The UConn Huskies (0-4) may be playing the USF Bulls (1-4, 1-0) at noon on Saturday in their inaugural American Athletic Conference game, but the real story for the team this week is change, and lots of it.
Head coach Paul Pasqualoni was fired on September 30 after four straight losses to start the season, including a disappointing 41-12 blowout at the hands of Buffalo on September 28. Associate head coach and offensive line coach George DeLeone was also removed from his duties, and starting quarterback Chandler Whitmer was demoted to second string. Offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach T.J. Weist was named interim head coach, while freshman Tim Boyle was named the starter at quarterback. The changes could not have been better timed, as the team had a bye week after Buffalo and time to regroup.
"It's been a hectic week full of emotions for all of us," Weist said. "We've made it through. We had three solid practices last week before letting the players go and coming back Sunday ready to get after South Florida."
Weist has quickly made his presence known as head coach of the program, implementing a mantra of "All In," which can be seen on posters within the team's practice facility.
"It means that all of us have to come together, all of us have to be focused on one purpose in everything that we do, and it starts with us making decisions that are best for the team," Weist explained.
It has never been more important for the team to stick together than now. UConn is one of nine FBS teams still without a win and is in desperate need of a positive outcome against USF this Saturday. Although the season may appear lost the Huskies still have plenty left to compete for, including the conference title.
"Regardless of the adversity, or anything that we're faced with, we need to come together right now," tri-captain and left guard Steve Greene said. "It's a brand new start for us."
That new start begins with Weist, who has been called a players' coach according to starting wide receiver Geremy Davis, and is "hyper, running around the field."
His spirit seems to have rejuvenated the team, which Greene said showed a higher level of energy during the bye week than he has seen all year.
Beyond the sidelines, the biggest change on the field on Saturday will be at perhaps the most important position. Whitmer, who had up-and-down moments in UConn's first three games, had a horrid showing against Buffalo. He was responsible for four turnovers, including two interceptions. He finished by throwing for only 182 yards and zero touchdowns on 10-of-24 passing.
The decision to promote true freshman Tim Boyle and nix his redshirt status was made by the coaching staff before Pasqualoni was fired, and Weist did not change his stance. Boyle's start will be the first time a true freshman has started at quarterback at UConn since Oct. 6, 2011, when Dan Orlovsky led the Huskies to a 19-0 win over Eastern Michigan. Orlovsky went on to start 43 consecutive games over three-plus seasons, culminating his UConn career with the Huskies' first-ever bowl appearance (a 39-10 win over Toledo) in the 2004 Motor City Bowl.
While no one is labeling Boyle as the next Orlovsky just yet, he did beat out competition from fellow freshmen Casey Cochran (redshirt) and Kivon Taylor to earn the starting nod. Weist said the three primary deciding factors for the move included Boyle's constantly growing maturity, decision-making ability, and intelligence on the field.
"He shows a presence on the field in practice, in scrimmage situations," Weist said. "He has a command of the offense, not just from an intelligence standpoint, but from a mentality standpoint, from a decision-making standpoint."
Although the team is high on Boyle and hopeful of the Middlefield, Conn. native being able to inject some life into a mostly lifeless offense (121st in the FBS), Weist is also realistic about his expectations of the young starter.
"Because he's untested at this level, we've got to put him through some pressure situations [in practice]
so he's better prepared for Saturday," Weist said. "We have to have patience with a young quarterback and allow him to develop."
Boyle may be inexperienced at the college level, but he exhibits a confidence in his demeanor that is necessary for the success of a starting quarterback. He understands that he must earn the respect of his teammates on and off the field, and is preparing diligently for the challenge of leading the resurgence of the offense.
"Any quarterback who doesn't have confidence in himself is doing himself an injustice. I think you need to have confidence in this game," Boyle said. "I've been playing football since I was 6-years-old, so I don't want to think of it as a bigger game than I've played in. I'm just going to go out there and play like I know how to play."
All eyes may be on Boyle when UConn squares off against USF, but the rest of the team will have to step up their play to make the freshman's transition a smooth one.
"I think the biggest thing is we need to make sure we're doing our job to keep him comfortable," Greene said.
"We don't want to put that much pressure on him in his first game, so I want to make it a smooth and the best transition that I can, so I have to improve my game," Davis added. "I have to adjust with him; we're getting timing down at practice, and he's getting timing down with all of the other receivers as well."
Boyle, Weist and the entire UConn team will look to get their season back on track against another struggling AAC team. The Bulls just got their first win against AAC foe Cincinnati last week and will likewise look to save their season by winning in conference play. For both teams, Saturday could define the remaining outlook of their seasons
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