UConn football looks to take their own steps.
EAST HARTFORD: It’s not so much what happened on the field on Saturday during the annual UConn Spring football game, it’s more about what’s going on for a program that is truly trying to reinvent itself.
The past is clearly the past. You won’t get a coach or player to talk about last year. Not one.
It’s like it never happened and to tell you the truth, that can’t be a bad thing.
Head coach Bob Diaco has stepped into a real tough situation that can’t be remedied with the wave of any magic wand.
Trying to change the culture of a team that lost their first nine games a year ago and posted 13-23 record over the past three campaigns at a University that prides itself in winning (see double basketball titles) is going to take a serious makeover.
To that end, the head coach thinks his team has passed another level of what you could call “Huskies Extreme Makeover”.
“We have put another coat of paint on what we are looking to do,” Diaco said. “We still have a lot of work to do but like with any project, we take it one step at a time.”
Seems slogans are all the rage at the Storrs campus these days, what with Kevin Ollie’s team “Taking the Stairs” and the like.
On Saturday, Diaco’s team took the stairs. Into the stadium that is.
This season, the team will enter from through the student section near where they come out of the tunnel right before the game starts as a way to get a student body that has at times been less than enthused about football, more into being up close and personal with the team as they enter.
“We want to interact with the student,” Diaco said. “I want to see the students come in a little earlier to help pump up the players as they come in.”
Getting this fan base into what’s going on with the program is critical on so many levels for the Huskies. The Rent holds about 40,000. Too many times a year ago, the place was half way full at kickoff and a ghost town by the fourth quarter.
Everything Diaco and his staff have done to date has revolved around being more involved with the students and the fans.
A pizza blowout at the end of a late night practice last week was one example of how they are looking to get the buzz going again for a program that has not been not been to a Bowl Game in four years after making a semi-regular habit of it previously.
When the UConn women came back after winning their unprecedented ninth National Championship on Tuesday night, the entire football showed up, in pads and helmets, to greet and honor them, something Diaco felt was more than worth wild.
“We got more out of it than we gave, I’ll tell you that,” Diaco said. “When you stood there and listened to those two seniors (Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson) cry when they talked about how much they loved their school, their coach and their teammates, you understand just how great this can be.”
On the field Saturday, the 6500 or so in attendance saw something much different than what they were accustomed to in past years when this day was a glorified practice.
Four, fifteen minute quarters that featured a lively offensive and defensive battle that was actually won 46-37 by the defense. Points where given for different goals that were met. A three and out got the defense points, as did a sack, an interception or even a deflected pass.
The four quarterbacks, the biggest unknown this spring being who is number one right now, each had a chance to work with the first or second team.
Sophomore Casey Cochran, who led the team to their only three wins at the end of 2013, got the ‘start’ or first drive of the day.
Each drive started on the 35-yard line, regardless of the finish of the previous drive, giving the next quarterback the same setup.
For this day, at least on the stat sheets, senior Chandler Whitmer, who lost the job to freshman Tim Boyle after four games a year ago, completed 19 of 26 attempts and connected with Kamal Abrams for a first quarter 11-yard touchdown.
Cochran finished the day 10-20, good for 91 yards while Boyle was 7 for 14, good for 97 yards.
It is very hard to read too much into what goes on during a spring game when there is a different signal caller every series.
Freshman Michael Ecke saw time in the second half and completed both his attempts.
The running game, behind what Diaco calls a “work in progress’ offensive line, was not the featured offensive weapon on Saturday, the team ran 29 times and threw the ball 38 but was effective at times.
Max DeLorenzo had a rushing touchdown as did Josh Marriner.
The offensive line did spring five runners for gains of over 10-yards.
The lack of a consistent kicking game hurt UConn a year ago and both punter Justin Wain (10-452, 45.2 average) and field goal kicker Bobby Puyol (2-3) looked sharp at times.
Wain has been called ‘a mess’ by his head coach at times when it pertains to his punting mechanics but is also thought to be a diamond in the rough.
Puyol was about as sick as they come Saturday morning but gutted it out in the afternoon.
This is it for the spring practice schedule that featured 15 practices in just over four weeks.
A great deal has been accomplished, especially when it comes to the off the field upgrades Diaco and his staff made this winter and early spring.
It’s now up to the players to maintain their workout regiments on their own while keeping their nutritional progress going.
Changes where clearly seen on the field in East Hartford on Saturday and have been noticed around the Storrs campus.
Putting a winner on the field is still a work in progress for Diaco and his players but the goal of getting that championship feeling that runs through the men and women’s basketball teams is a goal they are determined to reach.