STORRS — Excitement has been generated within the UConn football program.
Excitement? UConn football program? Folks around here have seldom used those words in a sentence since the Huskies appeared in the Fiesta Bowl in January 2011.
Optimism evaporated quickly under Paul Pasqualoni, fired as coach last season after an 0-4 start and 10-18 record in two-plus seasons.
In December, UConn hired a young, energetic coach who might set the college football world on fire someday, but today Bob Diaco is charged with getting the program back to its winning ways while also ensuring that it is on solid footing to win year after year.
The Huskies host traditional power BYU, an independent, in a nonconference game (7 p.m., ESPN) at Rentschler Field. The Cougars, national champions in 1984, are known as Quarterback U. BYU has won fewer than eight games in a season only twice in the past decade.
The Huskies were 3-9 last year. They were a dreadful 0-9 at one point.
So the trick is taking that internal excitement and optimism to the next level, which is playing high quality football and winning games.
The Huskies have talent on both sides of the ball, led by cornerback Byron Jones and wide receiver Geremy Davis, both seniors and captains. There's talent around them, too. So it might not be accurate to characterize the program as rebuilding. However, it would be fair to say there has been some guilding going on, as in the culture, which includes paying attention to detail, staying away from the things that lead to losing and paying attention to nutrition and fitness.
Diaco has had control of the program since December, but Friday night will provide some answers
"We're focused on ourselves, we're focused on getting better as a team," Diaco said. "The game is going to be played and the night is going to end. ... Our team is going to be a better football team at the end of the game than we are at the beginning of the game. So the focus is on us. It's going to stay on us. It has to. That's the point where we're at in our program. We're doing our thing. They're doing their thing and making decisions they need to make for their program; we're making decisions we need to make for our program."
And, yes, the players are excited to play football. For so much of the past three seasons it just wasn't the same.
Said quarterbacks coach Don Patterson: "They're on the edge of their chair. They're going to do exactly as you tell them to do. They've been focused."
The time has come.
"It's been a great experience the past few months with Coach Diaco and the staff and the players; we've become a real family," said tight end Sean McQuillan. "Now it's time to take all we've learned and been through and go against somebody else. BYU is going to be a great test for us. I think everyone is excited to get on the field and just play."
The offense and defense have five starters returning, but the defense would have to be considered the stronger unit. The front and back end of the defense are the most experienced. At linebacker, Jefferson Ashiru has played the most, having started 10 games, but the Huskies are also counting on veterans Marquise Vann, a captain, and Graham Stewart.
The defense certainly will be tested by dual threat junior quarterback Taysom Hill, who threw for more than 2,900 yards and rushed for more than 1,300, while accounting for 29 touchdowns in 2013. He is a potential Heisman trophy candidate and he figures to be a problem.
"He's dangerous, they're dangerous as an offense," Stewart said. "We have to be focused on containing and doing our jobs."
The UConn offense has been anything but dangerous. The Huskies want to be a power football team, applying pressure everywhere with multiple options, using two quarterbacks, starter Casey Cochran and reserve Chandler Whitmer, and four running backs led by junior Max DeLorenzo. The flow of the game and who produces will dictate how much playing time they get. The BYU defense could have its hands full with the big, strong Davis, a 1,000-yard receiver last year. The offensive line lost some experience following 2013 but has improved since the spring, line coach Mike Foley says.
"We have a great group of guys, not just 11 who will be on the field for the first snap," Cochran said. "But we have a solid, I wouldn't even say supporting cast, because we're all working together ... 20-30 guys who can play and make plays, guys who are tough. As an offense we've really toughened up ... especially the last few weeks. We want to play fast and we want to play tough. We've been watching our defense for months now. So it's nice to finally get a change of scenery."