STORRS, Conn. (AP) Connecticut opened football practice Monday afternoon with a call from defensive captain Scott Lutrus to get ready to do big things in the Big House.
The Huskies return 15 starters from a squad that went 8-5 last season and won the PapaJohn’s Bowl. They are expected to contend for the Big East championship this season, after opening on the road on Sept. 4 at Michigan inside its newly renovated 110,000-seat stadium.
“Since we realized we were playing Michigan, this has been on our mind,” junior tailback Jordan Todman said. “When we were working out in the summer we put their helmet up in the weight room to remind us of what we are working for.”
The Huskies joined what is now the BCS eight years ago and have been to three consecutive bowls under head coach Randy Edsall. Last year, their five losses came by a total of 15 points, and three of those occurred after the stabbing death of cornerback Jasper Howard.
They snapped that losing streak with a signature victory by beating Notre Dame in South Bend.
That double-overtime win impressed the biggest addition to this year’s team, D.J. Shoemate, who transferred from USC this summer to join his high school quarterback Johnny McEntee, a backup for the Huskies.
“The guys executed on every play (against the Irish),” Shoemate said. “They showed heart, camaraderie. That really, really stuck out to me when I was considering going to another university.”
When the NCAA handed down sanctions on the Trojans and allowed their upperclassmen to transfer without penalty, Shoemate talked to McEntee and then Edsall, who told him he’d get an opportunity to play tailback for the Huskies.
Todman, who rushed for nearly 1,200 yards last year while splitting time with Andre Dixon, says he’s not worried about having to share the ball.
“I’m OK with everything,” he said. “It just makes us a better team. We’re a team. Nobody’s selfish here at all. We’ll take on anybody who can help us in winning games.”
Notre Dame transfer Zach Frazer, a senior who started seven games for UConn a year ago, won the starting job again in spring practice but is expected to be pushed this summer by junior Cody Endres.
On defense, the Huskies are expected to be strong up front, despite a decision to redshirt linebacker Greg Lloyd Jr., who is still recovering from a knee injury suffered late last season.
The Huskies return seven defensive starters but still are clearly concerned about a secondary that ranked last against the pass in the conference last year.
Edsall spent a lot of Monday’s practice working with the safeties, a job he says he’ll keep all season, leaving defensive backs coach Darrell Perkins to work with the corners.
“Those are things as a CEO, as a president, as a head coach, you’ve got to take a look at your organization and figure out how you can be the strongest,” he said. “And that’s how we can be the strongest.”
The Huskies were picked to finish fourth in the conference in a recent media poll but will play home games against Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati, the three teams that finished ahead of them.
Lutrus said their focus for now is Michigan, but the goals are bigger than just beating the Wolverines.
The key, he said, will be turning those close losses into wins.
“Five games and 15 points, that was tough,” he said. “We didn’t finish games, and that’s what we want to focus on and do work on. That’s what started today.”
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