football Edit

Out of spring: UConn

In our "Out of Spring" series, Orange and Blue News will recap spring football for every Illinois opponent in the 2019 season. First up is the UConn Huskies. UConn held spring ball early, with 15 practices from Tuesday, February 12 to Friday, March 15.

Illinois is will travel to the east coast on September 7, 2019 to face the UConn Huskies. It will be the first meeting ever between the two schools on the football field, and the first game of a home-and-home series.

UConn, a member of the American Athletic Conference, struggled to a 1-11 record in 2018, 0–8 in the AAC. Randy Edsall is currently in his second stint as the head coach of the Huskies. He is UConn's all-time leader in wins and games coached.

UConn began playing as a FBS program in 2000. Last season, the Huskies ranked 11th in the AAC in total offense, and last in the conference in total defense. UConn did have a respectable running game, averaging 197.5 yards on the ground per game.

The matchup includes two teams that ranked near the bottom in the nation in defense in 2018. The Huskies set the single-season FBS record for most yards and most points allowed in a single season.

Orange and Blue News caught up with Alex Putterman from the Hartford Courant to get the lowdown on UConn following spring practices. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexPutterman.

EAST HARTFORD, CT - NOVEMBER 10: UConn Huskies Running Back Kevin Mensah (34) evades a tackle on route to a 19 yard touchdown during the second half of a college football game between the SMU Mustangs and the UConn Huskies on November 10, 2018, at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT.
EAST HARTFORD, CT - NOVEMBER 10: UConn Huskies Running Back Kevin Mensah (34) evades a tackle on route to a 19 yard touchdown during the second half of a college football game between the SMU Mustangs and the UConn Huskies on November 10, 2018, at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT. (Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What were some of the top storylines headed into the spring, and what did you learn?

Alex Putterman: Aside from the new coordinators and the quarterback position, the big storyline for me was what UConn’s defense looked like, after setting the wrong kinds of records last fall. And although it’s hard to glean that much from spring practice, especially with injuries and freshmen not yet having arrived, what was clear was that the new defensive coaching staff isn’t afraid to tinker.

New defensive coordinator Lou Spanos seemed to experiment with several different schemes, while trying players at different positions and giving reps to guys who haven’t seen much time in the past. My takeaway was that the staff recognizes that what they tried last year didn’t work and is going to try different approaches until something clicks.

You wrote about the quarterback competition recently. Who are some of the names, what do they bring to the field, and did anyone emerge as the likely starter?

AP: In spring practice, the competition was between Marvin Washington, a big-armed quarterback who has had some academic issues in the past, and Steven Krajewski, a touted 2018 recruit who has yet to prove himself. Washington took the first-team snaps this spring and appears to be the favorite to start the opener.

However, UConn will soon welcome a Division II transfer named Mike Beaudry who put up big numbers in 2017 before missing 2018 with an injury. He will likely push Washington for that starting role.

UConn has new coordinators on both sides of the ball. What changes did you see this spring in terms of scheme? Talk about the two new guys.

AP: Frank Giufre takes over as offensive coordinator after spending last year as O-line coach. He has discussed the value of continuity and is not expected to change much from what the Huskies ran last year.

New defensive coordinator Lou Spanos has an impressive resume, having worked for three NFL teams, served as UCLA’s DC and most recently worked as an analyst under Nick Saban at Alabama. One player described him, in a complimentary way, as “a little crazy.” He seems likely to upend the defensive schemes that failed UConn last year.

Who are some players on both side of the ball that emerged that Illinois fans should be aware of?

AP: I expect UConn to run the ball a lot next year, so Illinois fans should watch out for tailback Kevin Mensah, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season as a sophomore, and Art Thompkins, a speedy transfer from Toledo.

On defense, the guys to watch are safeties Tyler Coyle and Oneil Robinson, linebacker Kevon Jones and burly defensive tackle Travis Jones.

For Illinois fans making the trip to East Hartford on Sept 7, talk about the area and the campus. What is the gameday experience like?

AP: Somewhat unusually, UConn’s stadium is actually a half-hour drive from campus, which makes life somewhat difficult for the students. East Hartford isn’t the most action-packed place, but there are some restaurants there, as well as next door in Hartford, and of course there’s ample room to tailgate outside the stadium.

Anyone who drives out to the campus in Storrs will find a small college town embedded in rural Eastern Connecticut.

The gameday experience at Rentschler Field has maybe been a bit lacking in recent years as the team has struggled and attendance has dipped, but at least you’ll be able to find a good seat.