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July 18, 2007Both Larry Taylor and D.J. Hernandez have proven the Darwinian adage of "survival of the fittest" true in recent years.
The two players began their UConn careers at different positions - Taylor at running back, Hernandez at quarterback - but have had to adapt with the times, both converting to wide receiver in order to continue playing college football for the Huskies.
Switching positions worked for Taylor, who had not seen a down of action as a running back behind Terry Caulley and Cornell Brockington during his first years on campus and had to emerge on special teams to turn heads. Hernandez, on the other hand, was given two years to shine at quarterback, but was as bright as a cloudy sunset while under center.
As captains, the duo has crossed paths again, hoping that their histories will show their teammates a lesson in succeeding through adversity.
"This team is one of the closest teams that I've been a part of in the four years," Taylor said at Tuesday's Big East media day. "Everything's changed, and we feel like that's a very good thing. I'm just looking forward to coming in this year. We feel like we're going to do some great things."
Both players will have to thrive this season to turn around the mediocre fortunes of the Huskies. At 4-8 in 2006, the Huskies' offense rarely featured a vertical passing game but did see two wide receivers, Terence Jeffers and Brad Kanuch, step up as true freshmen. According to the preseason depth chart, released Tuesday, the captains and the sophomores will do battle throughout August - and perhaps much of the season - for the right to play a down of football.
For Hernandez, the chance to prove what he has to offer and the ability to earn a majority of the snaps is important to the success of the team.
"I'm competing for a starting job," Hernandez said. "I'm very confident in myself and I know what I can do. I really think I'm going to get it done this year and have a great season."
An unusual ally in the fight for playing time might be someone caught up in one himself - quarterback Tyler Lorenzen. As a transfer from Palomar Community College in San Marcos, Calif., Lorenzen will be fighting to get back to the position he excelled at in high school and never got a chance to play at Iowa State. His conversion from quarterback to wide receiver was just one of the reasons he left the Cyclones in search of a fresh start.
As receivers, both Hernandez and Taylor have had to rely upon Lorenzen - and his counterpart, Dennis Brown - to hone their craft. Hernandez has spent the time picking Lorenzen's brain about the transition to make it easier upon himself and to help his teammates notice a smooth shift in the offense.
"We're constantly talking, picking each other's minds apart," Hernandez said. "I'll call him [and say,] 'Hey, what do you think of this?' before 7-on-7."
After making the move during the second week of spring practice, Hernandez turned some heads with his physical play and his aggression. He took several hard shots on the turf of the Shenkman Center, including a helmet-to-helmet shot from fellow captain Darius Butler that welcomed him to the other side of the line of scrimmage, and walked off without an issue.
With five months to work with and ponder the change, Hernandez has grown more comfortable with the role, but has started to focus on what it means for the team as a whole.
"I think my routes are a lot crisper now at this point and I'm just going to continue to develop," Hernandez said. "I'm a baby, still, at the receiver position and I think I've made great strides and I'm going to do a great job this year."
A junior, Hernandez has the luxury of playing two more seasons. That's not true for Taylor, a true senior who is entering his final season. Not only is Taylor looking to continue to push the offense, he's also trying to support it, blazing a trail for his younger teammates while also overseeing their development.
"That's all a part about being a captain," Taylor said. "It's a good thing for me - I've been here three years, I've played all my years here and if all the guys look up to me and they respect me, that's a great thing, and you've got to have somebody in that leader position that the team respects."
One of those younger teammates is Robert McClain, who has seen action in limited kick and punt return opportunities last season and is scheduled to compete for the bulk of playing time there this season. Taylor burst on the scene in the Motor City Bowl in 2004 as a true freshman, returning a 68-yard punt for a touchdown and two kickoffs for a total of 89 yards. He hopes McClain will be able to do the same someday.
"I'm just going to continue to do the things that I do at that job, and when my career's over, hopefully the guy who's behind me will know I've been able to teach him a lot of things," Taylor said. "[McClain] looks up to me and admires me a lot and hopefully he'll just be able to continue to do a great job on special teams."
More important than their legacy, however, is the need for consistency on offense, which is what head coach Randy Edsall hopes the duo can provide. Acknowledging the offense's stagnation last season, Taylor is aiming for a fresh perspective in 2007, one that doesn't have him sitting at a table alongside five trophies earned by other teams in the Big East.
"You're always pushing for a bowl, no matter what type of bowl it is, and we all want to win a Big East Championship or a national championship," Taylor said. "Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. But it would be good just to get a bowl berth so that we can earn ourselves one of those trophies."
Zac Boyer covers UConn sports for Rivals.com. He can be reached at zacboyer @ gmail.com.