STORRS - Heâ€™s one of the last remaining links on the roster to UConnâ€™s postseason past, so perhaps Hergy Mayala is the most qualified to speak on the Huskiesâ€™ prospects this season.
Mayala, the UConn senior wide receiver, made it clear he believes now is the time for the Huskies to go back to a bowl.
â€śWeâ€™re going for a bowl game. Weâ€™re not going to settle for anything less than that,â€ť Mayala said. â€śI feel like we have the team to do it.â€ť
On the heels of consecutive 3-9 seasons, thatâ€™s a rather bold statement. Head coach Randy Edsall hasnâ€™t been so brash despite saying multiple times he expects the Huskies to be much improved this season.
A 6-foot-2 senior who grew up in Montreal, Mayala is one of three current Huskies who played the last time the Huskies were in a bowl game. UConn lost the 2015 St. Petersburg Bowl to Marshall - the only postseason appearance for the program in the six years between Edsallâ€™s head coaching stints in Storrs - 16-10.
Mayalaâ€™s confidence is likely welcome for a program that has been sorely lacking it lately. Though itâ€™s perhaps odd coming from a player who had such a disastrous finish to his 2017 campaign.
In the Huskiesâ€™ season finale against Cincinnati, Mayala caught a touchdown pass from quarterback David Pindell with no time left on the clock that pulled UConn within a point, seemingly setting the stage for overtime or perhaps a two-point conversion and a momentum-boosting victory to cap the season.
But an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on Mayala after the play as he barked a bit at his Bearcat defenders, and UConn kicker Michael Tarbutt then missed what turned into a 36-yard extra point.
Mayala talked extensively about the play during UConnâ€™s spring practices, and says he rarely thinks about the infraction.
â€śNot really. Itâ€™s behind me. I talked with the coaches, talked with the players and we just decided that moving on we have to be more responsible, more mature,â€ť Mayala said.
Pindell, Mayalaâ€™s roommate, has for the most part allowed his friend to forget the incident.
â€śWe talk about that when weâ€™re in the room. We talk about it and make fun about it,â€ť Pindell said. â€śBut thatâ€™s in the past. Heâ€™s learned from it and knows not to do it again.â€ť
As a junior, Mayala lead UConn in receptions (43), yards (615) and touchdowns (seven) despite missing two games with an injury. Heâ€™s expecting more for his last go-round in college football.
â€śI feel like thereâ€™s a lot more I left on the field,â€ť Mayala said, adding that he wants to â€śtake his game to another levelâ€ť this season.
The Huskies open the 2018 season Aug. 30 against Central Florida.
Edsall expects to see an improved Mayala on that day and going forward.
â€śI think Hergy has gotten a lot better in a couple areas. I think he understands how hard you have to work and how accountable you have to be to everything,â€ť Edsall said.
The coaching staff has been pressing Mayala to become more of a leader to the younger Huskies, something Mayala has tried to embrace.
â€śItâ€™s something that I have to do. Iâ€™m pushing to it,â€ť Mayala said. â€śI donâ€™t want it any other way. Iâ€™m just giving it my best.â€ť
Edsall has decided for a second straight season not to name team captains, but has installed a leadership council in its place. Mayala is in that 13-member group, and is starting to show signs that the coaching staff made a good choice in selecting him.
â€śYou want to do everything you can to make yourself the best you can be but then heâ€™s in a position where he should put pressure on other people to make sure theyâ€™re holding themselves accountable,â€ť Edsall said. â€śThatâ€™s where Iâ€™m starting to see some of the biggest growth in him.â€ť
UConn hasnâ€™t had to worry about who would start at middle linebacker on its defense in quite some time. Junior Joseph occupied that spot for most of the last three-and-a-half years, finishing his Husky career with 306 tackles.
But itâ€™s not clear who will be taking over Joseph in the middle this season. Sophomore Ryan Gilmartin and senior Santana Sterling are vying for the spot, with Kevon Jones, a true freshman from East Hartford, is also pushing for some playing time.
â€śHow quickly can KK (Jones) keep developing? And how does it shake out between Ryan and Santana?â€ť Edsall said, trying to explain the position battle.
Edsall said the position battle will likely be determined in the coming days.