STORRS - As much as who played quarterback and how that person performed seemed to define the latter stages of the UConn football team’s 2016 season, there was a much bigger factor in whether or not the Huskies were successful.
And, as evidenced by the six-game losing streak that ended the season, their 3-9 overall record, their position as statistically the worst offense in America, the answer was usually not.
Though neither Bryant Shirreffs nor Donovan Williams would say they played their best last season, it was fairly clear that neither could perform their best for the Huskies in large part because of a porous offensive line.
UConn’s front five was easily its most under-performing group, and was one of the primary reasons the Huskies had major trouble running and throwing the ball in the second half of the season.
Newly re-hired head coach Randy Edsall, who took over for the fired Bob Diaco in January, recognizes better offensive line play as vitally important to the Huskies’ plans for improvement in 2017.
“We’ve got to get some guys to step up,” Edsall said of the group.
An injury to guard Tommy Hopkines, far and away the Huskies’ best lineman, hurt the unit in 2016, but not all of its struggles can be pinned on one injury or one player.
“We’ve got to get stronger up front,” Edsall said after practice Thursday at the Shenkman Center.
“We have to get to the point where we can play lower, where we can move people off the line of scrimmage,” Edsall said.
Hopkins and center Ryan Crozier are still battling injuries this spring, slowing some of the progress the line can make, but new offensive line coach J.B. Grimes is making all of his charges get back to basics.
“We’re going to back to the basic fundamentals,” sophomore left tackle Matt Peart said, “getting down the specific steps for each specific play.”
Peart said he and his teammates know the line has to get better.
“It’s not so much pressure, it’s kind of like a hunger,” Peart said. “We all know that last season was terrible. We never want to go back to that.”
Rhett Lashlee was brought in by Edsall to retool the offense, but whatever plays the team’s new offensive coordinator dreams up clearly have to begin with blocks up front.
UConn didn’t win many games last season, and that clearly was due mostly to its offense. The problem going forward, it seems, is that some members of that group remember that vividly.
Edsall said he saw signs that his offensive players were starved for a bit of success - and unsure how to deal with it when it came - during an offseason competition between the players.
The coaches had set up different strength, speed and agility stations around the Shenkman Center during one winter workout, pitting the offensive players against the defensive players.
The offense was trailing through most of the competition when something odd happened. It won.
“The offense ended up winning the first two, to kind of make it tied, then ended up winning the third one and won it,” Edsall said. “When they won it they kind of looked at each other and said ‘Wow. We won something.’ They weren’t used to having success. That’s something I’ve been cognizant of.
“And the next week they won again.”
The Huskies are hoping the offense starts to win a few more battles during games next season, of course. One thing is clear: Things will certainly look differently when the Huskies get the ball next season.
Lashlee has introduced a vastly different system than the one Frank Verducci ran last season.
“The biggest change is definitely the pace. The no-huddle thing is definitely different,” running back Arkeel Newsome said. “It’s something to get used to but I’m loving the way the tempo is going.”
UConn was called for more delay-of-game penalties last season than any team in the nation, some of which even came after the team had called timeouts. It doesn’t seem like that will be an issue in 2017.
“Everything is fast, the running, the thinking. You have to be mentally fast with it,” Newsome said.
Few of the Huskies, much like their fans, thought that an offensive coordinator would leave Auburn to come to UConn. But Lashlee did, and it has seemingly excited his new players.
“I didn’t know much before he got hired but once he did, I did a little research,” wide receiver Hergy Mayala said. “I learned about his offense and it was exciting.”
Mayala said fans won’t be disappointed when they see Lashlee’s approach to offense.
“They’re going to love it. It’s going to be great,” Mayala said. “A lot of big plays. Man, you just gotta see it.”