STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut starts the football season with a new coach, a new backfield and a lot of new questions after reaching the school’s first BCS bowl game.
Paul Pasqualoni, who coached Syracuse during the first 14 seasons of the Big East football conference, returns the sidelines seven years after leaving the Orange. The Cheshire native takes over from Randy Edsall, who bolted a day after the Huskies finished an 8-5 season by losing to Oklahoma 48-20 in January’s Fiesta Bowl.
“Yes, I do have lot of experience in this league, but I’m not sure that is going to be much of a factor,” said Pasqualoni, who turns 62 on Aug. 16. “The league is so very, very much different. My approach to this is as a new coach in this league.”
While the team’s style is expected to change under a new staff, UConn is again expected to be led by its defense. Linebacker Sio Moore, who had 110 tackles in 2010, is one of nine starters returning for new coordinator Don Brown, who left Maryland to join Pasqualoni in Storrs.
Players say Brown’s system will be more aggressive and pressure oriented.
“We’re buying into everything (the coaches) are preaching to us,” cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson said. “We think we could go 12-0 and compete for a national championship.”
That may be a bit ambitious for a team picked by coaches to finish sixth in the Big East. In order to compete for another conference title, much less the national title, the Huskies will need to improve on offense.
To do that, new coordinator George DeLeone, who coached with Pasqualoni at Syracuse and with the Miami Dolphins, must find key replacements at most of the skill positions.
UConn averaged 326 yards per game last season, but just 151 through the air.
Tailback Jordan Todman, who averaged 141 yards by himself, left after his junior year for the NFL and backup Robby Frey transferred. That leaves senior D.J. Shoemate, a transfer who played fullback at USC and saw limited action last year behind Todman and Frey, as the only experienced running back. He carried the ball just 28 times for 115 yards last year.
“We’re excited to see what D.J. is going to be able to do for us,” Pasqualoni said. “The load of the work is going to fall on his shoulders.”
An even bigger question for the Huskies will be who gets the job of handing off the ball to Shoemate.
“We don’t have a quarterback,” Pasqualoni said. “We’ve got Mike Box who has started one game in his collegiate career, so we don’t have a lot of experience at that position. I like the candidates that we have at the quarterback position.”
Four players — sophomore Box, junior Johnny McEntee, redshirt freshman Scott McCummings, and freshman Michael Nebrich, who enrolled in January — are competing for the starting job. But Pasqualoni did not give the advantage to anyone heading into preseason camp.
Connecticut also will be looking for help at receiver, where leading catcher Mike Smith is sitting out the season for academic reasons. Seniors Kashif Moore and Isiah Moore (no relation) seem to have secured starting jobs. Junior Nick Williams and redshirt freshmen Geremy Davis and Tebucky Jones Jr., the son of the former NFL defensive back, are all expected to compete for playing time, as well.
The Huskies open on Sept. 1 at home against Fordham. They have one of the league’s easier non-conference schedules, facing Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Buffalo and Western Michigan.
They also have four home games in the Big East.
Pasqualoni said he believes UConn will be in the mix to repeat as conference champions. But defensive tackle Kendal Reyes said the team isn’t worried about whether it can live up to last year. In fact, he’s not worried about any of the preseason predictions.
“All that matters,” he said, “is where we are … at the end.”