a three-yard catch
TB Arkeel Newsome (Ansonia): Ran three times for 10 yards, caught an 18-yard pass and had 49 yards on kickoff returns
LB/DE Cole Ormsby (Windsor): Had a solo tackle
LB Graham Stewart (Durham): Started, tied for the team lead with 11 tackles and forced a fumble
WR Noel Thomas (Norwalk): Had two catches for 18 yards and made a special-teams tackle
FB Matt Walsh (Madison): Saw time at fullback and the field goal, extra point, kickoff return, punt return and punt coverage teams as he recorded one tackle.

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Former UConn WR Williams signed to Redskins practice squad

A day after making former UConn receiver Nick Williams one of the final roster cut the Washington Redskins announced he was one of  eight players named to the team's practice squad.

Williams was originally signed by Washington as an undrafted rookie free agent last April. He spent some time on the practice squad during the 2013 season before being promoted to the active roster on Nov. 8. He made his debut nine days later and had a five-yard reception in a loss to Philadelphia. He finished with three catches for 15 yards in five games. He also averaged 20.9 yards on nine kickoff returns and returned one punt for no yards.

During the preseason Williams finished tied for third on the team with six catches and he had touchdown receptions in back to back games.

The Atlanta Falcons named the first eight players signed to the practice squad but former UConn linebacker Yawin Smallwood, taken by the Falcons in the seventh round of this year's draft before being cut. wasn't among then. The team is supposed to announce the names of the final two practice-squad players tomorrow.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

3 former UConn products let go on NFL cut-down day

The roster cuts for all 32 NFL teams are starting to trickle in and by the looks of things there will be 16 former UConn players on opening-day rosters.

The biggest news could be that rookie Shamar Stephen beat out veteran Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Fred Evans for a roster spot. Evans has been with the Vikings since 2007 recording 97 tackles and three sacks. Stephen, a seventh-round pick, finished as Minnesota's fourth-leading tackler during the preseason with 12 stops.

Three former Huskies were let go as teams got down to the 53-man maximum for the regular season.

The news that Yawin Smallwood, also a seventh-round selection in this year's draft, was  cut actually came out yesterday. Fellow linebacker Lawrence Wilson was waived by St. Louis while receiver Nick Williams was let go by Washington. Williams was tied for third on the team with six receptions and had two of the team's eight TD receptions during the preseason. I would say that of the trio, he would seem like the most likely to get picked up by another team.

While no longer a surprise based on the tremendous work he did during the preseason, it is still a great story that linebacker Danny Lansanah, who has been bouncing around the league  in the hopes of landing a roster spot not only will make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad but is primed to play a key role. Lansanah, who played in the 2013 season finale for Tampa Bay, was third on the team with 16 tackles in the four preseason games.

It looks like the Detroit Lions have opted to keep three quarterbacks so both former UConn star Dan Orlovsky as well as Kellen Moore will backup Matthew Stafford. With the release of T.J. Graham, it pretty much solidifies that Marcus Easley will remain with the Buffalo Bills due to his tremendous work on special teams.

Here is the list of UConn players to make the cut
Will Beatty, OT New York Giants
Tyvon Branch, S Oakland
Donald Brown, RB San Diego
Darius Butler, CB Indianapolis
Marcus Easley, WR Buffalo
Dwayne Gratz, CB Jacksonville
Ryan Griffin, TE Houston
Danny Lansanah, LB Tampa Bay
Robert McClain, CB Atlanta
Sio Moore, LB Oakland
Dan Orlovsky, Detroit
Kendall Reyes, DT San Diego
Anthony Sherman, FB Kansas City
Jordan Todman, RB Jacksonville
Shamar Stephen, DT Minnesota
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB Tennessee

UConn spreads the wealth in passing game

Josh Marriner and the other UConn freshmen running backs were
involved in the running and passing game in season-opening loss
While the way quarterbacks Casey Cochran and Chandler Whitmer were utilized in last night's game against BYU continues to be a popular topic of conversation, I was more concerned with who was getting the ball thrown to them.

The first thing that caught my eye is that freshmen running backs Arkeel Newsome, Josh Marriner and Ron Johnson had receptions of 18, 17 and 11 yards respectively. So what you may say but a season ago you would have to go to the 11th game of the season to document three catches of at least 10 yards by the running backs and the 49 receiving yards by the backs tops any number the Huskies put forth a season ago.

"It is an important piece," Diaco said. "As a (former) defensive coordinator and (former) linebacker, those guys are hard to cover."

As for overall targets, I went through last night's tape and here is what I came up with (this includes plays wiped out due to penalty)
Player               Targets     Catches
Geremy Davis     13            7
Deshon Foxx        9            2
Sean McQuillan    6            3
Kamal Abrams     5            3
Noel Thomas       4            2
Dhameer Bradley 4            1
Alec Bloom          2            2
Thomas Lucas      2           0
Ron Johnson        2            1
Jazzmar Clax       1            1
Josh Marriner      1            1
Tommy Myers     1            1
Arkeel Newsome 1           1

Although UConn's tailbacks only combined for 84 yards on 24 carries, Diaco liked what he saw from them. The play calling was slanted more to the pass game (52 to 27 if you count the four sacks as pass plays even though they go down as running plays). Much of that has to do with getting down 14-0 early.

He had good things to say about both true freshmen Arkeel Newsome, who he said uses all of his body mass as a runner as he is at optimal speed when he has the ball in his hands. He said Johnson also impressed him but in a different way. Newsome added a 34-yard kickoff return and he looked like the most explosive of the three players sent back on kickoffs.

Diaco also said that the team came through the game in pretty good shape health wise with nothing but the normal bumps and bruises. He said he was happy with what he heard from the training staff including that offensive tackle Andreas Knappe "is getting better."

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Pair of UConn commits open with wins

While UConn was falling to Brigham Young in the 2014 season opener a pair of future Huskies were having better results as their senior seasons got underway.

Aaron Garland returned an interception for a touchdown as his Fenwick High of Oak Park, Ill. defeated Carmel 31-20 in Friday night's season opener while Kevin Murphy helped West Chester (Pennsylvania) East to a 48-0 win over Penn Wood.

Observations from UConn's season opener

Just some of what I took away from the first game of the new era of UConn football.

First, I thought UConn showed me something in the second half after the way BYU was taking it to the Huskies in the early stages.

The two early turnovers were killers and something a young team like UConn simply could not do. Even with that. UConn was within 14 points late in the first half and had chances to put some points on the board in the second half which could have made BYU a little nervous.

The two best players in the game were BYU quarterback Taysom Hill and linebacker Bronson Kaufusi.

Hill was everything they said he was and more. His ability to keep plays alive with his legs is something this UConn simply doesn't have at the quarterback position. I'm not sure the Huskies will face anybody like him for the rest of the season. Kaufusi is a monster and when he got it going, he was simply unblockable.

UConn coach Bob Diaco went into the game with pre-set substitution patterns and he stuck with them. What that meant is the inexperience of the reserve players showed up, especially on defense. By my count UConn had 18 players playing their first collegiate games. He seemed thrilled that 25 players got into the game on offense and defense in the first half but that constant juggling of personnel does have its drawbacks. I'd expect more of the same in the next two games as Diaco wants to give his young players live game experience to see how they react.

As for thoughts on individual players, a lack of a pass rush is troubling. At times it seemed like BYU was running 7 on 7 drills with Hill under very little duress. It is something that needs to be addressed because the combination of a soft zone and no pass rush is a recipe for failure.

I thought UConn needed to look Geremy Davis' way more in the early going. You saw Davis make some tremendous plays on the ball in the second half but it was too little, too late. I understand not forcing the ball to him but BYU was down both of its starting cornerbacks. Kamal Abrams made a tremendous catch and I expect more from him moving forward.

The play of the tailbacks wasn't horrible even though the offensive line struggled against a physical BYU front seven. UConn used the fullback more than I was expecting with Jazzmar Clax and Matt Walsh getting a decent amount of snaps.

I really like what Alec Bloom can bring to this team. He reminds me of a young Ryan Griffin and he has the athletic ability to be used down the field. He made a tremendous diving catch for one of his two receptions. Quarterbacks Casey Cochran and Chandler Whitmer were OK Both could have been better at finishing off drives.. Cochran had some badly overthrown balls early including one turning into an interception and he tended not to survey the field as much as he did late last season. He tended to drop back and whichever side of the field he was supposed to throw the ball to was exactly what he did. Whitmer took some big risks at times which has been an issue with him in the past. At different times the team moved well with each of them at the controls and nine different receivers had catches of at least 10 yards which is a promising sign.

I thought true freshmen offensive lineman Trey Rutherford and Ryan Crozier didn't look out of place when they were in there. On the other side, perhaps it was due to Kaufusi but Dalton Gifford had his struggles.

Defensively, I thought Junior Joseph had some pretty good moments while at first glance, all the cornerbacks seemed to have their struggles. It can't be easy being a cornerback playing against a guy like Hill as you have a split second to decide whether to come up and force on the run or stay in coverage.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Diaco era at UConn begins with 25-point loss

Bob Diaco was not about to lament what could have been.

He knew his team was going to struggle against a dynamic dual-threat quarterback like Taysom Hill and the Huskies most certainly did some issues shutting him down. Diaco also knew that contending with Bronson Kaufusi would be no walk in the park and the BYU outside linebacker had a bigger impact than the four tackles, two sacks and one fumble recovery he was credited with.

While BYU left little doubt it was the better team from the opening kickoff, one does have to wonder what would have happened if the Huskies stopped Hill on a fourth-down play on the opening drive and didn't turn the ball over on the their first offensive play.

Before many of the 35,150 had even got comfortable in their seats, the Huskies were down 14-0.

"You can't start a game like that and think you are going to win," Diaco said after the 35-10 loss.

Even after giving up 329 yards in the first half the Huskies were hanging around but managed just three second-half points despite drives of 64 and 70 yards.

"Five red zone penetrations, we produced points in two of them so you need to have been (success)," Diaco said. "It takes a little more volume to get great in those moments. The field is short, the window become tighter There are a lot of mechanics that go into that scoring zone."

"Definitely that was an area that was a thorn."

Diaco was determined to play lots of players and he did just that. He said that 25 offensive and 25 defensive players got into the game in the first half. A total of 59 players got into the game as Diaco used the game almost as an exhibition game with wholesale substitutions.

As for the numbers, Hill was 28 of 36 for 308 yards with three touchdown passes and had 97 yards on 12 carries with two more TDs.

Casey Cochran was 17 of 31 passing for 171 yards while Chandler Whitmer finished with 113 yards passing. Geremy Davis wasn't involved early but finished with 96 yards on seven catches.

Marquise Vann, Jefferson Ashiru and Graham Stewart led UConn with 11 tackles each while Stewart and Junior Joseph had fumble recoveries.

Plenty of new faces expected for UConn tonight

Head coach Bob Diaco will not be the only new face at Rentschler Field tonight as about 20 or so UConn players are expected to make their debuts.

Diaco has said he expects at least nine true freshmen to get on the field which includes Shelton's Steve Hashemi and Ansonia's Arkeel Newsome.

Hashemi, a former star at St. Joseph High, came into preseason camp as an offensive line but following the departure of Quinn Thompson, he was moved to tight end and Diaco said he fully expects to use Hashemi tonight.

Diaco is not the only person impressed by how quickly Hashemi has adjusted to being a tight end.

"Steve is doing great, he brings that aggressiveness every day. he is a big guy, he is around 270," said UConn starting tight end Sean McQuillan. "We want to bring a point of attack presence and he is almost like another tackle and it is always good when you can get big guys who can dominate the line of scrimmage and that is what you like."

As for the other true freshmen expected to see the field, Newsome could see time at tailback and returning kickoffs, Ron Johnson should also get some carries. Ryan Crozier and Trey Rutherford are supposed to get snaps at reserve offensive guards and Alec Bloom is another true freshman tight end with plenty of potential.

On defense, Jamar Summers is pushing for time at cornerback and at worst should be the nickel corner while linebackers Luke Carrezola and Vontae Diggs are also slated to see time.

Report: Former UConn LB Smallwood cut by Falcons

The NFL Network's Ian Rapoport is reporting that the Atlanta Falcons will cut former UConn linebacket Yawin Smallwood.

#Falcons are releasing LB Pat Angerer, I’m told. Also cut LB Yawin Smallwood, their 7th rounder. A bit surprising on Angerer, who is healthy

Smallwood was UConn's leading tackler during the 2012 and 2013 seasons and after the 2013 regular-season finale against Memphis he announced that he was turning pro. Once thought to be a mid-round draft pick, Smallwood's stock dropped especially he eased up due to a tender hamstring en route to running a 5.0 time in the 40-yard dash. He fell to the seventh round and was taken by the Falcons with the 253rd overall pick. Smallwood had 118 tackles, four sacks and broke up 10 passes during the 2013 season. He finished with 332 career tackles in three seasons with the Huskies.

He had three tackles in the first preseason game but managed just one in the final three games. He is eligible to be brought back by the Falcons and added to the team's practice squad.


Increasing buzz around UConn program a major priority

On the day Bob Diaco was introduced as UConn's new football coach he vowed that he would be looking to engage the UConn fan base and in particular the UConn student population to make for a more festive game-day home-field advantage.

Well, he certain gets an A for effort in that department. Diaco estimated that he put more the 2,000 miles on his car going to various speaking engagements across the state. The majority of those happened between the end of spring practice and the beginning of fall camp.

Later on today there will be some initiatives in place to get the UConn students fired up for the season opener. The activities actually began last night with a pep rally on campus which reportedly drew more than 1,000 fans, That event goes hand in hand with one of Diaco's many changes as he is going to have the team remain on campus the night before home games rather than be sequestered in hotel rooms as in years past.

The route for the Husky Walk on game day has also been changed as it starts in the Gray Parking lots about 2 hours, 15 minutes before kickoff and proceeds towards the large tunnel near Gate B because that new route will pass by more fans than in the past.

UConn will also change the end of the field it warms up in before the game so they can do so in front of the UConn student section.

The video board will be used so fans can guess which of the four songs from Diaco's play list will be played between the third and fourth quarters and after the game the team will serenade the UConn student section with the UConn fight song.

So do the UConn players think that Diaco's barnstorming tour and flood of new ideas will translate into a more electric game-day environment at Rentschler Field?

"I would hope so," UConn senior cornerback Byron Jones said. "Most of that rides on us, we have to win some games and get these fans excited about the season."


UConn alumni report: Todman, Lansanah shine as cuts loom

It was the last chance to make a good impression for the former UConn products on the proverbial roster bubble.

While he went into the game likely to make the Jacksonville's Jaguars, Jordan Todman seemed to give himself a better chance to being the top backup running back behind Toby Gerhart.

Todman, Denard Robinson and Storm Johnson all played in the 24-14 loss to Atlanta but Todman received 16 of the 25 offensive touches as he ran 11 times for 37 yards including a 3-yard touchdown. He also had a team-high five catches (on six targets) for 45 yards. Robinson ran seven times for 12 yards and had a 20-yard reception while Johnson lost four yards on his lone carry. Todman was one of four ex Huskies to play in the game. Dwayne Gratz had one tackle for the Jaguars while Robert McClain had two tackles and a pass defensed and Yawin Smallwood one tackle for the Falcons.

A player who appears to have removed himself from the bubble watch with an outstanding preseason is linebacker Danny Lansanah who had five tackles including three behind the line of scrimmage in Tampa Bay's 24-10 loss to Washington. He also deflected a pass that resulted in an interception. Nick Williams was targeted three times for the Redskins and finished with 12 yards on a pair of catches.

Lawrence Wilson, fighting for one of the final roster spots with the St. Louis Rams, had a pair of tackles in a 14-13 loss to Miami while Shamar Stephen wrapped up an impressive preseason by recording one tackle in Minnesota's 19-3 win over Tennessee.

Finally, Dan Orlovsky was 7 of 11 for 39 yards in Detroit's 23-0 win over Buffalo as he is locked in a fierce competition with Kellen Moore to be Matthew Stafford's primary backup with the Lions and Ryan Griffin had one catch for four yards in Houston's 40-13 loss to San Francisco.

NFL teams have to cut their rosters from 75 to 53 players by tomorrow and can starting placing players on the 10-member practice squads on Sunday.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

BYU down both of its starting cornerbacks

For quite some time there's been rumors of BYU's starting cornerbacks Roberson Daniel and Jordan Johnson being suspended for tomorrow night's UConn game. I've been waiting for some official confirmation and thanks to Jeff Call of the Deseret News, that has happened.

BYU has confirmed that Jordan Johnson and Rob Daniel did not make the trip to East Hartford for tomorrow's game.

It has to be an especially emotional time for Johnson, who hails from Springfield. There were stories early in preseason camp that Johnson would be able play against the Huskies since he'd have so many friends and family coming to the game but obviously that is not the case.

UConn's strongest position coming into the season could very well be receiver with seniors Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx joined by a talented group of young receivers. Now the Cougars will try to match up with UConn's receivers without their top two corners. If there is a silver lining, there have been reports that Daniel and Johnson spent training camp working with the second-team defense so BYU has been preparing for this situation.

UConn's Diaco not focusing on BYU suspension chatter

Over the last month of so there have been plenty of rumors circulating about which BYU players would be suiting up in Friday's season opener at UConn.

Top tailback Jamaal Williams and Devon Blackmon, expected to be one of the Cougars' top four receivers, made it official by announcing on their own that they were suspended for the UConn game due to a violation of BYU's strict "honor code." There's been plenty of speculation that since starting cornerbacks Rob Daniel and Jordan Johnson have spent the entire fall camp working with the second-team defense that they will no play. Add nose tackle Marques Johnson (who is not even on the current two-deep chart) as another player who could miss the game. Then there is the offensive line situation. Offensive tackle Michael Yeck is on the Outland Trophy watch list but he doesn't even show up on the current depth chart and neither does Solomon Fua, a starting guard on the post-spring depth chart although I have not seen any reports that suspension issues have anything to do with the shuffling of the offensive line rotation. Injury will keep receiver Nick Kurtz out of the UConn game and some other key BYU players have been limited by various ailments during camp.

So how much time has UConn coach Bob Diaco been spending trying to read the suspension tea leaves? Not a heck of a lot.

"We are doing our thing; they are doing their thing," Diaco said. "They are making decisions they need to make for their program; we are making decisions we need to make for our program and to go tit for tat on each guy, we probably win that side of the ledger."

Diaco does have a point as leading rusher Lyle McCombs, game-breaking receiver Shakim Phillips, former starting safety Ty-Meer Brown, Xavier Hemingway (who started at right offensive tackle in the 2013 season opener), former reserve cornerbacks Tyree Clark and David Stevenson and former highly-touted recruits Joe Williams and Kivon Taylor are among the players no longer part of the UConn program for a variety of different reasons.


New UConn offensive tackles brace for major challenge

Heading into last season there was not a position on the UConn team with more experience than offensive tackle as the duo of Jimmy Bennett and Kevin Friend have been protecting the edge for a few years.

In the "what a difference a year makes" department, now the Huskies have a starting left tackle (sophomore Rich Levy) who played a couple of snaps in a mop-up role against Buffalo and the other right tackle was projected to be former defensive lineman Andreas Knappe. With Knappe likely to miss the season opener against BYU due to a lower-leg injury, Dalton Gifford returns to man the position where he started six games in place of Friend a season ago.

BYU didn't exactly set the world on fire in the pass-rush department last season and the returning players accounted for just 14 sacks during the 2013 campaign. Still, there will be plenty of eyes on the offensive tackles to see how they hold up.

"It is just a matter of stepping on the field and getting going, getting game experience," UConn offensive line coach Mike Foley said. "Guys like Rich Levy have done a tremendous job through camp and through the spring and it is game experience now. He has the tools, it is just a matter of getting up there and gaining that experience, being productive. That is college football too, you don't keep them forever so it is the next guy up to go in there and be productive. It is their time to go in there and get it going. The other tackle, Gifford is in there and he has done a nice job throughout camp, he's played for us. He started for us last year when Kevin Friend went down towards the end of the year. Those guys are going to be on the field and they are starting to come together.

"It will be a real test for us and we are real anxious to see where we really are. I think we have gotten better within ourselves playing against our own team and everything else but now it time to line up against somebody else and see where we really are. We are not a finished product. I think this is an offensive line that will grow and get better as the year goes on. That is not saying that we won't be ready to play Friday night, we will be ready but I think we will be a group that will keep improving because we don't have a ton of experience with these guys."

Both Gifford and Levy said they learned so much from Bennett and Friend even when they weren't playing.

"It was motivation for everyone, the fact that we can fill their shoes in terms of picking up where we left off at," Levy said. "For me, it was motivation because with Kevin (Friend) and (Bennett) leaving and I wanted to be how he was, if not better. I learned a lot. I learned not to get down after a bad play, I learned how to bounce back, I learned how to persevere and keep going no matter what the situation is."

Gifford relied heavily on any advice he could get from Friend when he was thrust into the starting lineup.

"I just took it a day at a time. I was really close with Kevin and Jimmy and those guys," Gifford said. "Being with the 2's and being around them all the time allowed me to be ready for anything so whenever I have to go in, I was ready to go in to play at a high level. Kevin really prepared me and made sure I wasn't too rattled to go in the game.

"In the beginning when I wasn't sure if Kevin was going to be able to play or not and I was just making sure I was going to try my best to play at his level or above his level. Once I got into the flow of the game, the nerves settled and the smoke cleared I just played at my level and hope that was good enough for everyone."

Gifford drew praise from Foley and UConn head coach Bob Diaco for how far he came during preseason camp. He rose to the challenge after Knappe went down and Gifford began to work with the first team.

"I've been making sure to work on a lot of my fundamentals and the little things that make the big things happen easier," Gifford said. "That is the focus I have had in preseason camp to make myself better starting with the small steps and working up to the big stuff."

Levy's focus was more on the physical side of things. He is in the best shape of his life and it shows.

"I feel like I made the most progress with my footwork," Levy said. "I didn't have the best footwork last year and I committed time to getting better in the offseason and really grinding. I would say the change that we went through as a program and the nutrition factor really helped me a lot."

Emotions will be riding high when Levy trots onto Rentschler Field for his first collegiate start on Friday night.

"I just remember where I came from and all the people who depend on me back home, people who want to see me succeed as much as I do," Levy said. "I use that as my motivation every day to do the best of my ability.

"It is going to be very special. It is going to be a very different thing to witness but I feel as though I have worked for it."

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

One last night to shine for some UConn products

The NFL preseason schedule comes to an end tomorrow when even team will be in action. It won't take very long for the teams to start announcing the tough decisions as the teams have to cut their rosters from 75 to the regular-season maximum of 53. While the majority of the former UConn players currently on NFL rosters are likely to make the final roster of their respective teams, there are some who will be fighting for their jobs tomorrow.

Here's a look at the 19 former Huskies in the NFL

Will Beatty, OT New York Giants: It has not been the easiest of preseasons for Beatty as he works his way back into shape following a horrible leg injury suffered in the 2013 regular-season finale but he is very much a part of the Giants' plans.
Tyvon Branch, S Oakland: Another player coming off a serious injury, Branch is looking to getting back to being one of the NFL's hardest-hitting safeties.
Donald Brown, RB San Diego: Brown isn't pushing for a roster spot as much as he is trying to prove he deserves a major workload in a crowded Chargers' offensive backfield.
Darius Butler, DB Indianapolis: By all accounts he's had a pretty solid camp and he figures to be a key member of the Indianapolis secondary.
Marcus Easley, WR Buffalo: Easley's calling card is not his work as a receiver but as one of the league's best special-teams players so look for his to stick around despite not recording a catch in the preseason.
Dwayne Gratz, CB Jacksonville: Gratz has been getting talked up as one of the rising young defensive stars on the Jaguars so look for him to remain in Jacksonville for quite some time.
Ryan Griffin, TE Houston: After being held without a catch in the first two preseason games Griffin erupted for 71 yards on five catches including a 31-yard touchdown pass. Despite a strong finish to his rookie season Griffin seems to have slid a bit down the Texans' depth chart but he should be on the roster.
Danny Lansanah, LB Tampa Bay: One of the great stories to emerge out of the Buccaneers camp. He played in five games with Green Bay in 2008 and did not appear in a regular-season game again until the final game of last season. Now is seemingly is going to be a regular contributor for the Buccaneers.
Robert McClain, DB Atlanta: He is being challenged for the slot as the top nickel corner for the Falcons but is more than holding his own as he seems set to play a third straight season with the Falcons.
Sio Moore, LB Oakland: Moore was fortunate that the neck injury he suffered in a preseason game at Green Bay wasn't more serious. I'm not sure if he'll play tomorrow or not but he factors into the Raiders' plans in a major way in his second season.
Dan Orlovsky, QB Detroit: He's making a strong bid to be the No. 2 quarterback behind Matthew Stafford as he has completed 29 of 46 passes for 316 yards in three preseason games.
Kendall Reyes, DE San Diego: One of the key players on a young San Diego defense he has had a quiet preseason with just three tackles but he's not going anywhere.
Anthony Sherman, FB Kansas City: One of the league's best fullbacks, Sherman will continue to be Jamaal Charles' lead blocker while catching the occasional pass out of the backfield.
Yawin Smallwood, LB Atlanta: After making three tackles in the first preseason game he has been very quiet in the last two games. I've heard very little about him during training camp which is usually not a good sign for a seventh-round pick like Smallwood.
Shamar Stephen, DL Minnesota: An injury to Linval Joseph opened up some playing time and the rookie seventh-round pick has certainly capitalized with 11 tackles in three games. With the rave reviews he has been drawing with his work in training camp, I'd have to think he'd be on the Vikings' active roster.
Jordan Todman, RB Jacksonville: His situation is one of the most interesting of all the former Huskies. The feeling was he was going to be the primary backup to Toby Gerhart but rushing 18 times for 26 yards in three preseason games is not the way to carve out a niche on a team. Don't see him being cut but a strong game tomorrow could help his cause.
Nick Williams, WR Washington: Normally catching touchdowns in back to back preseason games would be enough to earn a roster spot especially after being on the team a season ago. However, it remains to be seen if he gets caught up in a numbers' game at receiver in Washington. If he does get cut he could go on the practice squad but perhaps another team has seen enough to give him a spot on their 53-player roster.
Lawrence Wilson, LB Rams: Wilson has been bouncing around the league looking to find a home. He is coming off a pretty good effort with three tackles and a pass defensed but he could have some work to do to make the roster.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB Tennessee: With Alterraun Verner being signed by Tampa Bay there is a chance for Wreh-Wilson to become a full-time starter with the Titans. It sounds as if he is in an extremely close competition with Cody Sensabaugh and the worst-case scenario would seem to be having him be the nickel corner.

Familiar faces at UConn fan fest on Friday

When UConn held its spring game, the members of the UConn women's basketball team were there signing autographs. Well, they will be doing the same on Friday from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Rentschler Field between Gates A&B.

Also, something that might be of interest to people - former UConn defensive back Ty-Meer Brown is second-string free safety and Shakim Phillips No. 3 at wide receiver on Boston College's depth chart heading into season opener which was posted yesterday.

UConn's Wain thankful for new coach's arrival

If I were to start a list detailing how Bob Diaco is different from some of his predecessors I might not be finished before Friday night's opening kickoff. However, one of the things that really struck me about Diaco is his desire to work with punters. Yes, an overachieving former Big Ten linebacker is not afraid to admit it as he relishes the chance to work with the punters.

"It is fun," Diaco said. "I am working on the field and this is one of my better parts of the day. I love coaching the punter so you get this collection of guys, other than Bobby (Puyol) he is a trained specialist so he is fundamentally kind of tracked and prepared to function and produce. Justin (Wain) shows up and he is this gangly (former) walk-on who has no idea and you watch him move a bit and he possesses some traits so it has been very fun to coach Justin, he is very coachable; he wants to be good. He has (tangible) traits because he is long and athletic, he has good hands, he's got a long pendulum, good leg speed so there would be no reason why we wouldn't be able to be a productive punter. I have been coaching the punters for a long time, I enjoy coaching them and he is getting better and better every day."

What is so intriguing about all of this is that Diaco understands the nuances of punting. I am sure if you asked most major-college football head coaches to work with the punter it would be the equivalent of traveling to a foreign country. They know a good punt when they see one, love seeing kicks with extending hang times and cherish the art of delivering the coffin corner punt to pin opponents within the shadow of their own goal line. However, when it comes time to get that out of a punter, I'm not sure how many coaches could pull that off.

It goes without saying that if UConn took roll call on which players are most excited about Diaco's arrival that Wain would be at the top of the list.

"He is really knowledgeable about punting and he gives me a schedule of what I do so I do drill after drill after drill," Wain said. "There is not a moment when I am not doing something that is helping me punt.

"We used to never have anybody who would help us with punting so if I do something wrong, he knows what I did wrong. It is always great having somebody helping you along the way. It is nice that I don't have to call my coach back home to ask if I am doing something wrong so it is great having him here."

For the past four years Cole Wagner was a known commodity for the Huskies. It didn't matter what else might have been going wrong, when it came time to punt UConn out of trouble Wagner almost always delivered. I'm not saying that Wagner was called upon often but he headed into the latter part of the 2013 season with a chance to set the FBS record for most career punts. That is one record that Wagner was thankful he did not attain. Now the punting will be handled by Wain, a sophomore from Wilmington, N.C. who hasn't punted in a game since he was a senior at Ashley High School in 2011. Wain did, however, average 45.2 yards per punt during the spring game with a long of 65 (although that was little or no pressure applied which will not be the case on Friday).

"You go out with the mindset of you have to get better every day and this is what I am going to work on today, that is my goal and the next  day it is the same thing," Wain said. "We will work and get better. It is kind of the same thing, we are looking to get better but now you have more of a role with the team now where we are no longer backing up people, now you are the punter. It is a little different mindset but it is a similar mindset, we are just trying to get better every day."

Tonight will be the first of Diaco's appearance on the weekly UConn Football Radio Show with Joe D'Ambrosio and a couple of players. As was the case last season, the shows will air live from Wood-n-Tap in Vernon (236 Hartford Turnpike) so fans can swing by to hear what he has to say. Those in the New Haven can tune in beginning at 6 p.m. to hear what Diaco has to say by tuning into WELI-960.

When they are Saturday games the show will take place on Tgursday but since it is a Friday game, the schedule was moved up a day.

Also, tomorrow Diaco will be chatting up UConn football beginning at 6:30 p.m. at a pep rally on campus (on Fairfield Way across from the Husky statue).

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Former UConn LB Moore back at practice

Moments after the nasty collision Sio Moore, perpetually in motion, did not move. As he was taken off the field on a stretcher, there had to be some concerns whether his promising NFL career was in jeopardy before it really even was able to get underway.

Well, just a few days after the former UConn linebacker suffered the frightening injury, he was back out on the practice field for the Oakland Raiders.

Oakland coach Dennis Allen addressed Moore's return to practice with the media following practice.

"He moved around out there. He’s still not 100 percent, but we felt like he felt like the best thing for him to do was to get out there, move around a little bit, stayed out of contact, but at least go through some of the individual drills and stuff like that to begin to get some movement back "

Reports are that Moore's status is uncertain for Thursday's preseason finale against Seattle, I'd be shocked if they were ready to put him out there for a preseason game.


Former FSU QB dishes on UConn

Danny Kanell, one of the broadcasters doing Friday's UConn/BYU game for ESPN, was on a conference call with former Texas coach Mack Brown today. Kanell was asked about UConn and here's what he had to say

"I’m excited to see this weekend to see the turn around with Bob Diaco and see what he’s implemented. I think they’re going to have their hands full with a BYU team that’s extremely talented and has a quarterback who might be a dark horse contender in Taysom Hill for the Heisman Trophy. But I think it’s going to be a process. It’s going to take some time for Bob Diaco to get his guys in there to start recruiting the type of players that he wants.

I think it’s a pivotal time for UConn and for them as a program. You look at the way football is dividing and the Power Five are starting to separate themselves, and UConn’s trying to make a case to maybe even play into one of those conferences if there are any spots available, and one way they can make themselves attractive is to step up their football program.

"I think it’s going to be challenging for anybody outside of the Power Five to steal guys from within the Power Five. But UConn hasn’t been exactly going after those types of guys anyway. I think there is plenty of talent within this part of the country which it can draw from, and it’s just maximizing the talent around here and developing players once he gets them on campus."

The game will kickoff a few minutes after 7 p.m.

Former UConn WR cut by Steelers

Former UConn wide receiver Kashif Moore was caught up in the numbers' game as he was one of nine players cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers as NFL teams have to slice their rosters from 90 to 75 players.

Moore received plenty of praise during training camp for his work ethic and by the accounts I saw, had a pretty good camp. However, the writing was on the wall when the Steelers signed Lance Moore as a free agent and drafted Martavis Bryant in the fourth round of this year's draft.

Plenty of uncertainty heading into UConn/BYU game

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall watching Notre
Dame, Virginia, UConn tape to prepare.
Season openers can always be a bit of a dicey proposition. How many people out there were predicting Towson to beat UConn or BYU to fall to Virginia in the 2013 openers?

For BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, preparation is all the more challenging because other than some highlight clips from the UConn spring game he has almost nothing to go off of in trying to figure out not only who will line up for the Huskies but how they will line up as well.

Defensively he does have some idea of what makes new UConn football coach Bob Diaco tick since Diaco was the defensive coordinator of the Notre Dame teams that beat the Cougars 23-13 a season ago and 17-14 during the 2012 season. Also, defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter and co-defensive coordinator Vincent Brown were defensive assistants on the Virginia squad which knocked off BYU a season ago.

"That is a starting place," Mendenhall said. "I am sure he has assessed his own personnel, depth and how the matchups might look like, there might be a wrinkle or two as happens every year but when you look at the success that Notre Dame has had and that Coach Diaco has had over his career, that would be the place to start. We project similarly based on where his staff connections have come from and what those systems might look like."

So what does Mendenhall thinks is the key to Diaco's coaching success?

"Hard to know, I don't know Coach personally. Normally you can see some personality traits through how players play and I think players play exactly as they are prepared to play so his players played tough, they played physical and I thought they played sound. Having no met the head coach, my guess is he loves tough football players, is probably a stickler for detail and likes them to play physical. That is what I saw on tape and experienced playing Notre Dame."

While watching BYU tape against Notre Dame and Virginia might give Mendenhall and his coaches some sense of how the Huskies might line up and handle certain game-day situations when BYU has the ball, it is a little more challenging to figure out what UConn will look like on offense since he has little connection to Central Michigan where UConn offensive coordinator Mike Cummings came from or Buffalo where quarterbacks coach Don Patterson spent the last three seasons.

"We certainly have watched UConn tape and did pay particular attention to the games that they were winning to find out exactly what the difference are, if it was strength of schedule, if it was late in the season, if it was home or away, you try to figure out as much as possible but it had a lot to do with how the team played. I think the quarterback is very capable, he added some spark and added some consistency so I was impressed there," Mendenhall said. "I like UConn's receiving corps and I think they have some big play potential there and a nice blend of size, speed and athleticism so they are capable and it showed in the last three games."

On the other side of the ball the biggest question is who will suit up for BYU and not as much of what the formations will look like. Top tailback Jamaal Williams (who ran for 1,233 yards last season), receiver Devon Blackmon and offensive tackle Ryker Matthews are the players reported to have been suspended by the BYU media while receiver Nick Kurtz is injured. We'll see if others are left behind as well.

On the conference call the Connecticut media had with Mendenhall yesterday I asked him if he was expecting to have everybody else for Friday night's kickoff.

"At this institution we have very unique standards here that are extremely high so I have learned over the time to never say never but I hope everybody else will be in good standing and will be able to make it but until we show up and play there is always some room for someone's choice here or there that ends up costing them a game or two," Mendenhall said.

Mendenhall said that he views last year's nightmarish opener at Virginia has little bearing to the matchup with UConn but he is making one change in the preparation process.

"We are coming a day early," Mendenhall said. "We are leaving on Wednesday and luckily for the opener we have a chance to do that without (missing school time) because school hasn't started for us yet.: