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March 14, 2011

UConn starts anew under Pasqualoni

The good feelings created by winning the Big East and heading to the program's first BCS game quickly ended for Connecticut.

The Huskies were overmatched in a 48-20 loss to Oklahoma[/tm in the Fiesta Bowl. A few days later, coach Randy Edsall, who had led the program in its transition from Division I-AA to I-A and into a consistent bowl team in the Big East, left for Maryland.

Connecticut didn't make the most eye-catching hire in Paul Pasqualoni, but he knows the terrain. Pasqualoni, 61, returns to the college game after spending the past seven seasons as an NFL assistant. He had a successful run at Syracuse, winning 107 games there from 1991-2004. He's a Connecticut native who started his head-coaching career at Division II Western Connecticut in 1982.

Pasqualoni inherits a team used to winning, but he has two major issues in his first season -- who will pass the ball and who will run the ball. Connecticut's rushing attack was a staple of the Edsall years, but Pasqualoni's top returning running back carried the ball 28 times last season.

A couple of familiar faces will be helping Pasqualoni make decisions: George DeLeone was an assistant for Pasqualoni for all but one season at Syracuse and is the new offensive coordinator, and Joe Moorhead, the Huskies' offensive coordinator last season, returns as quarterback coach.

Here's a look at Connecticut as it heads into spring practice.

CONNECTICUT AT-A-GLANCE
Dwayne Gratz is among nine returning starters on defense for Connecticut.
THE BASICS
Coach: Paul Pasqualoni
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-2 in the Big East. Lost 48-20 to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
Spring dates: March 15-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): TE Ryan Griffin, T Adam Masters, WR Kashif Moore, C Moe Petrus, T Mike Ryan, WR Michael Smith.
Defense (9): S Harris Agbor, CB Dwayne Gratz, E Jesse Joseph, S Jerome Junior, T Twyon Martin, LB Sio Moore, T/E Kendall Reyes, T Shamar Stephen, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson.
Special teams (2): K Dave Teggart, P Cole Wagner.
Positions of strength

Connecticut returns nine starters off a solid defense. Kendall Reyes, who started at tackle and end, mulled entering the NFL draft, but he elected to return to school. He finished last season with 10 tackles for loss and two interceptions. He'll anchor a line that includes E Jesse Joseph, who led the team with eight sacks, and veteran T Twyon Martin. The secondary figures to be a strength. It was a young group last season, with three sophomore starters. Of those, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson could be headed for a breakout year. On offense, starting Ts Mike Ryan and Adam Masters return along with C Moe Petrus. Connecticut usually has a solid offensive line, but the Huskies must deal with the departure of standout G Zach Hurd.

Help is needed

Throughout former coach Randy Edsall's tenure, Connecticut rarely had trouble finding a running back -- or two running backs -- to carry the offense. That run (pardon the pun) may be in jeopardy this season. Jordan Todman left early for the NFL draft, which wasn't a shock after he rushed for 1,695 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. But the position took another hit when Robbie Frey, the Huskies' second-leading rusher, elected to transfer to Division II Kutztown University to pursue a graduate degree. Another running back, Lyle McCombs, was suspended in January and faces charges for possession of marijuana. Quarterback is just as mudded. Zach Frazer was an off-and-on starter, but he won games and now he is gone. Michael Box started one game last season, but it was a disaster (4-of-12, one interception against Louisville). Junior Johnny McEntee is a video celebrity for his trick shots, but he has no career pass attempts. Redshirt freshman Scott McCummings also is competing for the job. Defensively, UConn must replace two prolific tacklers in LBs Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus.

3 guys to watch

WR Malik Generett: At 6 feet 4 and 210 pounds, Generett is the biggest receiver on the roster. He was ineligible last season for academic reasons. The position returns starters Kashif Moore and Michael Smith, but the Huskies' receivers haven't put too much fear in opponents recently. If Pasqualoni can field a more-balanced offense, Generett could be one of the more intriguing pieces.

LB Jory Johnson: Johnson had 28 tackles and five tackles for loss as a freshman in 2009, but he slipped to seven tackles. With Lutrus gone, Johnson should be in line to claim a starting spot at outside linebacker.

QB Michael Nebrich: The only quarterback in the 2011 signing class, Nebrich will get an early start after enrolling in January. Box may begin the spring as the top quarterback, but Nebrich's development will be worth watching. He's a three-star dual-threat quarterback who set Virginia state records for passing, completions and total offense as a senior.

The pressure is on

RB D.J. Shoemate: Edsall never committed fully to playing Shoemate as a tailback, though he transferred from USC looking to play the position. Pasqualoni doesn't have Todman, though, so Shoemate will get a chance to prove he can carry the ball. He's the Huskies' top returning rusher with 115 yards, but he has battled fumbling problems. He has to prove himself this spring or risk being buried on the depth chart this fall.

The buzz

Connecticut is facing perhaps its most challenging spring practice since it joined the Big East in 2004. Beyond the program's first coaching change as an FBS member, UConn has no clear answers as to who will start at quarterback and tailback. Pasqualoni's return to the college game will be intriguing, though. He got off to a hot start at Syracuse, going 20-4 in his first two seasons. Can he have the same impact early at Connecticut?

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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