ANTHONY: Susquehannock grad Randy Edsall tries to make most of 2020 after UConn opts out

Hartford Courant (TNS)
FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2019, file photo, Connecticut head coach Randy Edsall during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Amherst, Mass.  UConn has canceled its 2020-2021 football season, becoming the first FBS program to suspend football because of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

UConn coach Randy Edsall is happy on the job.

The Susquehannock High School graduate sees progress in this 2020 season-that-isn’t-a-season. He believes his program, having opted out of competition and complication, will return next year in position to actually function at a high level.

So upbeat was Edsall in a conversation earlier this week, he might as well have whistled between every question and answer.

“This is what we needed to do,” Edsall said. “I just think we’re on the right track. It’s unfortunate that we’ve had this pandemic, but I really feel like this is something that aided us in growth and development. Everybody, from the coaches to the players, is looking forward to 2021 and they’re really excited about the opportunity to get back on the field, knowing what we’re going through now is going to benefit us.”

Had the world not turned upside down, UConn would be at the midway point of its fourth season since Edsall’s 2017 return, coming off a bye and preparing for something really ugly Saturday at Ole Miss.

Instead, the team is trying to make the best of its chosen path, with 12 hours of weekly work that includes practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays, weightlifting sessions and meetings.

The decision to opt out: UConn on Aug. 5 became the first FBS team to announce it would forgo the season in consideration for the health, safety and logistical challenges posed by COVID-19. Others followed — even entire conferences — but many have backpedaled, leaving only the independent Huskies, independent New Mexico State and Old Dominion of Conference USA sidelined.

Of 130 FBS teams, 127 have either played or soon will.

“I’ve been following,” Edsall said. "And I’m glad we made the decision we made. To me, it would have been a wasted season. We had other issues with the schedule and all that, but for what the circumstances presented, we did what was the best for our program. I just know, in talking to people, [playing] has been very, very difficult. ... Two weeks ago, we had 21 guys who were missing from practice. Not because anybody tested positive, but somebody had a symptom, so they have to isolate, then they test and they test negative, but all the guys from a contact tracing standpoint are quarantined.”

The decision not to play, made in consultation with administration and players, was about health and safety and related issues.

No one has a firm grasp on, or true understanding of, COVID-19.

The Huskies, without a conference affiliation, saw their schedule crumble.

Could it have been rebuilt? Maybe.

UConn had to consider ever-changing stat travel restrictions.

Could those have been navigated? Maybe.

Advancing the process: And anyone paying attention to the recent struggles, and the fact that the team relied on so many inexperienced players, realizes that a year away from wins and losses to focus on development can only advance the process.

Playing in 2020 made no sense for many reasons.

“People are going to say what they’re going to say, but all things were taken into consideration — from COVID to not being able to put together a schedule and everything else,” Edsall said. “This was, by far, the best decision for us. There are people who disagree. But they are not the ones living in the shoes we live in.”

The Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and MAC — that’s 50 teams — decided to cancel their seasons before reversing course. College Football 2020 is coming together, even while coming apart, one postponement and/or shutdown after another. All looks relatively fine on Saturdays. Big picture, it’s messy.

“The Mountain West was going to do eight games in eight weeks, starting this week,” Edsall said. “Colorado State and Mexico said they have to cancel first week already.”

Houston’s first three games were called off for COVID reasons.

“And I just saw Florida already postponed their game next week against Missouri [and last week’s against LSU],” Edsall said. "Look at the Big Ten and Pac-12. They’re going to be playing without any flexibility. ... The decision we made, I felt was the right one at the time. I still feel that way.”

Development time needed: As it turns out, via a late-August NCAA ruling, fall athletes would have maintained a year of eligibility even if they played a full season. But no program in America is in more need of time designated for development.

The Huskies, 6-30 the past three seasons, sure need the work. This three-month stretch is essentially a long, detailed training camp with additional lessons and challenges built into each week.

“You can see the gains physically as well as on paper,” Edsall said. "And having time in the meeting room and on the field has been beneficial because the guys know our offense and defense better than they ever have. You can see guys communicating better, making all the calls, understanding everything. It’s been a very productive fall, considering the restrictions and also the circumstances.

“Usually during the season you’re not getting bigger and stronger. You’re just trying to maintain what you have and going out there and getting beat up. This just gives us an opportunity to have the kids get their bodies where they need to in order to have success on the field.”

The Huskies will end up having 25 practices (five remaining), with three or four weight sessions mixed into every week, through Nov. 13. A week will be devoted to conditioning testing before players depart, returning Jan. 18. UConn will not entertain playing any spring games, Edsall said.

Looking ahead to 2021: On to 2021, a season without built-in excuses — but with the most difficult slate of opponents in years, including Clemson, Central Florida and Purdue.

“I’m excited,” Edsall said. "I know there are a lot of passionate people, but nobody knows what this program needs more than the people inside of it, the players and coaches. I just sit back and see the difference with these guys, physically, mentally, everything.

“You look at a situation and you make the best decision. We wouldn’t have been able to field a team some weekends based on our situation, the policy and procedures we had in place for COVID and the state had in place for COVID. I saw how things are going and I said there’s no way we can get through a season. I’m worried about getting our guys in the best position to compete in 2021.”