HARTFORD — A lot of relative unknowns accompany UConn, the team BYU will kick of its season against this Friday. We caught up with UConn beat reporter Desmond Conner of the Hartford Courant and asked him five questions regarding the team he covers and what BYU can expect come Friday evening.
Deseret News: What are the expectations for UConn this year? The team struggled for most of 2013, but finished strong with three straight wins. What type of momentum/optimism has the team taken after those wins?
Desmond Conner: For some of the guys who experienced the 0-9 start to the season, first they still have a bad taste in their mouths about how the season went. However, for the most part, the players are looking forward to growing under new coach Bob Diaco.
A couple of the seniors, including wide receiver Geremy Davis and quarterback Chandler Whitmer, have already talked about how they wished they could be around a little longer because they see the program taking off under him and the new staff. The expectations for this year, I think, are to build off the things they done the past nine months. A lot of that includes getting out of the habit of doing the things that cause losing games, too many men on the field, penalties, turnovers etc.
DN: What does UConn present offensively? Who are the primary playmakers?
DC: They’re going to run the ball. They have four good running backs in Max DeLorenzo and Josh Marriner along with two true freshman in Arkeel Newsome, the school’s first-ever Parade All-American and Ron Johnson, a de-commit from Louisville.
They will employ a two-quarterback system although it won’t be a platoon-type situation. The starter, Casey Cochran — who was under center for the last four games and guided the team to their three victories in 2013 — won a competitive battle and was named the starter last week. Whitmer, who started last year, will see time in the game. How much? Who knows — the game will probably dictate that but they do different things well but both are very accurate, Cochran a little bit more. Whitmer is more mobile. Davis became the first 1,000-yards-in-a-season receiver to eclipse the mark in over a decade — first in the Division I era for the program. He’s a playmaker. He’s big and physical, too.
DN: Talk about the quarterback situation and what BYU will face there come Friday.
DC: Diaco talked about keeping the split to about 51-49, if he could, with Cochran getting the most work. Cochran is a leader. The team responds to him and he throws a very pretty ball, too.
Whitmer had been a bit of a high-risk player. He was one of handful quarterbacks in the country who threw more interception (16) than touchdowns (9) two seasons ago. He continued the trend into 2013 and we never saw him again after Game 4, but he has said he’s worked on that and the coaches have said the same. Whitmer has quick feet and can make all the throws. If he’s not turning the ball over he’s good. And Cochran is very good at keeping turnovers down.
DN: Talk about UConn on defense. What type of defense will it present and who are the standout players on that unit?
DC: They’ll use the 3-4 and 4-3 and run each about 50 percent of the time. Now Diaco has had a lot of success running it the way he runs. They will be able to flip from one to the other no problem. Sometimes they’ll substitute but they don’t have to and in certain cases won’t sub.
The safety, Obi Melifonwu, is an outstanding young player but linebacker and captain Marquise Vann has a lot of potential as does Graham Stewart, the Florida transfer. Byron Jones, a corner and also a captain, is very, very good.
DN: How does the team regard BYU and what is the expected outcome from both fans and media?
DC: They respect BYU. Diaco has talked a lot about the success of the program under Bronco Mendenhall and the toughness he saw from the Cougars while he was at Notre Dame. The players have called it a great test to see where they are. There’s much respect on this end for the Cougars from all corners.