STORRS - Wide receiver Noel Thomas’ record-setting season for the UConn football team in 2016 will not be duplicated any time soon.
That’s not because under new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and “new” head coach Randy Edsall, the Huskies are going to throw the ball any less. Perhaps, the opposite will be true. But UConn certainly will aim to spread the ball around a little more in 2017 and going forward.
Thomas caught a school-record 100 passes last season. The Huskies’ second-leading receiver - running back Arkeel Newsome - had 75 fewer.
“We want to have everybody be a go-to guy, not just one guy,” Edsall said Tuesday after the Huskies’ 10th practice of their spring schedule. “The quarterbacks have to know that this offense is going to be predicated on finding the open receiver, making the correct reads.”
It’s not clear at this point who will play quarterback for UConn next season. Brandon Bisack, a sophomore from Fairfield, guided the first-team offense in Tuesday’s practice.
Who exactly will be catching those more evenly distributed passes is also in question. Hergy Mayala, who caught 23 passes as a sophomore, is certainly a prime candidate. Fellow juniors Tyraiq Beals and Aaron McLean are also possible contributors.
But a pair of redshirt freshmen have perhaps intrigued the coaches most this spring. Quayvon Skanes, a 5-foot-11 Chicago native, and Keyion Dixon, the 6-foot-3 former Glastonbury High star, are being given a chance this spring to show what they can do. The duo spent Tuesday’s workout with the Huskies’ starting unit.
“We wanted to see how they would react being put in that role. And then also how would some other guys reach being on the two’s. I wanted to see how all that happened,” Edsall said. “I thought it was pretty good.”
Both Skanes and Dixon played quarterback in high school and are still figuring out the best way to utilize their athletic abilities at a new position. Each spent their first season in Storrs practicing with the Bob Diaco’s Huskies but did not see any game action.
“I wasn’t expecting to redshirt, actually. I came in here to play as a true freshman but it didn’t work out,” Skanes admitted.
Dixon said he learned plenty while redshirting, including plenty from Thomas.
“I had a chance to sit behind Noel and see what he did. Noel was a great mentor to me,” Dixon said.
With Thomas gone, perhaps to the NFL, the Huskies are looking for more than one quality replacement.
“Everybody gets a chance to do what they do and everybody gets a chance to get the ball,” Skanes said.
Having gone to high school not far from Pratt & Whitney Stadium, there’s perhaps added pressure on Dixon to perform.
“He has a lot of ability,” Edsall said. “He had a taste today to work with the 1’s a little bit. Now, is he going to relish that opportunity and continue to work hard each and every day?”
Dixon gets plenty of playful teasing from his teammates for the short commute he made to college after high school, but he says it’s not a factor.
“Being the local guy I feel like everybody says ‘You can go back down the street, go back home whenever you want,’ ” Dixon said. “But I’m here to work. I’m here to focus.”
A number of former UConn football players have visited the team this spring as Edsall begins his second tenure as the team’s head coach. And some of those who played for Edsall said they weren’t allowed to do so under former coach Bob Diaco.
Rob Lunn, a defensive tackle with the Huskies from 2005-08, made it clear during a visit to the Huskies Tuesday that he did not feel welcome in the last few years.
“It was absolutely a closed door. We were locked out at almost every turn. We weren’t ‘his’ guys and we were told we weren’t his guys,” Lunn said.
Former UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni, who spent two-plus seasons with the Huskies following Edsall’s departure in 2010, was somewhat more accommodating to those who played under Edsall, according to Lunn.
“Under Pasqualoni it was a lot less. But under Diaco if you weren’t one of his guys you weren’t coming back,” Lunn said. “Reports of guys coming back to train for NFL pro day that were asked to go train in the student center.”
Edsall said he’s always had an open door policy for ex-players, whether he coached them or not.
“I always welcomed everyone back. The university is bigger than the head coach,” Edsall said. “When I went to Maryland, all those guys were welcomed back there.”
Edsall didn’t specifically mention Diaco or other coaches’ policies, but he wasn’t surprised to hear Lunn spoke his mind so plainly.
“He doesn’t hold back. If he’s got something on his mind, he’s going to say it. That’s no different than when he was here.”
When he was a player at UConn, Lunn started a blog known as the “Fat White Guy,” offering some inside glimpses of his life as a college football player. Lunn has dropped some 75 pounds from his playing days and playfully admits that when it comes to his nickname now, “I’m a fraud.”
In addition to Lunn, three other former Huskies were on hand Tuesday to watch practice and interact with the current players: linebacker Scott Lutrus (2007-10), offensive tackle Dan Ryan (2006-09), and tight end Steve Brouse (2005-08).
While all of them were eager to see Edsall return for personal reasons, Lunn said UConn fans should be excited to see him back as well.
“I think he’s a better coach than he was when we were here, when you look at the experience he’s had going through a Maryland and circling back with Detroit,” Lunn said. “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, right? I don’t think we knew what we had until Randy left.
“There was a lot of animosity over the whole Fiesta Bowl thing and how he left afterwards,” Lunn continued. “But you live and you learn. That knife cuts both ways. I think he’s glad to be back, he’s learned some lessons.”
Edsall said his team’s practice Tuesday, the 10th of 15 slated for this spring, was its best. “Today was probably our best day that we’ve had so far in the spring,” Edsall said. “I was pleased with the focus, I was pleased with the intensity.” … The Huskies’ spring workouts will culminate with the annual Blue-White Game April 21 in East Hartford.