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March 7, 2013

Early Look at '13 Opponents: UConn

Spring football is right around the corner, and it's never too early to talk about the greatest sport in the world. TheWolverine.com spoke to beat writers that cover all 12 of Michigan's 2013 opponents to talk about their impressions of the teams heading into spring practice

Michigan's 2013 Schedule
Aug. 31 - Central Michigan
Sept. 7 - Notre Dame
Sept. 14 - Akron
Sept. 21 - at Connecticut
Oct. 5 - Minnesota
Oct. 12 - at Penn State
Oct. 19 - Indiana
Nov. 2 - at Michigan State
Nov. 9 - Nebraska
No. 16 - at Northwestern
No. 23 - at Iowa
No. 30 - Ohio State


With new faces at both coordinator positions and the departure of 14 senior starters from a year ago, improving upon last season's underwhelming 5-7 record and reaching bowl eligibility will be a tall task for the UConn.

Still, the inconsistent Huskies displayed brief glimpses of brilliance throughout the 2012 season, particularly in a late-season 23-20 triple-overtime victory over Sugar Bowl champion Louisville. Here is a closer look at Michigan's Sept. 21 foe ...

Offensive Strengths

Pinpointing an offensive strength is difficult because of the unit's immense struggles last season. UConn finished 118th in the nation, and last in the Big East, in scoring offense (17.8 points per game) and 110th in total offense (313.2 yards per game), also at the bottom of the conference.

As a result, offensive coordinator George DeLeone was demoted to offensive line coach during the offseason, and was replaced by former Cincinnati wide receivers coach T.J. Weist.
UConn Quick Facts
°Coach: Paul Pasqualoni, 10-14, two years
°Record Last Year: 5-7 (2-5 Big East)
°All-Time Record vs. U-M: 0-1
°Last Game vs. U-M: L, 30-10 (2010)
°Last Bowl: 2010 Fiesta Bowl
°Starters Returning: 13; 8 Off. & 5 Def.
°Key Returners: QB Chandler Whitmer, WR Geremy Davis, WR Shakim Phillips, MLB Yawin Smallwood.
°Key Losses: TE Ryan Griffin, TE John Delahunt, DE Trevardo Williams, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, OLB Jory Johnson.

2013 Football Schedule
Aug. 29 - vs. Towson
Sept. 14 - vs. Maryland
Sept. 21 - vs. Michigan
Sept. 28 - at Buffalo
Oct. 12 - vs. USF
Oct. 19 - at Cincinnati
Oct. 26 - at UCF
Nov. 8 - vs. Louisville
Nov. 16 - at SMU
Nov. 23 - at Temple
Nov. 30 - vs. Rutgers
Dec. 7 - vs. Memphis

Weist inherits an offense that found slight slivers of success in the passing game last season, most of the time out of necessity.

Redshirt junior quarterback Chandler Whitmer, who threw for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns at Butler (Kan.) Community College in 2011 before transferring to UConn, was effective at times last year. He threw for 2,664 yards and nine touchdowns on 208-of-361 attempts (57.6 percent), but also consistently committed alarming lapses in judgment and tossed 16 interceptions - the fourth-most by an FBS signal caller in 2012.

"Chandler Whitmer threw a lot of interceptions last year, I would call them youthful mistakes," said UConnReport.com beat writer Thomas King. "He has to be a better decision maker. It is tough because he was a junior college transfer and it was his first year with this level of competition.

"They were playing from behind a lot and they had to throw the ball a ton. He was constantly pressured and it affected him as a young player.

"With the weapons around him, if they give him time to read the defense and a run game to support him, they can do well offensively. If he can cut down on his mistakes, it would be huge for this offense."

The weapons that surround Whitmer include a pair of sizeable, speedy outside wide receivers that grew into playmakers late last season in 6-1 redshirt juniors Geremy Davis and Shakim Phillips.

Davis finished with 44 catches for 613 yards (13.7 yards per reception) and a touchdown last year, and Phillips, a Boston College transfer, added 399 yards and a score on 32 catches (12.5 yards per reception).

"They have talented wide receivers," King said. "The top two guys are back in Geremy Davis and Shakim Phillips. Phillips is a really big, strong and athletic kid. Both Phillips and Davis really progressed in the second half of the year, and should continue to improve.

"These are two physical, athletic guys that can really make things easier for Whitmer."

Conversely, Whitmer and the UConn offense lose the comfort of two sure-handed tight ends. Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt are both lost to graduation, and leave the Huskies searching for reliable targets over the middle.

Griffin totaled 1,500 receiving yards in his career and led the team with six touchdown receptions last season, and Delahunt added 341 receiving yards and two scores in 2012.

"The concern I have is that they lost tight ends Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt," King said. "Griffin led the team in touchdown receptions. He was without a doubt their big play guy, and often times a security blanket for Whitmer.

"Delahunt was very solid in the passing game, but was also a great run blocker. It will be very interesting to see what they do with the tight ends, and how they are going to try and replace those two."

Offensive Areas To Watch This Offseason

While the passing game periodically displayed promise, the rush attack was an absolute disaster. UConn ranked 117th in the country on the ground, gaining 87.9 yards per game, and averaged only 2.5 yards per carry.

Leading rusher Lyle McCombs was steady, managing 860 yards and six scores last year, but was far from a game-changer. The redshirt junior's development will prove to be a huge factor for Connecticut's offense.

Unfortunately for McCombs and the Huskies, an inexperienced offensive line, which gave up 33 sacks in 2012, is the odds-on favorite to be the team's biggest detriment.

"Last year, there really wasn't a strength offensively," King said. "The running game was so bad that they had to throw it.

"The offensive line was the worst offensive line in the Big East. They couldn't run the ball, gave up bunches of sacks and really played below their potential all season.

"George DeLeone, who was the offensive coordinator, took over the offensive line last year, and still is the offensive line coach. He has been under a lot of scrutiny.

"That is the biggest area to watch. If they can improve their play in the trenches, they have some talented skilled players that can be effective. They need to have a lot of internal development up front if they are going to be an effective offense."

Defensive Strengths

UConn yielded only 19.8 points per game in 2012, but lose a plethora of talent, and needs its youth to make strides this spring if it is to replicate the success from a year ago.

Redshirt junior middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood is a prime candidate to lead the growing defense. The two-year starter led the team with 120 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and four sacks, last season, and is steadily adjusting into his role as a leader in both the locker room and the huddle.

"It is really tough to pinpoint any defensive strengths because there are so many inexperienced players at every position," King said. "The best player on defense is middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood. He led the team in tackles as a sophomore. He is an extremely athletic guy that has started every game for them the past two seasons, and is definitely going to be the leader for that defense.

"He is very vocal. As a freshman, he learned a lot from the older guys that have now graduated. Last year, as the season progressed, you could see him taking more of a leadership role. I think that will continue with him being the guy with the most experience returning."

Much is also expected from redshirt junior defensive end B.J. McBryde and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Julian Campenni, who were both surprisingly effective when thrust into action in 2012.

"On the defensive line, Campenni and McBryde were forced into action due to some injuries up front, and they acquitted themselves well considering the fact that they weren't expected to play that much.

"Up front, those guys played with a lot of veterans that really taught them what it means to work hard on a daily basis, and I think they will take that experience and make some major strides this season."

Finally, the safety position is also surrounded by cautious optimism. Both redshirt junior Ty-Meer Brown and redshirt sophomore Andrew Adams exhibited inconsistent excellence and the attributes to solidify the UConn defensive backfield.

"The consistency in the secondary wasn't really there," King said. "There were flashes of brilliance but they gave up a few big plays and some mental mistakes that you just don't expect.

"With [Adams and Brown] getting more experience, and the athleticism they possess, they have the talent to make this defensive backfield very, very good."

Defensive Areas To Watch This Offseason

The Huskies led the Big East in total defense (309.9 yards per game), but must replace a cacophony of mainstays -- both on the field and in the coaching booth.

Former defensive coordinator Don Brown bolted for the same position at Boston College, and defensive line coach Hank Hughes was promoted to the position. Hughes previously served as UConn's defensive coordinator from 2002-10.

"Defensively, it is going to be really tough," King said. "It's not that I think Hank Hughes isn't capable, he has done well in the role in the past; they were a FCS team for most of his last stint, but were still a very good defense.

"Still, it is going to be a very different defensive scheme. Don Brown had a very unique style of defense; it was aggression and blitzing. He wanted to put as much pressure as possible on the opposing offense at all times.

"I think this year they are going to take a step back and be more fundamentally sound - less blitzing and less aggressiveness. That transition will be interesting to take a look at."

The defense will also be adjusting to life without key members of last year's squad. Defensive end Trevardo Williams, who is the all-time sack leader in program history, cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson and outside linebacker Jory Johnson are all lost to graduation, and leave immense holes in the young unit.

"Those are guys who started a lot of games here," King said. "Williams is the all-time sack leader, Johnson led the team in tackles for three years and Wreh-Wilson was probably the best cover corner in the Big East last year.

"They are losing so much on defense and, while they have some guys that have played here and there, they have no one with real full-time experience to fill those spots. Hank Hughes has a full plate in front of him, that's for sure."

Expectations

"Honestly it is not looking very good," King said. "There has been a lot of turnover in their coaching staff and they've lost 14 seniors that started last year, so I don't see them rebounding or even being bowl eligible this year.

"UConn has struggled in the past few years with the type of offense Michigan is going to run, and that is definitely something to look out for. But there still isn't too much to take away considering all of the changes in the staff and all of the seniors they have lost"

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