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UConn Football Regressing in Disappointing 2016 Season

I expected UConn to lose to Houston and USF. Heck, even the Syracuse game was a close game against an underrated, solid team. Navy was a disappointment for Husky fans, but the Midshipmen are a tough out, especially on the road (ask Houston), a victory there was always going to be a tall order.

However, Central Florida and East Carolina were supposed to be victories, clear stepping stone match ups that showed how much the Huskies have improved year over year.

Coming into 2016, UConn appeared to have a relatively soft second half schedule, one that they could ride to a comfortable bowl bid. That slate began with the aforementioned Knights and Pirates, both teams with first-year coaches who had lost by multiple scores to Diaco’s squad in 2015.

Last year, the combined score of these games was 71-26, in two Connecticut wins. This year, in two losses, the same opponents outscored UConn, 65-19. We are looking at a regression.

Many UConn-based analysts and reporters were bullish on the Huskies’ prospects coming into the season based on natural progression from key players, including multiple starters on the defensive side of the ball and quarterback Bryant Shirreffs. On both counts, results have been disappointing. Shirreffs has put up some pretty decent statistics as far as UConn quarterbacks go, but watching the tape shows an indecisive passer with inconsistent touch who takes off at the first sign of pressure. Shirreffs is at his most effective in the two minute no huddle offense, where he can trust his first read and just fire intermediate passes. However, with how the offensive staff likes to slow down the attack at times, he has not gotten the ability to get into a rhythm at all this year.

Shirreffs’ stagnance has been disappointing, especially given how his offensive teammates have improved this season. Arkeel Newsome has improved as a runner in between the tackles, and his vision, twitchiness, and versatility have been on display on multiple big plays this year. Noel Thomas is one of the NCAA’s leaders in receiving yards and has played himself into solid draft status. The offensive line, after a rough start, has been better than last year’s group; Andreas Knappe, specifically, has stepped it up.

It is Shirreffs and playcalling, perhaps with some interplay of both, that have held them back. But, unlike previous seasons, the offense is not alone in taking the blame this time.

Defensively, the Huskies feasted on turnovers last year with the 20th best margin in the nation. An assumption was made that with most of the main pieces returning in 2016, that turnover rate would stay consistent. It has not.

The Huskies have a -4 turnover ratio on the year, and that paired with their soft zone defense is not a viable combination. The Huskies have played similar coverages to 2015 for a majority of the year, but teams have studied up and found holes to exploit within it. There is some reason for optimism here, as John Green and Vanderbilt transfer Tre Bell could give UConn two legitimate press cornerbacks in 2017. For now, though, the lack of defensive aggression has hindered this defense, as we saw the likes of Mackenzie Milton and Philip Nelson carve them up, though neither of which are particularly impressive quarterbacks.

This year has been disappointing, primarily due to a lack of development on the part of Shirreffs, awful situational playcalling, and the soft defensive scheming not jiving with the personnel. Bowl eligibility seems an improbability now, and with Diaco extended through 2020, hopefully he at least considers a schematic update on defense and a new offensive coordinator next year.

Diaco probably will not be fired this offseason, but one thing is for sure; this season has been an abject failure and does bring question to whether the program is moving in the right direction under his guidance.