John F. Silver
The UConn offensive line was going to be the key to the UConn season. With a good line, the Huskies figured to be near the top of the Big East with a defense that lived up to its top 10 ranking. The Huskies were 5-7 this season and the reason for it largely rests upfront.
UConn’s offensive line, a unit that has produced two All-American running backs and a string of 1,000 yard rushers, struggled this season in nearly all facets. The run, in its second year of a pro-style zone running game system, just couldn’t consistently sustain the blocking and running game. At times, the unit was overpowered, other times it was a small breakdown that led to a wealth of frustration with running back Lyle McCombs, who averaged only 78 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry this season. The line struggled with any kind of adjustments and different looks. Blitz pickup was so poor teams would empty the playbook on blitz angles and end up totally confusing the Huskies. UConn’s line was reactionary and while it had recognition and knew how to combat the defenses, couldn’t do it at full speed. The pro-style zone running blocking scheme installed by offensive coordinator and offensive line coach George DeLeone seems to be just beyond the grasp of the offense. The line can execute it, but it can’t execute it all the time at game speed. More than anything, the line struggled with the speed of the defenses and was unsure of how to block when it wasn’t practiced and deconstructed on film.
The Huskies couldn’t run the ball ranked 117th in running, didn’t protect Chandler Whitmer all that well as they were 99th in sacks allowed, and generally was the reason the offense that was among the least productive in the nation averaging about 17 points a game.
The line was a concern going all the way to last year’s spring practice. DeLeone, who took over for Mike Foley (moved to tight ends), tried to develop depth. Two years ago, the Huskies played only five offensive linemen and had few options on the bench. This year, the Huskies attempted a rotation of seven players with the starters being Jimmy Bennett and Kevin Friend at left and right tackle, Steve Greene and Adam Masters at left and right guard and Alex Mateas at center with Tyler Bullock coming on to play center and Gus Cruz filling in at guard. Those 7 were the core group of players. Bullock eventually too over for Mateas at center and Masters (who was named to the All-Conference second team) was injured and replaced by Cruz.
The Huskies, despite the struggles, never really had any confidence in the depth on the line to make a change. UConn would play poorly and end up having to run the same players out there. The gap between the Top 7 and the rest was that much.
When the versatile Masters (who could play all the positions on the line) went down, the Huskies settled on a set unit good or bad. Despite the problems of blown assignments and poor play, there was little serious consideration going to to No. 8 on the depth chart and beyond.
As far as the performance on the line, Bennett finally played a full season as a senior and was up and down. He was very good at times and had some stellar games. That was followed at times by catastrophic misses in protection. The interior of the line was bullied and physically beaten down at times and center remains a concern as Bullock took over for Mateas, but neither distinguished themselves. This isn’t one player taking down the line however. It was more a collective and cohesive struggle. It isn’t one player or weakness that can be pointed to, rather, the line’s struggles were more shared. Individually, the unit has some talent. Together? It didn’t click.
Strength is also an issue. The line didn’t have nearly the same push as past UConn lines.
Masters is gone, but with Cruz in the lineup there were some encouraging signs late with the Huskies running game keying wins over Louisville and Pittsburgh. But, in the finale against Cincinnati, the run games woes resurfaced.
So where do the Huskies go?
This is priority No. 1 this offseason as the makeup of the line is in flux. Bullock and Mateas will return at center and Cruz and Greene are back at guards with Friend back at tackle. The key of the holdovers comes down to Bennett. Bennett has had three season-ending knee injuries in his career and would have to petition the NCAA for a sixth year. If he wants to play — big if — the staff would welcome him back. That’s a decision that will be made in the coming weeks.
The potential for having all five offensive linemen return, and top six with Mateas, is there for the Huskies. But, is that a good thing? That Huskies need more depth and production and in the spring I would expect some of the current players on the roster to push for time into the lineup. The top candidate is Tyler Samra, a guard out of Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey who played sparingly as a true freshman. Samra’s redshirt year was blown for him to get acclimated quicker and the Huskies could sorely use him to push for a starting position and time. The Huskies also have a couple of young players at tackles in highly-regarded Xavier Hemingway out of Georgia and Richard Levy. Hemingway just completed his second year at UConn and has played sparingly. He has athleticism and strength at 6-4, but, he let his weight slide as a freshman as he recovered from knee surgery. Hemingway came into the spring last year at 262 pounds and the staff would like him to approach 300-pounds. He has terrific footwork and athleticism to play tackle, right now it’s the strength and weight he has to put on.
Levy is also a player the staff is high on and is a classic tackle at 6-5, 317-pounds as a true freshman out of Trenton Cathedral in New Jersey. Levy impressed the staff on the scout team this fall and is a player who will have a bright future.
The Huskies can have their entire starting lineup in the final four games returning if they so wish. Add to that Samra, Hemingway and Levy and the line is starting to shape up for depth purposes. That group doesn’t include a young guard like Zach Rugg, veteran holdover in Dalton Gifford and freshman Kyle Bockeloh.
It would appear that depth and talent are there on the line. But, is it going to be ready quick enough?
The Huskies, perhaps concerned about Bennett and the pace of development on Levy and Hemingway, are actively recruiting several junior college offensive linemen. If the Huskies land any will remain to be seen, but the Huskies can’t go into the 2012 season with those kind of question marks again.
DeLeone had few options on the line when one part was under performing. They don’t want to be in that position again.