by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Connecticut native and head coach Paul Pasqualoni got a late start last season at UConn, as he wasn’t appointed to the job until January 14, 2011, with Randy Edsall making a delayed dash to Maryland. That late jump on recruiting and implementing his systems resulted in the Huskies turning in their first losing record since 2006, a disappointing 5-7 mark in 2011. That being said, look for Connecticut and Pasqualoni to rebound into the “go-with” category in 2012 for a number of reasons.

First, the Huskies had a bit of bad luck a year ago, with four of their seven losses coming by eight points or fewer. A turnaround in any one of those games and the Huskies would’ve been headed to their fifth straight bowl game instead of staying home for the holidays.

Second, Connecticut has the pieces in place to turn in the biggest offensive turnaround in the country. Last season the Huskies ranked 108th in total offense despite the presence of sensational RB Lyle McCombs (right, vs. South Florida last October), who gained 1151 yards, caught 19 passes, scored eight TDs and was named to the all-Big East second team as a redshirt freshman. One main offensive drawback for UConn in 2012 was an anemic passing attack that ranked 100th in pass efficiency as returning sr. starter Johnny McEntee completed just 51% of his throws. During spring, juco transfer Chandler Whitmer displayed the talent that allowed him to throw for 3022 yards last year and pushed McEntee down the depth chart. McEntee might also find himself behind incoming freshman Casey Cochran, who impressed the coaching staff with his accuracy in spots despite turning in a clinker of a performance in the spring game.

Third, the receiving corps will be much better than a year ago. A trio of potentially dangerous wideouts will be on hand, none of whom were available a year ago and all of whom represent an upgrade over Kashif & Isiah Moore, who combined for 84 catches and 1170 yards. Sr. Michael Smith had 46 catches for 615 yards (13.4 ypc) in 2010 before running into academic difficulties and sitting out last season. He’s back in action and looked impressive in spring. The wide receiver position is further buoyed by the arrival of a pair of big-time transfers, as jr. Bryce McNeal (from Clemson) and soph Shakim Phillips (Boston College) are expected to make a splash hooking up with Whitmer when the whistle blows Aug. 30 against UMass.

Fourth, McCombs is back. The soph star ranked second in the conference and 29th in the country in rushing despite the fact that defenses were free to game plan specifically for him absent the presence of an adequate passing attack. McCombs, who is a waterbug of a back at 5-8 and 166 lbs., wore down a bit in the last three games of 2011, gaining just 57 ypg in down the stretch (less than half what he was averaging in the first nine games). Coaches won’t have to work him so hard this fall with a more effective aerial game and a bit more depth at RB.

Fifth is the defense, which returns eight starters from a team that ranked fourth in the nation against the run, yielding just 2.7 ypc. This unit starts up front with all-Big East DE Trevardo Williams (left), who finished second in the country in sacks (12½) to Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus, a first-round pick of the Houston Texans. A trio of starting linebackers return, and sr. Jory Johnson, soph MLB Yawin Smallwood and sr. Sio Moore finished 1-2-3 in tackles for the Huskies, combining for 277 stops. Johnson & Moore garnered mention on the all-Big East team, while Smallwood was named to the frosh all-America squad. The secondary welcomes back three of four starters, including a pair of sr. corners (Blidi Wreh-Wilson & Dwayne Gratz) who’ve been named to the all-conference team in the past. Wreh-Wilson played in only eight of 12 games a year ago but still managed to tie for the team lead in passes defended.

Summary: Pasqualoni has been criticized at times in the past for not beating really good teams despite winning four Big East titles while at Syracuse. With West Virginia out of the league and off the schedule, Pasqualoni’s squad doesn’t have a date with a preseason Top 25 team. The fact that the Huskies must visit Big East toughies Rutgers, South Florida and Louisville probably takes UConn out of the discussion concerning the conference champion, but a return to the bowl lineup is a definite expectation. The Huskies were 30-18-1 against the number in 2007-2010 before covering just four games last season. That 4-8 record represents the fewest spread victories and worst percentage against the points since UConn came on the lbig board in 2000 (3-4 vs. the number that season). Look for the Huskies to regress up to their “mean” against the number and cover at least seven or eight times in 2012.


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