STORRS - It‚Äôs rare when a football team employs a new starting quarterback to start the season and it‚Äôs not the most important position change.
But it can certainly be argued that‚Äôs the case for the UConn football team.
UConn will replace all of its specialists this season, including its punter, place kicker and primary return man. The last one is perhaps the most significant, because he‚Äôs going to have more responsibility than any UConn returner in recent years.
Former coach Bob Diaco felt that punts were too risky to return. The chances of a fumble or lost yardage were too great in Diaco‚Äôs mind, so he instructed his punt returner, Brian Lemelle, to simply fair catch every punt.
UConn‚Äôs opponents punted 58 times in 2016. Lemelle returned only three, and one of those was not authorized by the coaches.
Of Diaco‚Äôs many coaching idiosyncrasies, the loss of this one may please UConn fans the most.
In a break from that odd precedent, new head coach Randy Edsall has made it clear he in fact plans to return punts.
And the man he‚Äôs chosen to be his primary returner, both of punts and kickoffs, is a true freshman.
Jordan Swann, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound first-year defensive back from Baltimore, has been given the job.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs proven in practice and in scrimmages that he‚Äôs the best guy that we have,‚ÄĚ Edsall said. ‚ÄúI think we have other guys that can do things back there as well, but I really like the way he‚Äôs performed.‚ÄĚ
Arkeel Newsome, UConn‚Äô starting running back, has also been the team‚Äôs regular kick returner in recent years. But Edsall has decided to go a different route.
Swann may be small, relative to his teammates and opponents, but seems to have a knack for the job.
‚ÄúI just see a guy with a lot of confidence in his ability, a guy that has the ability to make some plays,‚ÄĚ Edsall said. ‚ÄúThe job‚Äôs not too big for him.‚ÄĚ
Swann may even get Husky fans dreaming about something they haven‚Äôt seen in a long time: touchdowns on special teams.
UConn‚Äôs last punt return for a touchdown came Sept. 6, 2014, when Deshon Foxx took one back 72 yards for a score against Stony Brook - before Diaco‚Äôs ban went into effect.
‚ÄúI returned a kick at our scrimmage at the Rent, which was pretty cool, and Jamar (Summers) was like ‚ÄėWe haven‚Äôt seen a kick return scored since my freshman year,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Swann said. ‚ÄúThat was pretty cool. I hope I can bring more this year.‚ÄĚ
As for kickoff returns, the Huskies haven‚Äôt scored a touchdown on one of those since Edsall‚Äôs first stint in Storrs. They‚Äôve received 231 kickoffs since their last score, Robbie Frey‚Äôs 95-yard return in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
Swann isn‚Äôt making any promises about scores, but certainly would love to make such an impact.
‚ÄúI just want to make big plays, give the offense good field position, and get a win,‚ÄĚ Swann said.
Swann was in a rather unusual position late last year when choosing a college to attend. He had offers from Rutgers, Illinois and Temple before opting for UConn.
‚ÄúI actually committed here the week before Diaco got fired,‚ÄĚ Swann said. ‚ÄúMy coaches were really close with coach Edsall at Maryland so they just said ‚ÄėHe‚Äôs a great guy.‚Äô And the day he got hired he called me and just told me he wanted me to stick it out here and trust him.‚ÄĚ
Both coach and player are apparently pleased with the way things worked out.
Because nearly all of the players auditioning for the return roles hadn‚Äôt attempted to bring back a punt in their UConn careers, Edsall practiced punt returns at full speed and with full contact during training camp more often than usual.
‚ÄúI probably did more live situations in the kicking game this preseason than I had probably in any preseason that I‚Äôve been coaching. Because I wanted to find out some things,‚ÄĚ Edsall said.
He apparently found out that the youngest and smallest man was the perfect one for the job.
Swann says he only began returning punts and kicks during his final year of high school.
‚ÄúMy senior year, that was my first year returning. I actually had a coach that played for the Ravens, Jermaine Lewis, he was my punt coach, special teams coach. He helped me a lot, got my confidence up. We were catching one-handed balls and everything. So I‚Äôm real comfortable back there catching balls, trying to make a play,‚ÄĚ Swann said.
Swann‚Äôs punt return coach this year is also his head coach. Edsall has taken on the role personally, as the coaching staff has divided up the special teams responsibilities.
Swann is also listed as a backup cornerback on the Huskies‚Äô two-deep, but his primary contribution apparently will be as a returner.
He admits the transition from high school to college football has already been difficult.
‚ÄúIt was a lot. Coming here is more of a mental aspect and a film aspect. That was hard for me at first,‚ÄĚ Swann said.
The actual process of playing football, however, seems to have been an easier adjustment for him. And Swann agrees with his coach that confidence is the biggest key when returning punts.
‚ÄúDefinitely confidence. Anybody back there, really, they trust to make a play. But you have to catch the ball first. They stress that a lot,‚ÄĚ Swann said.
The change for UConn, of course, is that ‚Äúthey‚ÄĚ will now let you return the ball after catching it.