Team preview: Connecticut
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
The school most famous for its decorated men's and women's basketball teams definitely needs to start looking at its football squad as a team with championship potential. Maybe not a national championship, but as far as the refurbished Big East, well, Connecticut has accomplished a lot the last three years and is looking for even more.
Entering 2005, the Huskies have won 21 of their last 28 games (including their first-ever bowl appearance and victory last winter), and they have just completed the best three-year period in program history with 23 victories.
One of just five programs to finish with a record of .500 or better in each of its first three seasons at the Division I-A level, the Huskies are hoping their fourth year will bring even bigger and better things. The man in charge of keeping UConn on track is Randy Edsall, who has been at the helm since 1999.
Under Edsall's, UConn made a splash during its first year in the Big East in 2004 by leading the conference in total offense and total defense. His squad was one of just eight teams to rank in the top 27 in those two categories nationally, a group that included BCS bowl-game winners USC, Auburn and Texas.
Now the Huskies not only have to keep the winning momentum going, they have to replace 11 departed starters -- highlighted by record-setting quarterback Dan Orlovsky. The former Connecticut high school star left the program with almost every school career and single-season passing mark and ended up getting selected by the Detroit Lions in the fifth round of the 2005 NFL draft. But Edsall is confident his club can recover from the loss.
"I think the challenges we had early on [in the program's existence] was a little bit more [difficult] than replacing Dan Orlovsky," Edsall said. "You always have players coming and going. Then you have to have some kids in the program step up. Every year's a different challenge. This is a big challenge, but we've had bigger challenges."
Edsall will benefit from a coaching staff that returns in its entirety, but he has shuffled some of the coaches' responsibilities. Todd Orlando's promotion to defensive coordinator, Hank Hughes' promotion to assistant head coach for defense and Lyndon Johnson's receipt of the special teams coach job were some of the biggest moves made by Edsall.
When Orlovsky graduated, he took with him a school-record 84 career touchdown tosses and 10,706 career passing yards.
Two men will be the main combatants in the battle to fill the team MVP's cleats. At the close of spring, junior Matt Bonislawski (6-4, 207) had the inside track on redshirt freshman D.J. Hernandez (6-1, 203) more because of seniority than any other reason. Bonislawski has attempted all of seven passes (completing four for 22 yards) in his collegiate career. Hernandez was the 2003 Connecticut Player of the Year and was the first player in state history to rush and throw for more then 3,000 yards in a career.
Nothing was settled in the Huskies' Blue-White Spring Game, as Hernandez finished with 69 yards rushing on 12 attempts, and 126 yards and one touchdown (plus one interception) passing. Bonislawski missed the game with minor injuries.
Edsall conceded that the competition was tight and ongoing. As they fight for the starting spot, both players will benefit from their own running abilities and the abilities of UConn's deep crew of running backs.
"Matt has the edge because he's been in the program longer," Edsall said. "There'll be competition at that position through the preseason and we'll make the decision right at the end of August before the season starts.
"I think both play a different style than Dan did. They're both more athletic than Dan was. They have the ability to make plays with their legs and make all the throws we want them to make. Now it's a matter of, going into the season, who can lead this team and do the things that put points on the board."
Junior Peder von Harten (6-4, 209) left spring camp as the Huskies' third-stringer. However, he has yet to see action at the Division I-A level.
Two quarterbacks will be among the Huskies' 2005 recruiting class, with Billy Cundiff (6-2, 195) bringing the more impressive throwing resume to campus. The former Green (Ohio) High School standout finished his career with 3,137 yards and 42 touchdowns on 217-for-403 passing. His senior year included 1,051 passing yards and 15 touchdowns in just five games before an ankle injury in Cundiff's sixth game cut his season short.
A team inexperienced at quarterback tends to make up for its deficiency by turning from behind center and handing the ball off. Luckily for Edsall and the Huskies, whomever is calling the signals should have two top backs to choose from in 2005.
The returning starter is junior Cornell Brockington (6-0, 192). All the first-year starter did in 2004 was lead the Big East in rushing yards with 1,218 yards on 238 carries, score 11 touchdowns and earn first-tem All-Big East honors. UConn's Offensive MVP, Brockington averaged 5.1 yards per carry on the season and produced some of the best single-game performances the program has ever witnessed. Against Pittsburgh he rushed for 185 yards (one shy of his career record) on 31 carries and then against Syracuse he recorded 123 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries and caught 10 passes for 93 yards. The only UConn player to reach double digits for catches in one game in 2004, he almost became the first in program history to record 100 yards and 100 receiving in one game.
But before you write another league-leading season onto the Willingboro (N.J.) High School graduate's collegiate resume, however, remember that he will be sharing the carries this season.
After missing all of last season with a knee injury he suffered on Sept. 27, 2003, Terry Caulley (5-7, 186) is back as a junior in the Huskies' backfield. In 2002, Caulley rushed 220 times for 1,247 (the most by a freshman in Division I-A) and set a school freshman record with 15 touchdowns. At the time of his injury in 2003, Caulley had registered 607 rushing yards in five games and was leading the nation in ground yardage. Now he'll give the Huskies a dangerous dynamic duo in the backfield.
"I think it's always good to have options and to have playmakers. There's going to be a place for Terry and Brock," Edsall said. "And what that does, as a coaching staff, it gives us more opportunity to do some things. We're looking forward to having both their abilities at our disposal.
"History usually proves that at the Division I-A level, you've got to have two running backs, you have to have some depth at the position."
Making things more promising for Edsall was that Caulley "did more than we anticipated him doing" this spring, the coach said.
After two seasons Matt Lawrence (28-120, two touchdowns rushing in 2004) decided to transfer from the program.
Sophomore Larry Taylor (5-6, 161) looks ready to help the Huskies as a third tailback. Last season, Taylor -- the Huskies' primary punt and kick returner -- flaunted his big-play ability. Edsall told reporters during the spring that he would consider using all three of his top returning backs at the same time if the situation called for such an alignment.
An aggressive blocker, senior Deon Anderson (5-11, 240) projects as the Huskies starting fullback for the fourth straight year. He has appeared in all 36 games UConn's played during his career and put 342 rushing yards on the board along the way.
Anderson's primary backup should be red-shirt freshman Lou Allen (6-1, 234). A 2,000-yard rusher as a senior tailback at East Lyme (Conn.) High School, Allen showed Edsall some potential in the spring at a position he has never played before.
Another player who could figure into the mix at tailback or fullback is sophomore Stanley Williams (5-11, 215).
The Huskies' top and third-best receivers in terms of yardage -- Keron Henry and Matt Cutaia, respectively -- have graduated and opened some space for competition.
The return of Brandon Young (6-0, 200) for his junior season should be just what the doctor ordered for the Huskies to cure what could be a very inexperienced corps of pass catchers who have to make up for the 100 catches recorded by the departed duo.
Young should be back to full strength in 2005 after he missed the 2004 season because of injuries sustained in a car crash in August 2004. Young went through the windshield of his car after hitting a utility pole. Before his redshirt year, Young had caught 50 passes for 668 yards and six touchdowns through his first two seasons in Storrs. While also helping in the punt and kick returning game, Young should also become a favorite target of whichever UConn first-year starting quarterback gets the nod.
The only other returning UConn receiver with comparable collegiate experience will be Jason Williams (6-0, 177). The senior was second on the team with 661 receiving yards and 44 catches in 2004. And during a year in which he averaged 15.0 yards per catch and 55.1 receiving yards per game, Williams showed big-play ability. He and Orlovsky hooked up on a 90-yard scoring pass against Temple and also an 80-yard touchdown strike against Murray State.
UConn's third and last receiver with experience is Brandon McLean (5-10, 157). A sophomore, McLean appeared in all 12 games last season and grabbed 14 passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. He also proved versatile with five carries for 53 yards, and helped return punts. Against Syracuse, he proved that he had shaken the freshman blues when he put 84 all-purpose yards on the board Oct. 30 -- a game that also featured his first career touchdown catch.
Two redshirt freshmen could join the Huskies' aerial attack this season, as both Nollis Dewar (6-2, 189) and Ellis Gaulden (6-2, 188) made up a lot of ground during spring practice. Their size and ability will be a welcome addition in game action. A Nutmeg State native, Dewar accumulated 1,200 receiving yards in his career and showed his athletic ability with a 6-foot-4 high jump during track and field season. Another track and field star as a high school athlete, Gaulden has speed and leaping ability and as a prep senior racked up 700 receiving yards.
After playing in six games last year, sophomore Seth Fogarty (6-0, 197) will compete for playing time. So will juniors David Sanchez (5-8, 182) and Dan Desriveaux (5-10, 189). The pair has combined to play in 15 career games before 2005.
Then there is incoming freshman Todd Dorcelus (6-2, 185). The New Jersey native was limited by a shoulder injury last fall, but he finished his high-school career with 1,461 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns.
Junior Dan Murray (6-5, 244) will be back at tight end after he started 11-of-12 games played last season. He caught 28 passes for 396 yards and five touchdowns, including a 61-yard score against Murray State. And his 14.1 yards per catch average was second on the team to only Williams.
"We think Dan has progressed over the last two years as part of our program and he's going into his third year. He's got to develop more as a blocker," Edsall said. "We already know he's good as a pass receiver. We've look forward to him taking his game to the next level."
Behind Murray, only junior Ziggy Goryn (6-4, 231) has any game experience. Among the other players competing for the backup spot, red-shirt freshman Steve Brouse (6-4, 249) had moved into the second spot on the depth chart after spring camp. Brouse was a multi-position weapon in high school (including the linebacker spot) and was twice a 3A all-state selection in Pennsylvania. After spending 2004 in prep school, freshman Rob Getek (6-6, 248) could compete for time, and redshirt freshman Matt Gray (6-6, 237) could also get into the mix. Both youngsters obviously have the size.
Keeping the inexperienced quarterbacks and the talented running backs protected will be the job of a young offensive line returning just two starters from last year's club. And those two starters, senior Grant Preston (6-4, 307) and junior Craig Berry (6-6, 324), are switching positions. Preston will make the move from right tackle to left tackle, while Berry shifts outside from right guard to right tackle.
They won't be the only people changing responsibilities in order to ensure a smooth transition for the new-look line. As part of Edsall's coaching-staff shuffle, four-season special teams coach Dave McMichael will now be the tight ends and offensive tackles coach. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Norries Wilson will continue to coach the centers and guards. Edsall said during spring camp that the moves were made to get more direct time between the coaches and the players at those positions.
Berry started all 12 games for the Huskies last year, while Preston has started 35-of-36 career games and missed just one game (last season) when he had pneumonia. After those two cornerstones, experience on the offensive line for 2005 becomes scarce.
Former defensive lineman Matt Applebaum (6-4, 283) is penciled in as the starting left guard. A junior, he appeared in only nine career games during his days on the other side of the ball. While Applebaum never played the position in high school Edsall was content with the Yardley, Pa. Native's strength and athletic ability at the position.
At center, the Huskies seemed ready to rely on Joe Akers (6-1, 297). The first player in Maryland high school history to earn consensus all-state honors three times, the lineman enrolled at UConn in January after graduating early and received some reps during the spring. Edsall was impressed with Akers' strength and almost flawless chemistry with the quarterbacks on exchanges throughout camp.
Sophomore Brian Kersmanc (6-5, 299) saw time in three games as a freshman and left spring ball as the projected starting right guard. He was a first-team all-state lineman as a senior in Pennsylvania in 2003.
Redshirt freshman Immanuel Hutcherson (6-1, 291) and Trey Tonsing (6-2, 287) earned playing time this spring at right guard and center, respectively. Fellow redshirt freshmen Matt Wood (6-5, 293) and William Beatty (6-6, 271), and sophomore Thomas Hedus (6-1, 279) will also be in the competition.
Assuming junior Matt Nuzie (5-11, 200) can maintain his performance level of last year and not revert to the struggling way of his freshman season, UConn will be all set when it needs someone to punch the ball through the uprights.
After failing to convert a field goal longer than 38 yards in his first season with the Huskies, Nuzie improved to the point where he earned second-team All-Big East honors and was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist. His 20 field goals in 2004 led the Big East and set a single-season record at UConn. At one point during the year, he was successful on a school-record 10 straight kicks.
The Connecticut native buried a career-best 51-yard field goal against Georgia Tech and starred in the Motor City Bowl by tying the school record with four conversions (a performance that earned him a spot on Sports Illustrated's national All-Bowl team). Nuzie will need to improve his kickoffs this season to be a better contributor to the Huskies' cause. Last season he booted only two kickoffs that resulted in touchbacks and the Huskies had to often resort to mortar kicks, short pop-ups that make it easier on the coverage team.
A well-regarded recruit out of Boca Raton High in Florida, sophomore Tony Ciaravino (6-2, 206), could give Nuzie a little run for his money. Last season, Ciaravino was bothered by a strained quadriceps most of the season.
All four starting defensive linemen return for the Huskies' point-prevention crew, which was third best in points allowed and second-best against the run last season in the Big East. The strategies will remain the same (Edsall subscribes to the theory of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it") and with individual improvement could come team betterment.
"We have guys back that have played a lot and that's a positive," Edsall said. "We hope with some additional summer [work] and their experience, that can be a strength for us."
After getting into 11 games as a freshman, junior Shawn Mayne (6-3, 243) started all 12 games at a defensive end spot last season and finished with 41 tackles -- the most by any Huskies' lineman. Mayne also registered 10 tackles-for-loss, forced a fumble and recovered two others. Showing he could shine the most under a brighter spotlight, he recorded a career-high seven tackles (plus a sack and a pass breakup) in the Motor City Bowl. For the year, he registered 5.5 sacks.
While the Huskies know what they're going to get from Mayne, their a little less sure of what Jason Ward (6-3, 248) can bring from the other end. Entering his junior season, Ward took over as a starter over the final six games of last season after Tyler King's injury. Ward finished the year with 16 tackles, two for a loss. The Canada native was once the defensive lineman of the year in high school and now he will have to prove that players from north of the border can get it done in the trenches in the U.S.
The Huskies are more experienced on the inside of the line than they are on the outside. Junior Rhema Fuller (6-3, 283) will again start at one tackle after he recorded 31 tackles and two sacks last season. The Big East All-Academic team selection was instrumental in a loss to West Virginia and a pivotal win over Rutgers with a career-high five tackles in both games. UConn will expect more of those types of performances.
Co-captain Deon McPhee (6-2, 284) will be the other tackle as senior. He started 11 games (missing one for his grandmother's funeral) in 2004 and produced 24 tackles and four tackles-for-loss. He set a career-high with five tackles in the Huskies' season opener and never matched that number, so UConn will expect some bigger performances in '05.
Sophomore Dan Davis (6-1, 280) saw time in seven games last season at end and he'll be the Huskies' top reserve at the position this season. He recorded 1.5 sacks on the year, sharing one sack with fellow freshman Afa Anoai (6-1, 284). As a sophomore, Anoai will be counted on more in 2005. The Bethlehem, Pa. native earned the most non-special teams playing time of any UConn true freshman last season, as he appeared in 12 games at defensive tackle and recorded seven tackles and 1.5 sacks.
Junior Ray Blagman (6-3, 322) appeared in 10 games last season and might be a key backup at tackle. His specialty is stopping the run. Redshirt freshman Rob Lunn (6-3, 262) was a sack master in high school in New York and could contribute at tackle, as well.
At end, sophomores Harold Stanback (6-2, 239), John Baranowsky (6-3, 271) and Gary Mack (6-3, 229) played sparingly last fall and could earn some time. Redshirt freshman Nate Tucker (6-3, 262) was impressive in the spring.
Freshman Cody Brown (6-3, 215) showed his sack ability as a high school senior down in Florida and might get to crack the rotation.
One of two departed starters from the Huskies' linebacker corps, Alfred Fincher will be very difficult to replace. The Big East's leader in tackles in 2004 with 140, Finch earned first-team All-Big East honors last season and made some of the Huskies' biggest plays of the year. He returned an interception 16 yards for a score, recorded 17 tackles in the win over Pittsburgh, ranked sixth in nation in tackles per game (11.67) and was the first UConn player to play in the Senior Bowl (where he raised his stock before he became a third-round pick of the NFL's New Orleans Saints).
The good news for the Huskies' returning players is that Edsall's not expecting them to fill Fincher's shoes, just to do what they do best and possibly equal his production. "They have athleticism and some are even better athletes than Finch," Edsall said. "Finch was so quick and savvy, he's hard to replace. If they can take that athleticism and combine it with the instincts he had ..."
The unenviable task of inheriting Fincher's position falls on senior Taurien Sowell (6-0, 236). Sowell played in just 10 games last season and recorded just four tackles. In 2003, he showed signs when he put 26 tackles on the stat sheet in 12 games played. "Sowell is a fifth-year senior and it's time for him to step up and really do something," Edsall said.
A three-sport star in high school and a special teams performer in 12 games last season with the Huskies, sophomore Julius Williams (6-2, 232) could challenge Sowell for the spot.
Edsall is also expecting big things from another sophomore, Danny Lansanah (6-1, 247). As a redshirt freshman, Lansanah appeared in 11 games, at linebacker and on special teams, and recorded 23 tackles. Against Army and Murray State he showed glimpses with seven-tackle performances. He broke camp as the starting weak-side linebacker and should see his role expanded in 2005.
The starting strong-side linebacker will again be senior James Hargrave (5-11, 224). The Huskies' co-captain has become one of UConn's most reliable defensive players the last two seasons and he'll try and accomplish his senior year the types of things Fincher concluded his career by doing. Last season, Hargrave recorded 88 tackles and led the team with 15 tackles for loss. He also registered four sacks and the Huskies' only blocked kick of the season (a field goal attempt against Murray State).
Redshirt freshman Johnathon Smith (6-1, 218) caught Edsall's eye this spring as a possible 2005 contributor, and sophomore Ryan Henegan (6-1, 232) gained experience as a special teams player in 2004 (with some brief stints at linebacker) and could crash the mix in 2005.
Also look for sophomore Justin DeRubertis (5-11, 214) to appear in more than just the one game he played in during last season.
Three players with starting experience return to the Huskies' secondary in 2005, but only junior free safety M.J. Estep (6-1, 197) was a full-time starter in 2004. That leaves UConn's group of defensive backs -- a corps considered by man to be the most athletic in the program's brief Division I-A existence -- a little short on experience.
Estep started all 12 games for the Huskies last season and ranked fourth on the team, first among defensive backs, with 66 tackles. His partner at the strong safety position would have been junior Donta Moore (6-1, 191), but he was suspended after a litany of charges against him -- including second-degree reckless endangerment, third-degree assault and the unlawful discharge of a firearm -- and won't play this season. He can get the charges dropped after 100 hours of community service.
Moore was mostly used on special teams in all 12 of UConn's games last season but saw spot duty in the secondary and recorded a pass breakup and three tackles in the Motor City Bowl.
Despite a knee injury suffered last Oct. 13, junior Allan Barnes (6-0, 190) will go into training camp as the starter at one corner position. Barnes wasn't cleared for contact in the spring, but he showed signs of future success during his six games played (four starts) in the first half of 2004. In the big win over Pittsburgh, Barnes forced a fumble and recorded two solo tackles.
The opposite corner projects to be junior Ernest Cole (5-10, 177). As a starter in eight games (and participant in 10) last season, Cole produced four tackles in the Motor City Bowl, intercepted a pass against Temple and broke up a pair of passes in the victory over Duke.
One redshirt freshman that opened some eyes in spring ball was cornerback Darius Butler (5-10, 175). A highly recruited player out of Tamarac, Fla. (where he was actually a quarterback), Butler exploited Barnes' spring absence to show he might be ready to challenge for playing time.
Sophomore cornerback Tyvon Branch (6-0, 189) also showed he had improved from the player who appeared in 12 games (mostly on special teams) in 2004 and received more and more playing in the secondary down the home stretch. Like Moore and teammate Marvin Taylor (6-0, 185), Branch ran afoul of the law; he and Taylor were charged with possession of a firearm in a motor vehicle and given two-years probation.
Both were suspended but later reinstated to the team. The charges against them will be dropped when they complete 100 hours of community service and if they have no more problems with the law.
Taylor showed promise with a three-tackle performance against Pittsburgh. He'll challenge for time at free safety, while sophomore Ricky McCollum (6-1, 217) will be a key reserve at strong safety. Cornerback Jahi Smith (5-10, 180) has 15 games experience and could be a junior contributor.
There should be a heated competition in training camp that will be overshadowed by the showdown at quarterback. But the dual between sophomores Shane Hussar (5-10, 190) and Chris Pavasaris (6-3, 215) will be just as vital for the Huskies' success.
Last season Hussar won the starting job and improved as his true freshman season went on. He missed just one game (because of a hamstring injury) and battled through assorted injuries to average 36.9 yards per kick and drop 16 of his 46 kicks (35.0 percent) inside the opponents' 20 yard line.
A multi-sport star in high school, by the end of the year Hussar had averaged 40 yards per punt or better in his last three games after he hadn't reached the mark in any of UConn's first six games. His play was crucial in the win over Pittsburgh, as he punted eight times and dropped the ball inside the 20 five times.
Pavasaris filled in for Hussar against Rutgers and punted fives times for an average of 34.4 yards. He'll be given every opportunity to win the job when fall rolls around.
Taylor was The Man for UConn when it came to punt and kick returns in 2004. He ran back 24 punts for 354 yards and averaged 14.6 yards per return. On kickoffs, he averaged 31.3 yards per return -- tops in the Big East and second in the nation behind only Clemson's Justin Miller (33.1). Along the way he scored a touchdown on both types of returns -- only the second UConn player, and the first since 1975, to accomplish the feat in the same season.
With the numbers he produced in 2004, expect Taylor to be back there waiting again. But he'll get challenged for time by a few athletes. Wide receiver Jason Williams returned a pair of kicks for 50 yards against Syracuse when Taylor was injured. He might get a look back there.
While UConn might want to keep Young safe now that he's back from his injuries, he averaged 21.2 yards per kickoff return and 6.5 yards per punt return in 2003 and could get into the mix. Defensive backs Barnes and Barnes also gained experience returning kicks last season.
McLean returned six punts last year and could get a shot in 2005, as could a number of highly athletic recruits who'll arrive in the fall.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).