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Preseason Preview: BYU vs. UConn

14 July 2014 Brett Richins
BYU opens the 2014 college football season at UConn on Aug. 29.

BYU opens the 2014 college football season at UConn on Aug. 29.

BYU opens the 2014 football season on Aug. 29 in East Hartford, Conn. against the UConn Huskies.

Both programs will be looking to get off to a better start than last year. The new Cougar offense sputtered in a 19-16 loss at Virgina to start the 2013 season, while the Huskies were completely embarrassed in a 33-18 home loss to FCS member Towson.

BYU is in its second year of implementing its go-fast, go hard offense and expects to make significant strides in execution and red zone scoring. The Cougars return most of their starters on offense and are expected to reload on defense despite a number of losses to graduation on that side of the ball.

Meanwhile, new UConn head coach Bob Diaco is trying to instill a winning attitude in his team. Diaco is a young and energetic coach who comes to Storrs after serving as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame the past few seasons. He replaces Paul Pasqualoni who was fired after four games last season.

In just four short years the Huskies went from making a BCS appearance in the Fiesta Bowl to losing at home by 15 points to an FCS program. They lost their first nine games of 2013 before winning their final three games with victories over Temple, Rutgers and Memphis.

BYU Defense vs. UConn Offense

Part of the reason for the late-season bump in play was a change at quarterback.

Redshirt freshman Casey Cochran (6-1, 224 So.) started the final four games and posted a 3-1 record. He completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,293 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. He is the likely starter come day one of the 2014 season, although he did get pushed by fellow sophomore Tim Boyle (6-3, 216 So.) in spring camp.

The good news for the offense is that a number of skill position players return. The bad news is that the offensive line loses four starters from a group that was already a sieve last season. The Huskies allowed 3.5 sacks per game and ranked No. 119 in the country in that category. They also checked in at No. 117 in tackles for loss allowed with 92.

If Cochran has time to throw the ball, he has some big and experienced targets to throw to in wide receivers Geremy Davis (6-3, 216 Sr.) and Shakim Phillips (6-3, 206 Sr.) Phillips is a former transfer from Boston college and is the deep threat for the Huskies, but Davis was the most productive receiver with 1,085 yards and three touchdowns. Geremy has led his team in receiving the last two years and has 1,771 career receiving yards.

Slot receiver Deshon Foxx (5-10, 173 Sr.) is expected to be the third starting wide out after producing 534 yards and two scores last year. He ended 2013 with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games and averaged 18 yards per attempt as a kick returner.

All three senior receivers will test what should be a very good secondary for BYU in this game. With the return of cornerbacks Jordan Johnson and Trent Trammell from ACL injuries, along with the development of Rob Daniel last season and the addition of Nebraska senior transfer Harvey Jackson, Bronco Mendenhall will perhaps have more flexibility with his defensive backfield than at any point during his time as head coach. For the first time during his tenure Mendenhall can realistically entertain the possibility of playing tight man-to-man defense on the outside.

In the running game, UConn has dismissed its top rusher Lyle McCombs , who rushed for 670 yards and five touchdowns last year and is the fourth-leading rusher in school history. Max DeLorenzo (5-11, 210 Jr.) and incoming freshman Arkeel Newsome (5-8, 180 Fr.) are hoping to pick up the slack.

DeLorenso rushed for 389 yards last year, while Newsome set the high school career rushing record in Connecticut with an incredible 10,672 yards and 187 touchdowns. He’s the first-ever Parade All-American to play at UConn and could see significant action against BYU.

The key question for the Connecticut offense is if the front line can hold up against what is expected to be another talented defensive front seven for BYU. Not only did the O-line struggle to protect its quarterback last year, it failed to open holes for the running game, as witnessed by the fact that the Huskies averaged a paltry 85 rushing yards per game last season.

Meanwhile, despite the loss of players like Kyle Van Noy, Uani Unga, Spencer Hadley and Eathyn Manumaleuna, the BYU defense may not miss a beat in 2014. Returned missionaries Graham Rowley and Travis Tuiloma are back to bolster the front line, while all eyes will be on 6-foot-7 linebacker Bronson Kaufusi as he makes the transition from starting defensive end to linebacker. Kaufusi and 6-foot-5 Alani Fua create what will be the tallest set of outside linebackers in the country.

The return of former 4-star recruit Zac Stout to the program at mike linebacker is huge for the Cougars, while Manoa Pikula appears to be ready to step up as the starter at the buck. The front seven should benefit from better players behind them this year, allowing them to pin their ears back and put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Cougars finished 47th in total defense last year, which was a significant step back from a typical Bronco-coached defense.

BYU Offense vs. UConn Defense

Despite the Huskies’ difficult season in 2013, they performed well against the run, giving up just 135 yards per game on the ground and finished among the nation’s top 25 in that category. The problem is that five of the front seven have departed, including linebacker Yewin Smallwood and defensive tackle Shamar Stephen. Smallwood was selected by the Atlanta Falcons during May’s NFL draft, while Stephen was picked by the Minnesota Vikings.

Angelo Pruitt (6-2, 287 Sr.) may be the best player on the defensive line this year. He started 10 games at tackle last year, recording 25 tackles and six tackles for loss. He could end up as the anchor in the middle of Diaco’s new 3-4 defense this year. The retooled D-Line looked pretty good in the spring, but with the question marks on the offensive line, it’s hard to know just how good they actually are.

Linebacker Jefferson Ashiru (6-2, 230 Jr.) is a run stuffer who was fifth on the team with 58 tackles last season and should be one of the leaders on the defense. Florida transfer and Connecticut native Graham Stewart (6-1, 227 Jr.) should help fill some holes at linebacker as well. His blocked punt return for a touchdown provided the winning margin in Florida’s 24-17 win over Ohio State in the 2012 Gator Bowl during his freshmen season.

With so many new faces in the starting lineup the Huskies could end up taking a step back defensively, particularly at the beginning of the season. Eventually, Diaco will get the most out of his guys, it’s just a matter of how quickly he can get them there. They will face a fast-paced BYU attack that finished among the top 10 in the nation in rushing last year and was the only program to sport two 1,000-yard rushers in quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams.

The Huskies could be a good first opponent for a BYU offensive line that coaches and some analysts predict will finally come together after four years of mediocrity. BYU average 267 yards per game on the ground last year and has a stable of outstanding running backs to help wear down defenses. With improved blocking up front, the sky could be the limit for the ground game in Provo.

The Cougar O-line may also be helped by the fact that UConn was 118th in the country in sacks last year. The Huskies would like to improve in that area, but may struggle to get pressure on the pocket yet again. Only three players had more than two sacks last season and all three are gone.

That may not bode well for what could otherwise be the best position group for UConn–the defensive backs. Due to injuries and other issues, an usually large number of defensive backs got significant playing time in 2013. That usually translates into better play the following season, and with the front seven expected to have some issues getting pressure on quarterbacks, they may need all the experience they can get.

Free safety Obi Melifonwu (6-3, 210 So.) and corner Byron Jones (6-1, 196 Sr.) are perhaps the two best players for UConn in the secondary. Jones is a steady player and will bring his senior leadership to the table, while Melifonwu started all 12 games last year and ended up second on the team in tackles.

They will face a BYU passing attack that will be without the Cougars’ all-time leading receiver in Cody Hoffman, but which expects to challenge teams with more overall speed. The addition of Jordan Leslie, Devon Blackmon, Nick Kurtz and Mike Davis to a group that includes veterans like Mitch Mathews and Ross Apo should allow BYU to run deeper routes than they have over the past few seasons.

The flashy Blackmon, a former Oregon Duck, should be a threat to take it the distance each time he touches the ball, while the 6-foot-6 Kurtz is an unusual combination of size and speed and was one of the most highly recruited JUCO players in the country last year. Davis was one of the fastest track athletes in the state of California in high school and Leslie averaged an impressive 19.1 yards per catch as a sophomore at UTEP.

The mere presence of these new athletes on the field should open things up for the BYU offense both in the air and on the ground. Opponents were able to play closer to the line of scrimmage last season in an effort to limit Hill’s running. That should be much tougher to accomplish in 2014.

Another concern for the UConn secondary is th fact that they struggled tackling in space last season. Nine DBs ended the year with 10 tackles or more, but they also wiffed far to often as well. That could be a recipe for disaster against the talents of Hill and Williams.

Special Teams

BYU returns inconsistent punter Scott Arellano, but loses the services of placekicker Justin Sorensen to graduation. The reality is that the Cougars don’t know yet who their kicker will be this season. Moose Bingham and Trevor Samson have been locked in a battle in which neither has emerged as the leader. Coaches hope that incoming freshman and return missionary Corey Edwards has the talent necessary to come in and win the starting job in the fall.

The Huskies have question marks of their own at both kicker and punter after losing their starters from last year. Sophomore Justin Wain is the only punter on UConn’s roster and has yet to attempt a punt in a college game. Meanwhile, kicker Bobby Puyol has kicked in just one game in his career, making his only field goal attempt (40 yards) and going 2-for-2 on PATs in the final game of 2012. He redshirted last year.

The dismissal of McCombs also hurts the UConn return game. The junior was the team leader in both kick and punts returns. Those chores could end up falling to Foxx this year, who served as McCoombs back up. Kick and punt coverage was problematic last year for the Huskies, due to the fact that there just wasn’t much depth of talent to go around. That could be an issue against BYU, who returns one of the nation’s top kick returners in Adam Hine.

The Bottom Line

The Cougars are out to redeem themselves after last year’s disappointing, and what turned out to be embarrassing, season-opening loss at Virginia. There are plenty of expectations for this team to reach double-digit wins in 2014, but that could come crashing down if they were to be upset on the East Coast to start the season once again.

BYU is a team expecting to take the next step, while UConn is a program consisting of players who are learning how to expect to win. In addition, there are some significant holes to fill on a team that went 3-9 last year. However, hope springs eternal that there will be significant improvement with a new coaching staff in place.

From his days at Notre Dame, Diaco knows BYU well and has had success against the Cougars, holding them to a total of just 27 points the last two years. However, he doesn’t have the kind of talent that he enjoyed in South Bend and it’s going to take some time to rebuild the program at UConn.

The Cougars enjoy a number of advantages in this game, not the least of which is the fact that the offense will be in its second year implementing Robert Anae’s go-fast, go-hard offense. In its first season the offense averaged just 19.2 points per game against teams from Power 5 conferences, but rolled up an average of 39.6 points against teams not belonging to the Power 5. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they are not a member of the Power 5.

Preseason Prognostication: BYU 41  UConn 17

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