The University of Massachusetts will unveil its new no-huddle spread offense on Thursday against UConn. Headlining the new-look Minutemen will be redshirt freshman Mike Wegzyn, a stable of new receivers, and a committee of running backs that have yet to be tested by an FBS defense.
Meanwhile, the Huskies bring back a deep and experienced defense that should be more than a formidable first test for Minuteman offense.
It’s impossible to have a conversation about the UConn defense without first mentioning its impressive linebackers. The Huskies return three athletes – Jory Johnson, Sio Moore and Yawin Smallwood – each of whom finished in the top 10 in the Big East in tackles last season. Moore was a particular pain for opposing offenses and had 16 tackles for loss to go along with three interceptions.
Several preseason publications have Moore listed as a Preseason First Team All-Big East selection.
The depth at linebacker is a bit untested, as Jefferson Ashiru and Marquise Vann are both redshirt freshmen. However, the Huskies also have Maryland transfer Ryan Donohue, a 6’0, 242-pound senior, to fill in.
According to Athlon Sports, UConn has the No. 2 linebacking corps in the league, behind only Rutgers. One can assume that Don Brown, the pressure-happy former UMass skipper who is now the defensive coordinator for the Huskies, will be bringing the heat on Wegzyn.
Up front, UConn brings back experience led by defensive end Trevardo Williams, a Preseason First Team All-Big East selection by Athlon Sports. The 6’2, 233-pound senior had 43 tackles and 12.5 sacks for the Huskies last year. UConn was particularly adept at getting to the quarterback last year and were 13th in the country in sacks with 34 – Williams was a major reason for that success. Senior Jesse Joseph will play the other end position and has started 34 games for UConn.
At defensive tackle, Shamar Stephen, a junior defensive tackle who was slated to start, will be out with a knee sprain, according to the Hartford Courant’s Desmond Connor. Filling in for Stephen will be redshirt freshman Julian Campenni. Campenni was a two-star recruit coming out of Pennsylvania, and chose the Huskies over a number of MAC schools and Indiana, according to Rivals. Senior Ryan Wirth, the other starting tackle, has seen limited playing time for UConn during his career and has spent most of his time on special teams. The interior defensive line has the least experience on UConn’s defensive unit.
The Huskies are going to try to right some wrongs in the secondary after a dreadful performance in 2011. While UConn’s run defense was No. 4 in the country, its pass defense was No. 113. UConn will benefit from the return of redshirt senior cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson who was limited by injuries last year. He was a major part of the defense in both his redshirt freshman and sophomore years and looks to return to form in 2012.
Wreh-Wilson will be joined by redshirt senior Dwayne Gratz. Gratz has 136 tackles and five interceptions during his successful career at UConn.
The safety position will be manned by a couple of redshirt sophomores – Byron Jones and Ty-Meer Brown. Brown had 45 tackles and three interceptions last year, while Jones had 51 tackles and two picks. It’s clear that UConn had safety in mind during this past recruiting cycle, as three of its top recruits – Mass. native Obi Melifonwu, Ellis Marder and Jordan Floyd – were successful at that position in high school.
There are certain positions – defensive tackle, cornerback – where the Huskies are a little thin, but UConn has a great deal of experience nearly everywhere on defense. The squad is led by defensive coordinator Don Brown who, as many UMass fans will remember, led the Minutemen out of the Mark Whipple era and through what could be considered the Golden Age of Minuteman football.
While experience with a system can be a boon to coaches faced with their former programs, almost nothing remains of the team/scheme that Brown left behind when he bolted from UMass for greener pastures. The Kevin Morris offense is long gone, and UMass is implementing a very MAC-style spread that is a far cry from the pro style set that Brown knew during his days in Amherst. That doesn’t mean UConn won’t be ready.
With all the newness on the UMass offense, it should be anticipated that the Huskies are going to try to pressure and rattle Wegzyn. The UConn linebacking corps is as good as it gets in the Big East, and its defensive ends have made a career out of pressuring the quarterback.
The Minutemen will benefit from its FBS-sized offensive line, but Wegzyn is going to have to be particularly poised while staring down the barrel of a fast and aggressive defense.