UConn opens its first season under coach Bob Diaco against BYU Aug. 29 (ESPN, 7 p.m.) at Rentschler Field. The first practice under the first-time head coach who was hired in December starts Saturday morning.
Diaco has been working on minds and bodies, reshaping body types and attitudes. Even the digs, the Burton Family Football Complex, has been painted, signifying change to the eye as well..
The change that's really going to matter, though, is the number of wins and losses. In the past three seasons UConn had more losses (23) than wins (13). Last season was a dismal 3-9. Not good.
What Diaco and his staff are trying to accomplish enters the new phase about 9:40 a.m. Saturday.
"We believe in culture, we believe in character and these guys have grown and the increases have been profound in eight months – which all speaks to winning," Diaco said. "I don't have a measuring stick. We're excited to get to some more fundamentals and some systems, but this team has already grown a bunch."
A preseason camp primer:
UConn returns starters at four of six skill positions.
The line: Senior center Alex Mateas, who was named to the Rimington Trophy (nation's best center) watch list, is the only returning starter. Junior guard Tyler Samra has played some. The offensive line is the unit that needs to make the most progress. It has been weak the past three seasons. Diaco has made no secret about it being an area the Huskies have to address. He said he's excited to see how the group has progressed since spring. The Huskies return senior guard Gus Cruz, who missed much of last season with a shortness-of-breath issue. Andreas Knappe (6-8, 300) is in competition with junior Dalton Gifford (6-4, 304) for starting right tackle.
Quarterback: Diaco said at American Athletic Conference media day Tuesday that more than one quarterback is going to play in games, but unlike disastrous platoon systems UConn has tried in the past, there will be a starter. Yet a second QB will see action. The three vying all started some last season: senior Chandler Whitmer, sophomores Casey Cochran and Tim Boyle. UConn won its three games under Cochran after starting 0-9. Diaco has said turnovers will not be tolerated, and there were 18 last year from quarterbacks.
Running back: Lyle McCombs, the Huskies' leading rusher for three seasons, was dismissed in June for what Diaco termed "an ongoing lack of meeting expectations." Junior Max DeLorenzo and freshman Josh Marriner will be the main backs. True freshmen Ron Johnson and Arkeel Newsome, the state's career rushing leader from Ansonia and the program's first Parade All-American, and Brice McAllister of Suffield Academy will play, too, because all bring something to the table.
Wide receiver: In 1,000-yard receiver Geremy Davis the Huskies return a big-time performer at a skill position. Davis said he is committed to assist in raising the level of the group. Deshon Foxx is in the slot, where he had 43 catches for 534 yards last year, including back-to-back 100-yard receiving games to end the season. Foxx played the first seven games of 2012 before a season-ending knee injury. Diaco has been impressed with freshman Thomas Lucas (6-2, 198) who, like Davis (6-3, 216), has height on the outside. Sophomores Noel Thomas and Dhameer Bradley, both 5-10, were effective last season.
Tight end: Sean McQuillan (junior) and Tommy Myers (freshman) will battle it out. McQuillan caught 25 passes for 196 yards and a touchdown.
Five starters return.
Line: It should be in good shape with seniors Angelo Pruitt and Ruben Frank at the ends and senior B.J. McBryde at one tackle and junior Julian Campenni at nose guard. All have experience. There is not a lot of experience behind them, so addressing that will be key.
Linebacker: Junior Jefferson Ashiru is the only returning starter but junior Marquise Vann was a bright spot in the first eight games, including in his hometown of Cincinnati where he scored off a 40-yard fumble recovery in a 41-16 loss at Nipper Stadium. For Graham Stewart, the Xavier-Middletown standout and Florida transfer, the time is now. Developing depth here will be key, especially at outside linebacker, which is vital in the scheme Diaco employs.
Cornerback: Diaco has said senior Byron Jones is going to be one of the best in America. Sophomore Jhavon Williams is likely the leader at the spot opposite Jones.
Safety: Junior Andrew Adams and sophomore Obi Melifonwu should start. They're solid safeties. Junior Wilbert Lee had some bright moments in 2013 and sophomore Ellis Marder is second on the depth chart behind Melifonwu.
Bobby Puyol will step in for kicker Chad Christen. Justin Wain, also a sophomore, replaces punter Cole Wagner. The Huskies have to improve in the return game on both sides and this might be where freshmen running backs could make an immediate impact. Foxx is listed as the top punt and kickoff returner.