UConn football season kicks off
Huskies open 2013 at The Rent against Towson
Published: Thursday, August 29, 2013
Updated: Thursday, August 29, 2013 00:08
The third chapter in the Paul Pasqualoni era of UConn football begins Thursday night as the Huskies open the 2013 season against Towson at Rentschler Field.
After consecutive 5-7 seasons, Pasqualoni enters the final year of his contract, a season that could determine his future with the program.
But entering Thursday’s game, Pasqualoni is most concerned with the Huskies’ Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
“I think every year is a new year, every team has its own identity,” Pasqualoni said at Sunday’s press conference. “I don’t think you really establish your identity until you start playing in the season, until you’ve played some really tough opponents, played some guys who can play. Towson has guys who can play with anybody, so this will be the toughest opener we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Towson enters the 2013 season ranked No. 12 in the FCS after a 7-4 season in 2012. The Tigers were 15th in the FCS in total offense and 13th in total defense during Rob Ambrose’s fourth year as head coach.
Ambrose is no stranger to the Huskies. For seven years, Ambrose helped Randy Edsall build a formidable offense in Storrs – initially as the quarterback for from 2002-2005, and then for three years as offensive coordinator.
Ambrose left the Huskies after the 2008 season to take the head-coaching job at his alma mater. Taking over in 2009 after the Tigers finished 3-9 the previous year, Ambrose faced a difficult transition. Towson went 2-9 and 1-10 in his first two seasons.
With Ambrose’s third season in charge came a complete change in the Tigers’ fortunes.
In 2011, Ambrose was named the Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year as Towson went 9-3 and 7-1 in the CAA, winning the conference title and a spot in the NCAA FCS Playoffs. In 2012, the Tigers won a share of the conference title but missed out on the Playoffs.
Ambrose is not the only member of the Tigers with a UConn connection. Senior wide receiver Leon Kinnard was a member of the Huskies’ Fiesta Bowl team and transferred to Towson after the 2010 season.
It is often the perception that when an FBS team like UConn plays an FCS team like Towson, it should be a foregone conclusion that the FBS team should run away with the game. That is not always the case, especially when a team from the CAA is involved.
“If you look at the [CAA] someone in this league beats an FBS team every year,” Pasqualoni said. “You go back through the history of it and look at it; James Madison’s beaten Virginia Tech…That’s a hard job. I’ve been down there in Blacksburg trying to do that with a good FBS team. I don’t think there’s much of a difference. This team is healthy and they’ve got their guys, they can play with anybody.”
While UConn has to tread carefully, the 2013 Huskies could be the best squad Pasqualoni has had in Storrs.
UConn returns nine starters on offense, led by quarterback Chandler Whitmer and running back Lyle McCombs. But most importantly on the offensive side of the ball, the line is healthy entering the season.
Last season, the offensive line was the weak spot for the Huskies, never allowing Whitmer or McCombs much time to work before a defensive player was in the backfield and barreling down on them. McCombs especially suffered as a result. The former Freshman All-American only carried the ball 32 fewer times in 2012 than in 2011, but his production dropped from 95.9 yards per game to 78.2.
But after a slew of issues in 2012, the offensive line is healthy and features quite a bit of experience. Redshirt juniors Alex Mateas and Gus Cruz and redshirt seniors Jimmy Bennett, Steve Greene and Kevin Friend are the projected starters based on the depth chart.
For the Huskies to be successful offensively in 2013, UConn will need to avoid the turnovers that have plagued the team in recent years. Pasqualoni said on Sunday that turnovers have cost his team “more than half a dozen games” in his two seasons at UConn, and that is a big concern entering the season.
“I’m not comfortable where we ended last year,” Pasqualoni said. “We have to do a great job going into this game on two things, not giving up a big play, and taking care of the ball. That’s something that we’ve talked a great deal about and we have to see, I hope the personality and identity of this team is one that takes care of the football.”
On defense, UConn returns five starters from a squad that was ranked ninth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense.
But the Huskies have already taken a big loss defensively during the preseason, as safety Andrew Adams is expected to miss about eight weeks after having shoulder surgery. Redshirt freshman Obi Melifonwu will line up alongside redshirt junior Ty-Meer Brown in Adams’ place, with the full faith of Pasqualoni.
“I think that a lot of young guys when they’re playing second team, maybe they don’t feel as if it’s that important because they’re not the starter,” Pasqualoni said. “As soon as Andrew went down, Obi stepped up and has shown that he can practice consistently. He’s done that each day since the injury.”
Redshirt junior captain Yawin Smallwood leads a talented UConn defense, but will have two new linebackers lining up next to him in 2013, with Ryan Donohue and Graham Stewart replacing Sio Moore and Jory Johnson.
Donohue transferred to UConn from Maryland after the 2010 season. He appeared in five games for the Huskies in 2012, recording a tackle in each game.
Stewart, a standout at Xavier High School in Middletown, transferred to Storrs from the University of Florida after the 2011 season, during which he played in 12 games for the Gators, recording one tackle. Stewart blocked a punt in the Gator Bowl against Ohio State and returned it for a touchdown.