It’s always good to get the chance to swap some intel with other SBN brands when we have the opportunity on a game week. This week, I had the chance to get some questions over to Aman at The UConn Blog to see how they felt about leaving the AAC, whether or not there has been any positive momentum in football this year, and what we can expect when the Huskies and Mids line up on Friday night on ESPN2.
I know there are a lot of opinions out there about the move out of the AAC and to independence in football. How are you looking at that now that we are over halfway through your last season in the AAC and what are your eventual expectations for what UConn ends up doing in football?
I would have hoped that Randy Edsall could have done more in three years in the conference, but ultimately the trade-offs from football independence were not much compared to the benefits of getting UConn’s basketball programs back into the Big East. Football may be king in most of the country, but it just isn’t in Storrs, Connecticut, especially not under the current circumstances in the business of college sports. Given that the Power Five seemed unlikely to be adding new members, and that geographic isolation hurt UConn’s ability to recruit for all sports in its own region, this move is going to be a big boon for an athletic department that has a lot of support for sports that aren’t football, including soccer and baseball, that will also decrease travel costs.
How do you assess 2019 so far? Or I guess, perhaps a better way to look at it, is 2019 something UConn can build off of as it makes this transition to independence?
We are still figuring out if the direction of the program is promising, though that would be the case even if UConn was staying in the AAC. Expectations were low to start the season, but my early feelings are that this year’s team has not been able to meet them. The hope was to be blown out less and generally look more competent, but there appears to be a lot of questionable management by the coaching staff. There has been a lot of change at quarterback, with little clarity as to whether it was due to injury or coaching choices, and the offensive playcalling has been conservative to the point of embarrassment, with weekly punts from inside enemy territory.
On the positive side, there are really talented players scattered across the roster. Kevin Mensah scored five touchdowns last week against UMass and is a strong, balanced runner. True freshman Cam Ross has emerged as a productive receiver in a group that didn’t have any separation before the season. Tyler Coyle and Omar Fortt are experienced members of the secondary who are making plays week over week. But is there enough talent around them to be good, or even consistent? We’ll have to wait another year or two to find out.
How do you evaluate the job Randy Edsall has done in his return to leading the football program?
Randy Edsall’s approach to his second stint at UConn has been to completely tear the whole thing down and rebuild. Given the structural challenges the program faces (not sitting in a talent-rich area, financial woes, waning interest after years of disappointment) and the fact that he came at a discount after the expensive Bob Diaco firing, getting this unprecedented opportunity to rebuild had to have been part of the deal when Athletic Director David Benedict hired Edsall back in 2017.
There are signs of positive progress, including young talent at quarterback, some solid recruiting wins, and improvement of last year’s all-time worst defense, but he also can’t seem to hold on to an offensive coordinator and perhaps his desire to run the ball on 3rd and 6 or punt from the opponents’ 36-yard line is contributing to that.
Even though he’s won just five games in three years, he’ll get a fourth year and that will be the first time Edsall’s job may actually be in jeopardy, if he doesn’t show any results after next year.
The previous two meetings during Navy’s first two years in the conference were both really close matchups, including that dramatic almost incomprehensible game in 2016 where UConn drove to the Navy 1, called timeout, got stuffed, and couldn’t get a play off before time expired. Will you miss anything about playing the Midshipmen in the future?
There were many indignities for UConn fans in the American Athletic Conference, but being in a conference with Navy was one of the bright points. I was extremely excited for what Navy brought to the AAC and always impressed with the program’s ability to compete under extremely rigorous requirements for incoming athletes and the demands on their lives as Midshipmen.
I was actually in the press box for that game in 2016 and am going to miss having the excuse to visit Annapolis and go to a football game.
In looking at Navy, what are you most concerned about: the number one rushing offense in the country led by Malcolm Perry, or one of the most improved defenses in the country this year under first year coordinator Brian Newberry?
UConn is pretty equally bad on offense and defense, but I’ll go with the rushing offense. Another strong running team, Tulane, had no problem moving the ball at all against the Huskies earlier this season. I expect a similar ground thrashing this weekend.
Talk to me about Jack Zergiotis and Kevin Mensah, what do they bring to the table?
Jack Zergiotis is a true freshman and comes with everything that you’d expect from a true freshman who earns a starting job. There are flashes of ability, he has a strong arm and an ability to make big plays, but is wildly inaccurate and still working on his decision-making. He’s a confident guy, but does get rattled in the pocket, especially if a team is consistently bringing pressure.
Kevin Mensah is a really productive running back who can do a little bit of everything. He’s a sturdy runner that is good at finding holes and staying on his feet. He doesn’t have lightning speed or elite strength, but he’s probably the most consistent player on UConn’s offense.
Any other players to watch on Friday night?
Mentioned a few in an earlier answer, but would also add Art Thompkins, who is a scatback type that is a big catching threat out of the backfield. Defensively, Travis Jones is the big dude on the defensive line and linebacker DJ Morgan has been all over the field.
Favorite UConn football player of all time?
Running back Donald Brown was unstoppable his junior year, rushing for over 2000 yards and really helped put UConn’s fledgling program on the map.
Favorite UConn athlete in any sport all time?
This is an impossible question that I would be ridiculed for answering. There are so many good choices, between the numerous women’s basketball legends in Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Maya Moore, and Breanna Stewart, to men’s hoops heroes Khalid El-Amin, Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker, and Shabazz Napier, to former World Series MVP George Springer, and many, many more, one could not possibly pick just one favorite in any sport.
Many thanks to Aman for being willing to answer my questions this week. He is absolutely right, I set him up for failure with that last question. That is one that even, I, as a completely neutral UConn observer don’t think I’d be able to answer, but I was mostly curious because I feel like more than most schools, the Huskies have so many different directions you could go with that question, none of which involve football.
We are looking forward to the matchup on Friday night. Don’t forget to check out @TheUConnBlog for all of your UConn info and insights leading up to the game tomorrow!