All hands on deck in UConn’s suddenly productive offense
Published 6:53 pm, Thursday, October 5, 2017
Perhaps it is an oversimplication, but often during the past two UConn football seasons, one of three things usually happened on a pass play.
One, the ball would head in the direction of record-breaking receiver Noel Thomas whether he was open or not. Two, if Thomas wasn’t an option, quarterback Bryant Shirreffs would take off and run for a minimal gain. Three, the least appealing of the options, Shirreffs would be crushed in the backfield by a defensive lineman or unblocked linebacker.
Fast forward to 2017 and things have certainly changed.
Heading into Friday night’s 7 p.m. American Athletic Conference matchup with Memphis (3-1, 0-1 AAC) at Pratt & Whitney Stadium in East Harford, not only is Shirreffs leading the 12th most productive passing offense at the Football Bowl Subdivision level but the Huskies are getting contributions from a variety of sources.
Two FBS teams have six different players this season with either a 100-yard rushing or receiving game. One of them happens to be 10th-ranked Ohio State; the other is UConn (1-3, 0-2). The only rankings of note in recent years involving UConn usually consisted of the Huskies’ being near the bottom of the total offense ratings.
With Thomas graduated and Hergy Mayala, the player expected to emerge as the new go-to receiver sidelined with an ankle injury, other players have needed to emerge.
“Different players prove themselves in different roles,” said Shirreffs, who has the fourth best quarterback rating this season. “The film doesn’t lie so if somebody is really excelling on the practice field, it is going to give them an opportunity to compete in the game. You’ve seen a bunch of different kids seizing those opportunities with our offense and it is nice to see different people making a lot of plays.”
Ten different UConn players have an offensive play of 30 yards or better. Not only is it the highest total since the Huskies moved to the FBS level, but heading into this week’s action it was tied with Louisville, Ohio State and Texas Christian for the most among FBS teams.
“It is hard to key in on any one person,” Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. “Coach (Rhett) Lashlee does a phenomenal job of mixing up the different looks and presentation of what they want to accomplish and how they are going to attack you. Everybody is going to have a job this week and you have to make sure you are assignment sound because we know they have multiple weapons and we know they might expose any problems you might have.”
Lashlee is in his first season as UConn’s offensive coordinator and his impact on the program has been immediate. The Huskies are one of seven teams to have seven players with more than 100 receiving yards. Nine UConn players have either a 75-yard rushing or receiving game through the first four games, which is tops in the nation.
“I just love the offense, the way we installed it gives so many different players chances to make plays,” Shirreffs said. “It is exciting and fun to be a part of. Sometimes you have to go out and make a play and it is great to see people step up, see their reactions. There are plays to be made and it is my job to make them.”
Freshmen running backs Kevin Mensah and Nate Hopkins both have 100-yard rushing games while classmates Keyion Dixon, Quayvon Skanes and Mason Donaldson have combined for 34 catches for 411 yards and three touchdowns.
“If you want to turn around a program, rebuild a program you have to work with the freshmen, recruit good freshmen and those freshmen turn into sophomores, juniors and seniors,” UConn senior tight end Tommy Myers said. “The young guys that are here are put into positions where they can make plays and produce and that is important because the future of this program is going to be them.”
Myers and fellow senior tight end Alec Bloom have combined for two catches in the first four games, but Myers is confident that their number could be called at any point.
“When we have chances to make plays, we have to make them and that is a theme throughout the entire team,” Myers said. “Our number’s going to get called in the future and when it does, we have to make plays and that is how everybody goes. Bryant is distributing the wealth to the team and in a game, if the tight ends have an opportunity to make plays, we’ll get the ball.”
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