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The UConn Q&A

Sometimes, these are a little boring. Not today. I thought I was the champ when it came to wordiness and sheer levels of excruciating detail for blog question and answer sessions, but I appear to have met my match with an appearance by Kevin, from, where else, The UConn Blog. Topics discussed below include how exactly Randy Edsall does go about selling his soul to the devil, UConn's sudden discovery of the forward pass, why Geno is (ugh) actually outsmarting us all, and why fans of teams like the Knicks, Rangers, and Notre Dame need to be marched off to the Soylent Green factories.

Enjoy, and look for the second have on their site shortly, where I dismiss Rutgers fans as a bunch of impatient whiners, apologize once again for Joe Martinek, expound on rivalries and such things, reminisce about THE MIGHTY WHALE, make weird, wikipedia citing analogies, all sorts of illegal activities, and call for the sweet release of two hundred tons of plutonium, in order to town a local town into a wide-area glass parking lot. In my book, it'll still be an upgrade.

It's morbid that this is relevant, but as far as on field production goes, how do the Huskies replace Jasper Howard going forward? Dr. Saturday tweeted over the weekend about how that question was sort of the 800-lb gorilla in the room for West Virginia, even though Noel Devine ended up being the star on the day.

Yeah, it's uncomfortable because nobody wants to be the guy worrying about football implications when a 20-year-old father-to-be gets killed. But it's going to be difficult to replace him on the field, obviously. Jazz was such a heads-up player and a top-quality athlete, and this season he was really beginning to blossom as a potential NFL prospect.

But even with him, Louisville and Pittsburgh were able to pass on the full-strength UConn secondary. Without Howard, UConn has to start untested freshman Blidi Wreh-Wilson and the four backups at corner and safety are sophomores and freshman. I don't know that UConn can replace Howard this year.

I remember that Doc Saturday tweet - something about gameplanning around UConn's secondary being the worst job in the world? Well, I agree, but you wouldn't be doing your job as a coordinator otherwise. Other teams are just going to have to live with that on their conscience and try and throw for 350 yards. It's the best way to attack UConn's defense right now (unless you have Noel Devine).

There was a lot of press coverage during the preseason about how UConn was moving to the spread offense this year. The combo of Todman and Dixon have put up good statistics running the ball, but what's really interesting is that UConn has moved up from 109th to 59th in the NCAA's FBS passing rankings. Is Cody Endres that much of an upgrade over Zach Frazer and Tyler Lorenzen? And where did receiver Marcus Easley come from all of a sudden? Those yards per catch numbers are ridiculous.

I don't hesitate to name Tyler Lorenzen the worst quarterback in the FBS last season. He did exactly what he needed to in 2007 (not turn it over), and then he turned it over lots in 2008. UConn fans liked him and happily pointed to his 15-6 record as a starter without noting that this isn't the NFL and you can pad your record against the MAC. Lorenzen's only value was in his legs, because he couldn't make most of the throws and his decision-making (last year) was subpar. It's telling that last year's leading receiver was fullback Anthony Sherman.

Frazer had his chances but struggled with his timing and accuracy in the first two games of the season. It didn't appear as if he improved all that much from last year, when he showed flashes, and he hurt his knee against North Carolina.

Endres, on the other hand, has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. He's not going to win many games by himself, but he has a strong, arm and seems comfortable with his receiver corps. It helps that, unlike Lorenzen and Frazer last year, the new offensive scheme has taken the handcuffs off of a dreadful-to-watch offense.

This year has been a breath of fresh air offensively; I don't exaggerate when I say Endres' long play-action TD against Pittsburgh was one of the more shocking displays of offensive competence in the last five years of UConn football. Last year, Lorenzen underthrows Marcus Easley and gets picked off; three years ago, Matt Bonislawski ignores the wide-open Easley and flips it to a defensive lineman.

Endres needs to work on his decision-making, and he especially needs to learn when to get rid of the ball and avoid the sack. But his performance thus far has been extremely encouraging. UConn actually looks like a complete football team. Now if they could just start finishing in the fourth quarter...

Easley, by the way, is a walk-on senior, and he's the first beneficiary of this new "pass to the WR once in a while" scheme. He had 10 catches for 169 in the spring game and, despite being chained to the bench at the start of the season for some reason, can get himself open. That's a rare quality for UConn wide receivers lately.

I've always been impressed with UConn head coach Randy Edsall, and I'm interested if you could shed some light on a question that has been bugging me about him and his program for going on a while now. Every year, websites like Rivals and Scout rank UConn at the bottom of their recruiting rankings. In fact, most UConn commits don't seem to even be in their databases before they commit, although Edsall has been pulling in a few more touted prospects lately. Yet, they've had a lot of success during the Edsall years, and sent players like D. Brown, Butler, Beatty, and Cody Brown to the NFL last year. It's clearly a roster with talent. They've shown the ability to reload year after year for the most part.

Is it that Edsall and staff go the extra mile in their high school scouting, or does the real magic happen with the program's player development? This question has confounded me. Can you think of any examples that would provide any insight here?

I think it's a little of both, though I think Edsall is a much better developer than he is a recruiter.

Edsall isn't a good recruiter if you go by the star system, true, and the next five-star guy he lands will be his first. Given where UConn's program was 10 years ago - its football offices in a crappy, cramped trailed next to our old, dilapidated 15,000-seat football stadium on campus - it makes sense that Edsall has gotten comfortable dealing with the...shall we say, lack of drawing power of Storrs, Connecticut. And so Edsall has gotten very good at bringing in unheralded, overlooked character guys who play the game smartly even if they lack super-elite athletic ability.

The obvious example here is Scott Lutrus, our three-year starter at linebacker who unforunately will miss this week's game with a stinger. Nobody had ever heard of him - his offers included Ivy League schools and UMass - but the kid just flat out knows where to be on a football field (107 tackles as a freshman starter), even if he doesn't have blazing speed. You can't teach that, and Edsall is pretty excellent at figuring out kids who have enough football smarts to compensate for any physical disadvantages. I think there's probably a really good Moneyball-ish story to be told here if and when UConn ever wins an Orange Bowl.

But keep in mind that most of Edsall's players will have four or five years of development, weight training and experience in a pro-style offense/cover-2 defense before they move on to the next level. Edsall particularly has some kind of mystical ability to develop running backs (Donald Brown, who went from waify freshman to a durable, strong, 210-pound ball of tenacity as a first-round draft pick) and offensive linemen (Will Beatty, who gained 40 pounds in Storrs and went from a quarterback killer to a second-round pick).

Edsall has his blind spots in both recruiting and development - until this year, the quarterbacks and receivers have been a major disappointment; the defensive line is having issues replacing two starters because the replacements are relatively tiny (a 6'2, 271-lb tackle and a 6'0, 238-lb end among our starting front four).

And while Edsall is great at finding diamonds in the rough, he has his misses, too. Which means that while his starting lineup is almost always rock-solid, the backup depth just isn't there. UConn is thin at every position except O-line and, amazingly, wide receiver. It's the downside of Edsall's otherwise-successful strategy.

I remember that I first heard of The UConn Blog last year, when (iirc) it sent a link my way during a series of Rutgers Hate Week posts. Those seemed a bit tongue-in-cheek, although I do thank you for confirming every single negative stereotype about UConn fans by copping to being a Notre Dame bangwagoner. But seriously, is there a budding rivalry between the UConn and Rutgers football programs? Certainly, the games have been very competitive, swinging back and forth over the past decade.

Sure, there's some animosity online (as part of the four-way mutual dislike between Rutgers, UConn, Syracuse, and BC), but the free boards on Rivals and Scout tend to encourage idiots. Is there really any strong basis for any bad blood here? I think that it could turn into something over time though. I see both schools as having humble, family-oriented protrams. Both Edsall and Schiano try to win the right way, instead of taking shortcuts. There's definitely room for some mutual respect.

Last year, I posted that I thought that since New Jersey and Connecticut are the two richest states, we should shove that in the faces of all the inbred yokel SEC fans by fighting for an annual trophy that would literally be a giant silver spoon. That probably won't fly as well during a recession, but the general idea works, right? It has to be better than some lame reference to colonial times or something like that.

Ah, yes. My only regret about Rutgers Hate Week is that my limited creativity was spent in like, seven posts.

I think I should note, in case it wasn't clear, I'm New Jersey-born and raised. I love it here, but I'm one of those "I wish I lived in New York" sports fans (Yankees, Knicks, Rangers, Notre Dame - Notre Dame is located in NYC, right?). I don't really hate Rutgers, but I enjoy mocking them for the benefit of the 40% of my high school graduating class who went there. And there's no team I want more for UConn to beat every year.

Anyway, I like to think that UConn-Rutgers can be the next big Big East rivalry. UConn fans hate Syracuse more overall because of the basketball rivalry, but they've been terrible recently. I think there are three main reasons why UConn and Rutgers are destined to become blood enemies:

1) They play close games pretty much every year. That can't be ignored. Even when UConn was transitioning to I-A earlier this decade, they still played these wild, back-and-forth games, though I'd argue that Rutgers was also making the transition to I-A.

2) These two fanbases are perfect foils. New Englanders look down on everybody. New Jerseyans have an inferiority complex because our state's two largest cities are New York and Philadelphia. They also happen to be natural geographic rivals. West Virginia has Pitt, Cincinnati has Louisville. USF is too far-flung and Syracuse is noncompetitive at the moment. So that leaves UConn and Rutgers, and thanks to 1), we're well on our way.

3) I can't speak for Rutgers fans, but UConn fans hate Rutgers because, at a base level, they're kind of jealous. There's a perception that the media has ignored UConn and has hyped up RU, even though I'd argue UConn had the better team in three of the last five seasons.

But more than that, your point that these two programs are mirror images of each other is well-made, I think. RU and UConn were both nonentities earlier this decade, they had a sudden rise after the Big East split, and both coaches will be leaving for Penn State as soon as Joe Paterno retires.

That being said, we wanted to be the fun, come-from-nowhere story that takes college football by storm. We want a nationally-televised win over a top 5 team that launches our program into the stratosphere. We want to play in Orange Bowls. And you got there first, you bastards (except for that last part, of course). So now we must destroy you.

Maybe jealousy's not the right word, but when there was a vacuum in the Big East power structure, UConn fans wanted to slot right in the top two or three, right where the basketball team is. But UConn took a step back in 2006, and Rutgers' insufferable bandwagon filled up at the same time. Add with 1) and 2) and stir, and you've got yourself a stew going.

Now, as for a trophy to properly commemorate the rivalry, I've long suggested a bronze replica of the Tappan Zee Bridge, although I like your idea too.

If there's one thing that I can't stand about UConn though (besides envy of their generous state subsidies in recent years), it's women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma. Where do you stand on Geno and the women's BB program? Did the Big East drop the ball by only having UConn and Rutgers play once this season?

I'm going to be very biased, because I covered Geno for two-plus years for the UConn student paper. I know I'm probably not going to convert any RU fans, but Geno is so ridiculously misunderstood.

He's easy to hate if he's not your team's coach, because he's got the best players and the best team just about every year. And he appears arrogant because he's a Philly wiseass who frequently speaks 1) with tongue firmly in cheek or 2) as a joke to get a rise out of people. It's impossible to tell that if you're not there, in person, seeing his facial expressions as he talks, so non-UConn fans infer malicious intent.

Auriemma long ago figured out that if he's the lightning rod, he can take pressure off of his players. If 8,000 Rutgers fans are taking the time to make "Go Home Geno" signs and hissing at him, that's 8,000 people who aren't getting in Maya Moore's head.

As for the program itself, I don't what there is to say. They certainly benefitted from the graduation of almost every other major star in 2008, but last year they arguably had three of the five best players in America. It's almost pointless to even play the games at that point.

This year they lose the point guard Montgomery, which is a big loss, but that just means that some other five-star kid on the bench gets a shot at superstardom. They could seriously threaten the Taurasi-era 70-game win streak record, despite playing most of the top 10 teams at one point or another this year.

I'll have to ask you more in-depth (spoiler: check out your response on our blog!) about what happened to Rutgers and CViv, but I have to say I think it was the right call to mix up the schedule. Notre Dame is going to be (a lot) better than Rutgers, and could beat UConn. UConn-RU is (was?) the top rivalry in the sport for a while, but a lot of that was because Rutgers was a top 10 team - and a thorn in Geno's side - for the last five years. When CViv figures it out, I'm sure they'll play twice again.

Last year in Piscataway, we witnessed kicker Tony Ciaravino's epic, spectacular meltdown, missing three field goals on the day. On Saturday, there was a bit of deja vu. UConn tallied up over 100 more total yards than West Virginia, and were just playing their hearts out, inspired by their fallen comrade. And the (new) kicker blows it again, missing two field goals, which would have provided the margin of victory. It's weird, because those S/T miscues mess with my overall image of UConn football as a consistent, resourceful team that minimizes mistakes, and wins games on the margins. I just can't get those 2003 and 2007 games out of my mind, where UConn did the little things right, and Rutgers didn't. Is this overall perception accurate, and how worried are you about Dave Teggart going forward?

I can't remember the last good kicker we had (Teggart was supposed to be good, but evidence is pointing the other way at the moment), and punt/kick coverage has been awful for years. UConn manages to pull pretty decent return men out of nowhere (Larry Taylor comes to mind), but overall special teams has been a negative for a long time. Teggart's our guy, and he has been admittedly solid since taking over for Ciaravino, so I guess we just hope he's just going through a rough patch.

Now, that doesn't mean your perception is inaccurate. Your perception of UConn is what I've been obliquely referring to on our blog as "Formula 2007," in honor of the fluky 2007 squad that won nine games and came within 45 points of the Big East title. That team won an unsustainably high number of games thanks to well-timed turnovers, solid defense and a quarterback that threw six interceptions in 13 games. In that order.

There are two key differences in the 2009 team, though:

UConn has always run the ball consistently, which fit Edsall's conservative, risk-averse persona. This year, UConn is actually attempting to balance the offense, but they don't quite have all the kinks worked out yet. So you're seeing more turnovers as a result, even if the offense is more explosive.

The schedule this year is worlds tougher than it was in 2007 and 2008. Two years ago, UConn played Virginia, Akron, Temple and Duke OOC. This year, they're playing Notre Dame, UNC, Baylor (with Robert Griffin) and Ohio, an upgrade in difficulty. The Big East schedule is tougher.

This year's team is more talented at just about every position than the 2007 team, but when your strategy is to let the other team beat themselves, sometimes good teams (Pitt, WVU) make the plays they need to win. UConn has had some luck in this regard over the last two seasons, and maybe this year the scales are evening out.

Still, I think that means we're due a 41-0 win over Rutgers, given what happened last year.

Great stuff, the best one of these in quite a while here if my vote counts for anything. I still need to be restrained in the presence of anyone who likes Dolan franchises, but the Geno answer did somewhat make sense. Can't quite shake the need to see him mercilessly fail, however.

Once again, be sure to check out my similar long answers up on their site. Should be available at some point today. Thanks again Kevin for the great answers. Hope your team loses a good one this suddenly and all manner of evils befall the Huskies on the court. Just the way it is.