STORRS - There arenâ€™t many coaches who would be overly enthusiastic about beginning a season of football with a group that has won a mere 10 games in the last six years.
For Jim Mora, however, his semi-official debut with the UConn football team this week was a thrill.
â€śFor me, itâ€™s a blast,â€ť Mora said Thursday. â€śI havenâ€™t coached in a few years. I love being back out here with them.â€ť
The Huskies began spring practice on Tuesday with Mora at the helm. Mora brings 31 years of combined coaching experience in college and the NFL, but prior to this week hadnâ€™t guided a practice since the 2017 season at UCLA.
He admitted to having some butterflies as the Huskies got underway.
â€śI was really nervous Tuesday morning before practice,â€ť Mora said. â€śBut all I had to do was get my whistle. Once I had my Fox 40, I felt like I was OK.â€ť
Mora says the nerves quickly passed, however, and he was back to being quite comfortable in his element.
â€śItâ€™s really the only thing Iâ€™ve ever done in my life, coach or be around coaches, so it comes back pretty fast,â€ť Mora said.
UConn will practice Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for the next five weeks, culminating their spring workouts with the Blue-White Game April 21 at Morrone Stadium.
The Huskies begin their second season as an independent Aug. 27 at Utah State.
UConn is coming off a 1-11 season, a campaign that started with Randy Edsall as head coach before an abrupt retirement, and finished with Lou Spanos serving as interim head coach. The program hasnâ€™t won more than three games in a season since 2015.
Despite the programâ€™s lack of victories lately, Mora said he was encouraged by the playersâ€™ performance in their first two practices.
â€śI love their attitude, I love their work ethic, I love their willingness to do the things we ask them with great energy,â€ť Mora said. â€śI feel like theyâ€™re really engaged. Itâ€™s a bunch of guys that are hungry to get better. Thatâ€™s fun to be around. Thatâ€™s encouraging to be around.â€ť
Some of the players have credited the new coaching staff with injecting some energy into the program.
â€śGreat energy. They bring it every day. Each one of the coaches brings it every day. I love it. We all love it,â€ť sophomore wide receiver Keelan Marion said.
Spanos is the lone holdover from last yearâ€™s coaching staff.
â€śI love the staff. I can tell theyâ€™re really here for us. They want us to win, they want us to get better,â€ť safety Malik Dixon said. â€śIâ€™m definitely supporting them. Iâ€™ve got their back and I know theyâ€™ve got mine.â€ť
UConnâ€™s quarterback competition wonâ€™t heat up fully until the fall, when two more new arrivals show up and one of the incumbents is fully healed.
Veteran Steven Krajewski and Penn State transfer Taâ€™Quan Roberson got most of the reps under center Thursday. Sophomore Tyler Phommachanh was able to practice some, though is surgically repaired left knee was still limiting his contributions.
â€śTyler hasnâ€™t really been able to do much, other than a little bit of light throwing,â€ť Mora said.
Phommachanh started three games before suffering a season-ending injury in the Huskiesâ€™ loss to Vanderbilt Oct. 2.
â€śI watched his film last year and I was impressed with him. I met him at Clemson and was terribly impressed with him,â€ť Mora said. â€śAs Iâ€™ve been around him more and more, I love his personality. I think heâ€™s got charisma, I think heâ€™s got leadership ability, and Iâ€™m excited to see him get on the field and compete hard in the summer.â€ť
UConn will add two more quarterbacks in the summer when Cale Millenâ€™s transfer from Northern Arizona is complete, and when freshman Zion Turner graduates from St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
â€śWeâ€™re not going to make a decision until it becomes clear,â€ť Mora said when asked about any pecking order in the group.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Not only was the coaching staff Mora brought in to work with him unfamiliar to his players, the group was largely unfamiliar to Mora himself.
Mora had worked with Spanos, UConnâ€™s former and current defensive coordinator, at UCLA and had known him for decades. Mora also knew Dalton Hilliard, now the Huskiesâ€™ defensive backs coach, from his time playing and coaching at UCLA.
The rest of the players and coaches were largely unknowns to Mora, which is why he leaned on Spanos quite a bit during the transition.
â€śI didnâ€™t know any of these guys except Lou and Dalton. Louâ€™s been very helpful in understanding the personality of the players, maybe some of their strengths and weaknesses. Iâ€™m still going to try to judge it for myself based on what I see with my eyes but itâ€™s really nice to have someone that you have a background with,â€ť Mora said.
Defensive end Kevon Jones, a senior from East Hartford, left Thursdayâ€™s practice early with what appeared to be a minor injury. â€¦ Wide receiver Matt Drayton, who missed all of last season due to injury, did not practice Thursday but was an enthusiastic supporter of his teammates from the sidelines. â€¦ Wide receiver Cam Ross, who missed all but two games last season due to injury but who was the teamâ€™s leading receiver in 2019, practiced fully Thursday and appears healthy. â€¦ Marion made two big catches during a brief scrimmage at the end of Thursdayâ€™s practice, including one for a long touchdown and a one-handed grab across the middle. â€¦ More on his playersâ€™ attitudes: â€śI think theyâ€™re intent on trying to become a good football team. Thatâ€™s all you can ask right now. A lot of learning going on.â€ť â€¦ Former UConn player and assistant coach Jon Wholley, now the head coach at Avon Old Farms, was in attendance for Thursdayâ€™s practice.