The UConn Huskies open the 2012 season on Thursday night when they take on the Massachusetts Minutemen, who are entering their first year in the MAC Conference.
In most polls, the Huskies are predicted to finish sixth in the Big East Conference after a 5-7 season in 2011. It’s been an up and down period in UConn football history lately. After 2009, when the team overcame the death of Jasper Howard to defeat South Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl, the Huskies struggled in 2010, but managed to win the Big East and earn a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where they were blown out by Oklahoma.
Despite being picked to finish sixth, the Huskies have the potential to impress and they need to get started on the right foot against a team that many could find to be feisty this year.
The player everyone will be looking out for come Thursday is redshirt sophomore quarterback Chandler Whitmer. The transfer from Butler Community College in Colorado entered camp as the top quarterback on the depth chart and has been impressive since arriving in the spring. At Butler, he completed 180 of 316 passes for 3,022 yards with 25 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. In the UConn Spring Game, he was 18 of 27 for 187 yards and two touchdowns.
However, second-year head coach Paul Pasqualoni has hinted that Whitmer may be sharing snaps this year. Last year, UConn notoriously used two to three quarterbacks a game, usually using senior redshirt Johnny McEntee in passing situations and redshirt sophomore Scott McCummings in wildcat situations. McEntee has failed to wow the way he did with his trick throw video since taking over for Zach Frazier after 2010. Fans will be hoping that Whitmer makes a strong enough case to be the go-to guy and force Pasqualoni to leave McEntee on the bench as much as possible. With Kashif Moore gone, the Huskies will have to rely on wide receiver Michael Smith and tight end Ryan Griffin to try and make their QB look good.
The Huskies best offensive asset is at the running back position with redshirt sophomore Lyle McCombs. As a freshman, McCombs was handed the big responsibility of replacing Jordan Todman, who bolted to the NFL (no pun intended, but he was drafted by the Chargers) after his junior year. However, McCombs showed that he could continue the long-running tradition of great UConn running backs which traces all the way back to the days of Terry Caulley (not that that was very long ago). After rushing for 1,151 yards and being named a Freshman All-American, he is on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back. Todman practically carried the Huskies offense en route to the Fiesta Bowl. McCombs could be that guy this year.
On defense, the Huskies are still loaded with experience and talent. Senior cornerbacks Blidi-Wreh Wilson and Dwayne Gratz, senior defensive ends Trevardo Williams and Jesse Joseph and senior linebackers Jory Johnson and Sio Moore are all back and ready to make this one extremely difficult defense to cope with. As much as Todman led the way on offense in 2010, defense and special teams carried this program. That will again be the case in 2012.
Speaking of special teams, the Huskies will have to deal with the loss of Dave Teggart, their hero so many times in the past. Teggart wrote himself into UConn legend by kicking two 50+ yard field goals in the fourth quarter against South Florida in Dec. 2010 to win the Big East. His clutch-time performance and ability to drill one through the uprights from anywhere except maybe 40-49 yards out will be hard to replace, but now it looks like Chad Christen, who has handled kickoffs for two years, will now be given the responsibility of taking the place kicks. He may not have many long chances against UMass, as the Huskies are favored by 25 points and are expected to dominate, but getting to see him get a few big ones in early will be comforting (depending on how optimistic you are).
It should be a crowd of 40,000 at Rentschler Field on Thursday night. As strange as it is, Washington Redskins quarterback and former Baylor star Ryan Griffin III said that the Rent was one of, if not his favorite places to play outside the Big 12. Maybe he’s not crazy, well, outside of his choice in socks. The Rent can get deafening when the Huskies need a pick-me-up or just at any point where the Husky faithful need to get loud. Against a fellow New England school, a school that could easily become a rival, the place should be rocking on Thursday.