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Optimism brewing as UConn opens preseason camp
With one month until the season opener, Jim Mora's Huskies have a lot to build on as they look to improve on last year's success.
Last season, Jim Mora and the UConn Huskies surprised the college football world with six wins, a bowl berth, and renewed optimism for a program many had declared dead.
How will they follow it up? A bowl game felt like a crazy goal for last year, but they did it.
“We expect to improve on what we did last year,” LB Jackson Mitchell said after the first preseason practice, adding that “6-6 and Myrtle Beach Bowl isn’t exactly what we want for our program.”
But the 2023 schedule is filled with challenging opponents, and the Huskies were no juggernaut last year.
Beyond what should be relatively easy wins against Sacred Heart, UMass, and FIU, the other wins would have to come from beating all or most of the following: Georgia State (on the road), Utah State, Rice (road), USF, and Boston College (road). Beating NC State, Tennessee (road), or Duke would be a huge upset, and James Madison (road) is really not too far behind that group.
Despite winning six games in 2022, the Huskies were still a bottom-tier team in overall efficiency. Injuries played a role in that, but they have a long way to go to even be considered a middle-of-the-road FBS team.
That said, UConn has many reasons to believe growth is occurring, including a slew of transfer arrivals who promise to bolster depth at multiple key positions including wide receiver, linebacker, and defensive back. The quality of these experienced newcomers may well be the determining factor for UConn’s ability to improve on its 2022 win total.
Mora says that things are looking a lot faster and smoother compared to where they were a year ago. His players have adopted a new motto as well.
“We're showing this year that we're that team,” said guard Christian Haynes. “That's our motto ‘We’re that man’ and ‘We’re that team’ … We have the expectation to win every game.”
Photo: Ian Bethune
The Huskies are looking to get more from their quarterback than they did last year, as they’ll be looking to improve their efficiency in the passing game.
Right now that group is experiencing “a very healthy competition” according to the head coach.
Ta’Quan Roberson is the highest-rated high school recruit in the QB room. He won the starting job last year after transferring from Penn State but went down with a leg injury in the second possession of the very first game.
“I'm encouraged,” Mora said, of Roberson’s recovery and progress. “He came out here the first day…and he didn't show any residual effects from the surgery or injury.”
Mora credited Roberson’s resolve to go through rehab and face a deeper competition for playing time this year. “He's been through a lot. You fight for the starting job, and you get hurt in the second series, that’s not easy. Someone comes in, takes your place, and leads your team to a bowl game, then your coaches go out and get a transfer that’s played a lot. The guy never blinks; he has a great mindset… the only time I’ve ever seen him down is the 24 hours after his injury.”
Zion Turner filled in more than adequately as the starter after Roberson’s injury, especially considering he was a true freshman, and has admirably elected to stick with UConn and continue to compete for the starting job in a path that is probably closer to his original development plan coming out of high school.
Also very much in the mix is Joseph Fagnano, a transfer from Maine who displayed a live arm in the first open practice.
At running back, Nate Carter is gone but Devontae Houston and Brian Brewton sit atop the depth chart with Victor Rosa currently sitting third, Mora said. Louisville transfer Jalen Mitchell has the potential to be a factor there, while transfer pass catchers Brett Buckman (Delaware) and James Burns (Austin Peay) could both be productive this season.
“We've added talent and experience to the receiving room and I think the tight end room as well,” Mora said. “I believe that the guys who are here have taken a step up, it's good to see Cam Ross back out here and healthy.”
The receivers are being coached by a new member of the staff, former Husky receiver Kashif Moore, who spent a few years in the NFL after his tenure with some of the best UConn teams in its FBS history, graduating in 2011. He coached at Wesleyan, Cornell, and Albany before returning to his alma mater.
“I think he just adds tremendous credibility,” Mora said. “He has a passion for UConn…he played in the league…I think that he immediately commanded the respect of that room.”
Four out of five starters return from last year’s rock-solid offensive line, including Haynes, who’s coming off an All-American season. There’s a very strong argument to be made that the offensive line’s improvement is the most meaningful and significant development for the program in the last year — this is an area where just about every college football team struggles, especially those outside of the Power Five conferences.
“I feel like we're very comfortable with each other,” Haynes said. He mentioned Alabama transfer Dayne Shor as someone younger on the line who’s improved noticably, but added that “anybody can be that fifth guy and it's gonna be a lot of competition.”
Mora said he was pleased with how his team ran the ball last year, though he expects that to get better as well with continuity on the line and the addition of experienced talent.
On defense, Mora continues his tenure as defensive coordinator. Mitchell said he feels comfortable with the decision to keep it that way, but admitted it was tough last year given the timing of former defensive coordinator Lou Spanos’ departure. Individually, Mitchell said he’s looking to demonstrate that he’s a complete player, in what is likely his final collegiate year.
“I can make a lot of tackles, but you gotta be able to play all three downs and cover tight ends,” he said. “So I worked on my footwork, that type of stuff in the offseason.”
The team is returning most starters and key contributors on defense and expecting to have help from a lot of transfers, including LB Eriq Gilyard (Kansas), DB Armauni Archie (Washington State), DB Mumu Bin-Wahad (West Virginia), DB Zakhari Spears (Washington), LB Maurice Wilner (Nevada), Kevon Glenn (Georgia Southern), LB Noah Plack (Delaware), and DB Torion White (Southern Utah), in addition to some guys who transferred in last year like DL Sokoya McDuffie (Old Dominion), DB Stan Cross (Iowa Central) and DB Chris Shearin (Missouri).
Mitchell is also hoping these guys can help improve the defense’s consistency. He pointed to losses last year against Utah State and Ball State as games that could have been won with a more consistent defensive effort.
“Maybe we can rotate guys in a little more,” he said. “It also brings out healthy competition during camp.”