Like I did in the 2010 season, I felt it was best to ask the UConn Huskies football beat writers some questions about the team instead of doing a preview. It’s not that I’m lazy, they are really the only outsiders who have had a chance to look at the team for the 2011 season.
And what better way than to get insight from the same people who cover the Huskies on a daily basis.
Fortunately for me despite their busy schedules and the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, Desmond Conner of the Hartford Courant, Neill Ostrout of the Connecticut Post, John Silver of the Journal Inquirer, John Nash of The Hour and Owen Poole of The Day took a few minutes to answer some questions from me through email. You can also get to their blogs by going to my blogroll page and looking under the UConn links.
I have personally thanked each and every one of them via email but I would also like to extend my thanks and appreciation for them doing this again publicly here on the site as well.
So without further adieu, let’s get to the questions (in bold) and the answers from the UConn beat writers:
1. Obviously we know the QB1 position right now hasn’t been announced yet. The transfer of Mike Box hurts the depth but of the three candidates left, who do you expect to emerge as the starter between Michael Nebrich, Johnny McEntee and Scott McCummings?
Desmond Conner: As far as the season opener I can see a splitting quarters situation between Johnny McEntee and Michael Nebrich with McEntee going first because he’s a little older because I think the competition is really between these two and perhaps whoever plays the best against Fordham takes the leaders role against Vanderbilt and perhaps the rest of the season. This kind of set up should also show that two QBs might be the best way to go, too. I think Scott McCummings sees action Saturday but not nearly as much as the other two guys.
John Nash: For the Fordham game, I actually expect both Johnny McEntee and Michael Nebrich to play under real game situations, allowing the coaching staff to get a true look at both in real game conditions. Only then, heading into the Vanderbilt game in Week 2 will a “true” starter be named. Plus, from what I’ve heard, Scott McCummings has seen action in certain packages. In the long run, though, I think McEntee is going to win the job outright just because of his ability to pass the ball accurately. The idea of a true freshman starting at this level might be an all-in, let’s-plan-on-the-future bet that Pasqualoni isn’t ready to make yet.
Neill Ostrout: Nebrich seems in line to get the nod. He’s been the most consistent in the preseason, at least in the practices the media has been allowed to watch. His production in high school, though never a sure sign of stardom, was quite impressive and may alleviate some concerns about his height (He’s 5-foot-11.99999 by my estimation).
Scott McCummings had _ still has, actually _ the most intriguing set of skills in my mind. His size, speed and smarts I felt made him the favorite to earn the job. He still could get the job at some point, it seems.
McEntee, by his own admission, doesn’t have the fleetest of feet. That might be why he won’t get the job in the Paul Pasqualoni/George DeLeone offense. I don’t think it’ll be 100 percent freeze option for the Huskies, but I believe they like that option of using such an…um…option.
Owen Poole: My gut says Nebrich will be the QB, but I’d put money down that all three will see significant time. He seems the most poised, despite the fact that he’s a freshman. I think McCummings makes the most sense in a lot of ways (he’s already used his redshirt, great size and athleticism), but it seems he’s behind Nebrich and McEntee. I think becasue Pasqualoni wants to run a multiple offense, Nebrich gives them the most flexibility at this point. Plus, I don’t think there’s a lot of expectations with a new coach and a new QB and all the new parts. I think throwing Nebrich into the fire won’t hurt this year as much as in years past
John Silver: This is a tough question for me. On Saturday, I think Johnny McEntee starts and we see at a minimum some of Michael Nebrich. Who is starting at West Virginia on Oct. 8? That I don’t know. To me, they have to go high-ceiling with their pick and have growing pains with McCummings or Nebrich. I think McEntee is a competent player, but the other guys have more physical tools to work with and after five games would be more dangerous. I think it’s too early to tell.
To continue reading the Q&A with the UConn football beat writers, click on the read more button below if you’re on the home page.
2. With Paul Pasqualoni at the reigns now in Storrs, what kind of offense and defense can we expect from the Huskies this year?
Conner: From past experience I know the mentality of an offense under George DeLeone is to put a team on that field that is equipped and ready to attack all points on the field at any time. That being said I think the pieces are there to make it happen but those pieces have to produce because they’re going to be asked to step up and play like they never have. I think we all know what the deal is on defense. Coach Pasqualoni has let Don Brown run it the way he wants and we know he wants it. This is one situation where the unit my actually be better than the hype. We’ll see.
Nash: The best description of defensive coordinator’s Don Brown style of defense is from Sio Moore, who said, “It’s light your hair on fire and go.” The Huskies are going to look to fly to the ball and hit people. The big question mark, though, is will the young linebacking corps be able to step up and not make the kind of mistakes that young players make given so much free reign. Offensively, I think the Huskies are going to be a power-type running team. DJ Shoemate, who seems to be the No. 1 RB, let’s not forget was recruited to USC as a fullback, not a tailback, so he’s more a power type runner than an elusiveness/speed guy. Jonathan Jean-Louis has had a great camp and might have surpassed Lyle McCombs as the No. 2.
Ostrout: On the defensive side, it’s probably more about what defensive coordinator Don Brown brings. There were some signs late last season that Hank Hughes, Todd Orlando and Randy Edsall had agreed to cut their defenders loose a bit more, especially when it comes to blitzes/pass rushers. I expect that trend to continue, with a variety of blitzes and looks designed to confuse opposing offenses. UConn has, for the last few years, featured a 3-4 look on rare occasions and we could see more of that now.
As for offense, the complaints about Edsall’s conservative approach won’t disappear completely. It’s not as if Pasqualoni and DeLeone will direct the run-and-shoot. And Pasqualoni is a believer (in many ways rightly so) that you need a strong running game to play football in the Northeast, especially late in the year. That being said, the offense may be opened up a bit.
Poole: I expect to see multiple offensive sets, and my sense is that Pasqualoni would rather see a more mobile QB like Nebrich or McCummings than a pocket passer like McEntee. I think you’ll see four tailbacks and five or six receivers early in the season as they try to figure out a rotation. The defense will be better than good, especially provided Jesse Joseph’s injury isn’t too severe. The DBs and the D-line should both be two of the top units in the league and Sio Moore is poised to have a breakout year at LB.
Silver: Defense? Ferocious. They are big, fast and aggressive. This is the biggest difference than past years. Much more pressure on the quarterback and much more aggressive play-calling. On offense?
Depends on who is at quarterback. If it’s Nebrich and McCummings, I would say some type of DeLeone Freeze Option will be employed.
DeLeone likes mobile QBs to put pressure on the defense. Johnny McEntee? Classic down the field passing. Huskies are still going to be a running team, but regardless who plays it will be more vertical in the passing game.
3. The wide receiver position has taken a hit with the transfers and Michael Smith being academically ineligible. We know Kashif Moore will lead them but who do you think will step up to complement him?
Conner: First of all, I think we need to keep in mind the program lost three receivers who likely would not have played that much or played at all. We should be clear about that. The guys who are on the depth chart now, the guys listed on the depth chart are the guys that made the cut and would have made the cut anyway.
OK, I think Nick Williams will surely complement him in the slot. Nick is a little thicker with the same speed but redshirt freshmen Tebucky Jones Jr. and Geremy Davis could help elevate the play of the whole unit if they stay on the course they’ve been on. Whoever does what though, you’d like to see receivers get more yards after the catch to make things a little easier on the offense pushing the ball down field.
Nash: The loss of Smith is going to be a lot bigger than people realize. The transfers did take away depth, but most of those players were down on the depth chart anyway and saw the writing on the wall. Isiah Moore, obviously, will see his share of time, but the intriguing wideout to me is going to be Tebucky Jones Jr., who carries the bloodlines of his NFL father, and Pasqualoni has spoken highly of him, as well.
Ostrout: Isiah Moore is no slouch. Tebucky Jones has some skills and will play. The man I think could make a big splash, though, is redshirt freshman Geremy Davis. He’s got size (6-foot-3), speed and good hands. Given the chance I think Davis will shine.
Poole: Pasqualoni has said a number of times that he wants to get Nick Williams the ball more. He figures to be a slot receiver, and he led the nation in kick returning last year, so he’s got skills. He’s also high on Geremy Davis and Tebucky Jones, a pair of RS freshmen. Davis is the only real big receiver they have, so I expect he’ll help out.
Silver: The young guys like Tebucky Jones and Geremy Davis are talents. I, personally, love what they are doing with Nick Williams.
He is explosive and can be a game breaking player. He isn’t a down field threat, but he can take the ball on a slant and make something happen in open space.
4. We’ve heard great things about this defense so the question is how good are they or how good can they be? Will they have to carry this team?
Conner: It’ll be very good. It’s the strength of the team and has the most experience coming back plus it has a defensive coordinator in Don Brown itching for the unit to be recognized as one of the best in the country. I think defense and special teams will carry the team early and maybe late, too.
Nash: I don’t know if they’ll carry the team, but it is definitely the team’s strength with nine returning starters. Kendell Reyes, Sio Moore and Blidi Wreh Wilson are a nice 1-2-3 punch from front to back plus there’s plenty of talent around them. They have to get healthy and stay healthy because there will be games where they will have to bail out an inexperienced offense.
Ostrout: The players will say no. The coaches will say absolutely not. The answer is probably yes.
The good news is the defense might be up to such a task. The defensive line is among the best in the nation. The secondary, at the start of last season a major liability, is now experienced and solid. The linebackers, save Sio Moore, are young but talented. (Moore is experienced and talented).
Poole: I think the defense has a chance to be the best in the league and they absolutely will carry this team, especially early in the year while they figure out just what they have on offense. They have some very good linemen to rotate in and out and their DBs can all play man coverage, so they should be able to get some pressure. A big thing to watch will be how aggressive they are. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has been preaching that, and the players seem to love his style of play.
Silver: They give this team a shot at being a bowl team, to get to a bowl they need the offense to be good. It won’t work if the offense isn’t competent. The defense can’t win games 13-10, not with some of the firepower in the Big East.
5. Is there anybody on the team we might not have heard of who may step up to help the Huskies this season?
Conner: I know I keep mentioning Jonathan Jean-Louis at running back. Right now I think that young man is more than ready to step up.
Nash: Jonathan Jean-Louis. No. 1 on your roster and a special teams regular for three seasons, but he’s gotten time in the backfield and could play Robbie Frey to Shoemate’s Jordan Todman.
Ostrout: Shamar Stephen looks like he’s going to be a maneater. I’m not sure if he cracks the starting lineup (though he could) but he’ll play plenty and is going to make some offensive linemen cry this season.
Poole: Jerome Williams is out at MLB, so the LBs have moved around a bit, with Yawin Smallwood moving inside. I thought it was interesting to see two true freshmen (Jefferson Ashiru and Marquis Vann) and a redshirt freshman (Mike Osiecki) are lised as the backup LBs on the two-deep. Those three have looked good and will help on both defense and special teams
Silver: Nick Williams is my sleeper pick. The staff is trying to find an explosive player, and he is going to get his hands on the ball in space. Lyle McCombs is also an explosive talent. These guys are small, but fast and elusive.
6. What do y’all think UConn’s final record will be and will they be bowl bound for a fourth consecutive season?
Conner: I’m predicting a 7-5 finish with a best of 8-4, the latter with the coaches winning a close game like Edsall did with his late-game fourth-down call against Pitt.
Nash: 7-5 and the team’s fourth straight Bowl trip should be reachable thanks to the team’s defense. Vandy, Iowa State, West Virginia are the most likely losses and all the great luck the Huskies had last season in winning their final five games won’t be there this year, so that might cost them a game or two, as well.
Ostrout: 8-5 (Whether that’s a 7-5 regular season with a lower-tier bowl win or an 8-4 regular season with a middle-tier bowl loss…well, I’ll claim victory either way).
Poole: I’m saying 5-7 and they won’t be headed for another bowl. The defense will keep them in every game they play and they have very good special teams and a proven kicker, so they won’t get blown out a lot. I just think they’ll have trouble scoring at times.
Silver: 8-4, 4-3 in conference and they mind as well accept a bid to the Pinstripe Bowl today.
Once again, thank you very to Desmond Conner, John Nash, Neill Ostrout, Owen Poole and John Silver for taking the time to answer the questions.