As the football team prepares to begin its 2012 season under second-year head coach Paul Pasqualoni, the words often heard from coaches and players alike are “comfortable” and “confident,” following last year’s 5-7 season that played out as a period of adjustment with a reorganized coaching staff and a new playbook.
When the Huskies open the year at 7:30 p.m. today at Rentschler Field in East Hartford against old Yankee Conference rival UMass, there will be familiar faces on the coaching sideline as well as in uniform, where 15 seniors lead an experienced squad of veteran players and newcomers.
“I’m coming into camp knowing everything in the playbook now,” says Lyle McCombs ’14 (CLAS), a redshirt sophomore running back who ran for 1,151 yards in his first season, averaging 4.2 per carry. “It’s basically reiteration so I don’t make any mistakes and don’t miss any assignments this year. I think everybody’s on the same page with that this year.”
Adds senior cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson ’13 (CLAS), one of four co-captains, “We understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and you can see that it’s not a think and react thing, it’s a react and go like your hair is on fire. We’re playing a lot faster; it makes you more confident when you know what you’re doing.”
Pasqualoni says going through a full calendar year of the college football cycle and the departure of only one coach – quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead left to become head coach at Fordham, and was replaced by Shane Day, former position coach with the Chicago Bears – has also helped both on and off the field.
“I think the coaches are very comfortable. Our job is to not make it overly complex,” he says, “Our staff will work hard to game plan, and the goal is always to give the kids the best chance to win. At the end of the day, it’s not what we know; it’s our ability to get it to the players. There’s no lifeguard on duty on Saturday, they have to do it themselves. If there’s a hard job for our coaches, that might be it: just keeping it simple enough so they can play.”
One of last season’s ongoing offensive challenges was answering the question of who would be the Huskies’ top quarterback, when three different players saw action at various times. Pasqualoni made an early decision to go with redshirt sophomore Chandler Whitmer ’15 (CLAS), a junior college transfer, as the starter.
“I feel good about Chandler,” says Pasqualoni, noting that he is also satisfied with the progress made by other quarterback candidates, including sophomores Scott McCummings ’15 (CLAS) and Michael Nebrich ’15 (CLAS), and freshman Casey Cochran ’16 (CLAS), who is recovering from a wrist injury. “[Chandler]has worked hard. He’s going to have to have a great week this week to be on top of his game. Shane Day has done an excellent job as the coach of the group.”
Whitmer, who arrived in Storrs for classes during the 2012 spring semester, is also gaining the confidence of his teammates.
“I think Chandler’s a really hard worker, doing everything he needs to do,” says senior guard Adam Masters ’13 (CLAS), a co-captain. “[He’s spending] extra time in the film room, communicating with offensive line and really stepping up as a quarterback because as a quarterback you really need to be a leader to take control of the huddle, and I think he’s doing a great job of that.”
McCombs, redshirt senior tight end Ryan Griffin ’13 (CLAS), and senior wide receiver/kicker returner Nick Williams hope to again lead the Huskies on offense. McCombs averaged 95.9 yards per game, scored 7 touchdowns, and is on the preseason list for two of the college game’s top awards, the Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award. Griffin averaged 15.1 yards per catch and 41.6 yards per game as a receiver, scoring 3 touchdowns, and is on the watch list for the Mackey Award and Lombardi Award. Williams averaged 21.5 yards per catch and 24.9 yards on kick returns, including one for 61 yards.
Wreh-Wilson will lead the veteran Husky defense with redshirt senior linebacker Sio Moore ’13 (CLAS), who made 55 solo tackles; redshirt sophomore linebacker Yawin Smallwood ’15 (CLAS), who had 94 tackles; and senior defensive ends Trevardo Williams ’13 (CLAS) and Jesse Joseph ’13 (CLAS).
“There’s no young guys on defense,” says Moore, who is on the watch list for the Butkus Award and the Lombardi Award. “Everybody knows the defense, knows what’s going on. Everybody’s getting more and more comfortable about it. Thing is, when you’re comfortable with being able to create chaos, it can only lead to a lot of sacks, turnovers, big games, and turnovers to win games.”
Williams, named to the lists for the Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award, and Lombardi Award, adds: “Our job is to cause chaos. Coach is always talking about that and it’s mainly our job to make it difficult for the offense to pick up on the defense.”
Pasqualoni says he is satisfied that the leadership of Husky veterans will help the team improve over last season.
“We are excited about this senior class. We have 15 seniors returning … and when you look at them, they have all played and been contributors to this program,” he says. “So as a coach, you have to be really excited about that. They have all taken some ownership of this team and have made a big commitment to this team.”