UConn is about to embark on one of the most unique spring practices in college football history.
For starters, it’s not even technically spring yet. Secondly, the Huskies are coming off a season in which they did not play a single game.
Neither aspect of the workouts are particularly concerning for the Huskies, they insist. Rather, it has them even more excited to hit the field inside the Shenkman Center and begin prepping for the 2021 season, UConn’s first as an independent.
Offensive tackle Ryan Van Demark, one of the team’s leaders, says he and his teammates can’t wait to get going Monday.
“We haven’t really put on the pads in a while,” Van Demark said during a Zoom call with reporters this week. “I’m pretty sure the whole team is amped up to put on the shoulder pads to get out there and start hitting each other.”
UConn was one of three teams among the 130 in FBS (along with New Mexico State and Old Dominion) that did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. The Huskies did practice in the fall. But, like teams that played games, they had many players sidelined by positive COVID tests.
Now, they’ll hold 15 practices between Monday and April 2 to get ready for what will be their first season of competition in two years.
And although they’ve been the doormats of the college football world for a few years recently, the Huskies believe the break has offered them a big opportunity to make big strides.
“By not playing in the fall, we are further along with our program than what we would have been if we had played in the fall,” coach Randy Edsall said.
The NCAA is allowing teams that didn’t play in the fall to play games this spring, but Edsall said he never really considered that option. However, the Huskies will hold perhaps as many as three intra-squad scrimmages over the next month.
“We’ll get more out of doing what we’re going to do, and doing what we’ve been doing,” said Edsall, whose team was one of the few in FBS to get in a full spring practice last year before the pandemic hit.
Missing out on the competition has been difficult for many of the players, but Van Demark believes it will pay off in the end.
“I look at it as a sacrifice. It definitely was a sacrifice for the betterment of the team. I missed playing but it’s definitely going to help us this season in terms of wins,” Van Demark said.
UConn went 2-10 in 2019, and is 6-30 since Edsall returned to the Huskies as their head coach in 2017. UConn won at least eight games each season in the final four years of Edsall’s first stint. He left immediately following the 2010 season to take over at Maryland. The Huskies haven’t been above .500 since.
UConn’s lone win over a fellow FBS program in that 2019 season came over UMass. But according to the Huskies, somehow there is potential for piling up victories in 2021.
“I’ve been here since coach Edsall started here the second time,” Van Demark said. “I can see a glaring difference this year rather than the last three years. We have more kids bought in, more kids trying to get after it every day, trying to get a (bowl game) ring.”
Early on during what would have been the 2020 season, Van Demark admits that wasn’t always the case. The team’s leadership council, a group of de facto captains of which Van Demark is a member, had to set a few of the players straight, he says.
“We had a few ups and downs, some bumps in the road. There were definitely guys that came in and thought they were better than the team, thought they were greater than the team,” Van Demark said. “Coach Edsall and our leadership council were trying to do a better job of getting everybody on the same page and everybody saying, ‘You’re not better than the team. You have to put your egos aside and just work every day.’ ”
It’s the accountability that he sees in his players that has Edsall believing his team could be turning a corner in its development.
“Everything’s trending in the right direction,” Edsall said. “The good thing is I don’t have to say as much anymore. I see a whole different approach, a whole different attitude, a whole different mindset than any of the other groups we’ve had since I’ve been back.”
Taking 12 games off in 2020 had another benefit that Edsall believes could help the Huskies come back stronger in 2021.
Not only did the players get extra weight training and conditioning work in, their bodies weren’t subjected to a season’s worth of blows.
“Your body only has so many hits in it anyhow when you play this game. What we did last year saved our players’ bodies from all those hits,” Edsall said. “And on top of that, we allowed those bodies to grow and develop.”
They may not have gained any playing experience in the fall, but Edsall thinks his players are better positioned to succeed in the coming months because of the knowledge they’ve gained, too.
The way the coach sees it, there’s no reason not to be successful right now.
“The thing I like about it, the thing the coaching staff likes about it, is there’s no excuses now,” Edsall said. “Everybody’s had a chance to get bigger, faster, stronger. Everybody’s had a chance to really understand the schemes and what their responsibilities are.”