Here are a few ways UConn could have a successful season even without a strong win-loss record.
— Path to success No. 1: Improve on last year
Difficult as “success” may be to define, one thing is clear: The last two seasons of UConn football have not been it.
The 2016 Huskies were one of the most disappointing teams in recent UConn memory. On the heels of a bowl berth, Bob Diaco’s squad began the year 3-3, then lost the final six games by a cumulative score of 196-59. That performance (or lack thereof) cost Diaco his job.
With Edsall at the helm, 2017 didn’t go much better for the Huskies, who finished 3-9 once again, despite a roster full of upperclassmen. Edsall had to start somewhere, but the campaign hardly felt like progress.
One way that the Huskies could find “success” in 2018 would be to post a better record — or simply play better — than they did last year.
Of course, that will be easier said than done. On one hand, UConn returns much of a solid starting offense, with quarterback David Pindell a year older and more experienced, and the team’s defense can’t be much worse than it was a season ago. On the other hand, the Huskies will rely on numerous freshmen, including in starting roles, with a defense that returns only two or three regulars from 2017. Depth at certain positions is so scant that even a few injuries could decimate the roster.
Looking at UConn’s schedule, it’s tough to find surefire wins, at least outside of the game against token FCS opponent Rhode Island. Matchups against UCF, Boise State, USF and Memphis, meanwhile, will pose tremendous challenges. Even if the Huskies are better in 2018, as Edsall has repeatedly said they will be, it won’t be easy to attain even four or five victories.
Winning more games than they did in 2017 is the simplest way for the Huskies to signal that the program is headed in the right direction. It is not, however, the only way.
— Path to success No. 2: Develop young players
During his first stint in Storrs, Edsall built UConn football from an FCS team to an independent afterthought to a Big East champion. When he decamped for Maryland in 2010, the Huskies looked like a program on the rise. They were winning more games than ever, landing better recruits than ever and generating more support than ever from local fans.
Of course, not much went right for the Huskies during Edsall’s six-year absence from the program. Not only did they go 24-49 under Paul Pasqualoni, TJ Weist and Diaco, but they also lost the conference-realignment lottery and increasingly struggled to attract top talent.
There was only so much Edsall could do in his first year back. With a roster of players recruited by Diaco but forced to play in Edsall’s system, UConn stumbled to a series of ugly losses. This season, with the new (old) coach’s culture more firmly in place and his players beginning to climb the depth chart, might as well mark the true start of Edsall’s second tenure.
With that in mind, success for the Huskies in 2018 might be measured by how well young players develop and how effectively Edsall’s recruits integrate into the college game.
“You want to see signs where you do have some student-athletes who are making a lot of progress,” Benedict said, “and also young kids who are coming in where you can say, ‘Wow, in two or three years these kids are really, really gonna be good.”
On offense, UConn will play several freshmen at running back and several more on the offensive line. At least one freshman quarterback might get a chance as well. On defense, the Huskies will likely start a handful of rookies in the season opener, then plug in others as the schedule progresses.
Before long, UConn will have a better sense of which freshmen can play major roles in the program’s future. Will Zavier Scott emerge as a keystone running back? Can Travis Jones dominate on the defensive line? Which of the freshmen defensive backs will contribute?
UConn can’t afford for this group of young players to bust. Edsall already finds himself in Year Two, and even under the best circumstances he won’t have a competitive team until Year Three or Year Four. If he’s going to restore the Huskies’ program any time soon, he can’t waste any time finding the next generation of standouts. These freshmen must be part of a winning future.
The good news is, Edsall sees a whole lot of promise in this class.
“I think this is the best (freshmen) group, top to bottom, that I’ve brought in since I’ve been here at Connecticut,” Edsall said last week. “I’ve been extremely impressed with this group of freshmen.”
Obviously, not every one of UConn’s young players will look like an all-conference selection right from the opening whistle this season. Some will inevitably perform better than others. But if even two or three newcomers show signs of stardom, Huskies fans will at least have reason to feel positively about the program’s future, no matter what the win-loss record says.
— Path to success No. 3: We’ll know it when we see it
In the end, maybe it’s silly to develop parameters for what a successful Huskies season will look like. Maybe measuring success will require actually, you know, seeing how the season unfolds.
Edsall has placed heavy emphasis on the Huskies’ culture, preaching accountability, discipline and leadership. He says he’s focused less on his players’ performance and more on what goes into that performance.
“I want to just see us go out and play hard, play tough, aggressive, physical football for 60 minutes,” Edsall said. “I talk to the kids about this. The first thing they see when they want into that (practice) facility is ‘Play every play like it’s the last play you’re ever going to play.’ We’ve got to get that mentality back. If we do that and we attack everything that we do that way, we’ll end up accomplishing the things we want to accomplish.”
In other words, playing hard and developing a winning culture now could lead to victories later. Maybe that’s not the pitch season-ticket holders want to hear, but at the moment it might be the best one UConn can offer.