STORRS - Up until Oct. 29, Bryant Shirreffs was fairly certain he’d be the UConn football team’s starting quarterback in the 2017 season. After that point and basically through the end of the 2016 calendar year, Donovan Williams was fairly certain he’d be the Huskies’ starting quarterback in 2017.
Today, neither man can make that claim and there’s a decent chance that neither will end up in that position.
Bob Diaco, who started Shirreffs for nine games last season before deciding at the last moment to burn Williams’ redshirt year and start the freshman for the final three games, was fired just before New Year’s.
The re-insertion of Randy Edsall as the Huskies’ head coach has put the two quarterbacks back at square one in some ways.
Edsall was asked after the Huskies practiced Thursday if he needed to take time to understand what both players had been through and get on the same page with them.
In typical Edsall style, he plainly said that’s not his concern.
“I don’t have to get on their page, they have to get on my page,” Edsall said. “If anybody, quarterbacks or any other position, didn’t think that there was going to be competition coming in here … they weren’t thinking the way they should have.”
For now, it’s Shirreffs and Williams battling out to be the Huskies’ No. 1. But in August, when Marvin Washington arrives from Orlando, Jordan McAfee comes down from Everett, Massachusetts, and David Pindell slides over from Lackawanna Community College, there will be three more irons in the fire.
Edsall won’t make any decision on who starts for the Huskies in the opener until he has seen the newcomers as well.
“As a head coach I want to take a look at all my options,” Edsall said.
That’s not an issue with Williams and Shirreffs, it seems.
“I don’t have a problem with that. I’m a competitor at heart,” Williams said. “In the QB room, we’re all pulling for each other. There’s no bad blood in the QB room.”
Shirreffs, like his teammate, appreciates the new coaching staff’s style and approach to competition.
“I’m extremely happy with the new staff. It’s been a blessing for myself, and I think it’s a blessing for everyone else,” Shirreffs said. “We’re having fun and you can tell we’re getting better every day.”
Neither quarterback got much better as the 2016 season progressed.
Shirreffs, a 6-foot-2, 226-pound senior from Jefferson, Georgia, completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 2,010 yards in nine games for the Huskies last season. He had seven touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Williams, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound sophomore from Dumfries, Virginia completed 47.4 percent of his passes for 300 yards in three games. He had one touchdown pass and five interceptions.
Neither will have too many positive memories of the season’s end.
“Everybody has peaks and valleys. I’ll just say I’m definitely on a peak now,” Shirreffs said. “It was tough, definitely. The year didn’t go as well as we would have liked but that’s in the past now. I hardly ever think about it.”
Williams, whom Diaco heaped pressure on by saying he had “as much upside as any quarterback in the nation,” had a valley of his own in 2016.
“Coming in as a freshman I expected to redshirt. Playing the last month of the season, that was a huge adjustment for me,” Williams said. “But you buckle down and you go to work.
“I try to live without regret,” Williams added. “It didn’t happen the way I planned or the way I wanted it to. But you just take as much as you can from the situation.”
As for his evaluations of both players this spring, Edsall said each has his own strengths and weaknesses.
“We’re trying to get Donovan a little bit more vocal, a little more of a take-charge type of guy,” Edsall said. “Bryant has the experience of playing. We have to get him to be exact in all the things he’s doing, the proper drop, the proper depth, a lot of those little things.
“Both of them have to get a little more accurate, especially on the deep balls,” Edsall continued. “We’ve missed some deep shots this spring. You can’t do that. When the opportunity presents itself you have to make those plays. They’re both a work in progress in terms of what we need out of that position.”
Both players are learning a new offensive attack this spring, the one guided by new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. The former Auburn offensive coordinator’s attack has drawn rave reviews from both incumbent quarterbacks.
“I definitely think it first my style,” Shirreffs said. “It’s very fun to play in, fast-paced. The first couple days of install, it’s a lot, but it’s very enjoyable.”
The rules most programs, including Edsall’s, live by in the spring is that the quarterbacks are not to be touched. To that end, both Shirreffs and Williams are wearing the traditional red “non-contact” jerseys during workouts now. But both men say they’re finally 100 percent healthy after getting beaten up pretty good in 2016.
Shirreffs played most of last season with a rib injury, unbeknownst to most outside of the program until after the season. And Williams said Thursday that he had surgery on his left knee after the season ended to repair meniscus tear he suffered late in the year.
Although they are fighting for the same job, Williams and Shirreffs are hardly enemies. The former said he appreciated Shirreffs’ attitude during the tumultuous times in 2016 when the two swapped roles.
“Last season I learned so much from Bryant, especially when the big transition happened,” Williams said. “He was there in my corner, supportive. There was no bad tension or bad energy. I feel like the situation was handled very maturely.”
Shirreffs is maturing in other ways these days. He and finace Alexa Bonnes had a baby recently, and much of Shirreffs’ time is occupied by 1-month old Brayden Anthony Shirreffs.
That’s perhaps part of the reason he’s been able to put the firestorm of 2016 behind him and bring such a positive approach to spring practice and the upcoming season.
“I wake up every day and I’m excited,” Shirreffs said. “I wake up earlier than I ever have and I’m excited to get in the building. And I feel collectively we’re all at that level. It’s awesome to be here.”