AMORE: As UConn football reboots, Susquehannock grad Randy Edsall certain turnaround looms

DOM AMORE
Hartford Courant (TNS)
Randy Edsall

It has been more than 600 days since our last glimpse of the UConn football team, the waning moments of a 31-24 loss to East Carolina at Rentschler Field in Nov. 23, 2019.

Whether the Huskies’ absence has made Connecticut hearts grow fonder, we’ll begin finding out in 48 days when they open the home schedule vs. Holy Cross. We can know now, coach Randy Edsall says, that during the absence the Huskies have grown bigger, stronger, deeper, closer-knit and hungrier.

“When you get a chance to see the difference in our kids, physically, you’re going to be impressed,” said Edsall, a Susquehannock High School graduate.

Practice starts July 30. The first public viewing will be Aug. 14, an open practice at Rentschler Field. The Huskies open their season as four-touchdown underdogs at Fresno State on Aug. 28.

“I’m not so sure I’ve gone into a season since I’ve been here, not just coming back but even before, where I feel we have a lot of depth at pretty much all the positions,” Edsall says. “That’s something I feel good about.”

Perhaps it is significant that Edsall, who will turn 63 the day before the game at Fresno State, is willing to connect his second stint at UConn, which began in 2017, with his first, which began in 1999 and ended in the Fiesta Bowl in 2011.

Pandemic hiatus may be a blessing: The coronavirus pandemic has been a horrible experience for all of us. A year’s disruption in any walk of life is hard to see as a positive, but if there is one football program in America that was in a position to benefit from standing down to regroup, it was UConn after its 2-10 season in 2019. There is not enough sugar to make the medicine of a 6-30 record between 2017-19 go down, but for those three seasons, Edsall was compelled to play a lot of young players, too many true freshmen to be competitive in or out of the American Athletic Conference.

After cancelling the 2020 season rather than play a haphazardly cobbled schedule with no fans, UConn now officially rebrands as an independent. Maybe what comes now is actually Randy Edsall 3.0.

“It was the best thing we could have ever done for our program,” he says. “And by that, I mean, we were having to play so many young kids those previous three years that probably weren’t ready to play and needed to be redshirted and develop because that’s the kind of program we are, a developmental program.

“It’s not going to be guys who were ready made. It wasn’t that way the first time. We didn’t care what other people thought or other people said. No matter how this season turns out, you’re never going to convince me that [cancelling 2020] wasn’t the right thing for our kids and our program.”

Unexpected "redshirt" year: Even the most veteran players took advantage of the unexpected “redshirt year.” With various breaks, some due to COVID-19, UConn has had nearly all of its team on campus since January.

“A guy like [offensive lineman] Ryan Van Demark, who played three years, basically had a redshirt year his fourth year, and you see the growth, maturity, development,” Edsall says. “Same thing with [defensive lineman] Travis Jones. People are going to look at him and go ‘holy crap, look what he’s done with his body.’ And it’s like that with the whole team for the most part. I just know this, I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and I sure as heck see the difference in the kids.”

Recruiting gains: If the Huskies are able to bring about real change after a decade of losing seasons, it will have to come from recruiting. In his first go-around, Edsall found those underrated recruits and coached them up, in many cases to an NFL level. Since May 6, UConn has landed 14 commitments, including Bristol Central’s Victor Rosa and Windsor’s Brady Wayburn and the rest from Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas, where Edsall’s son, tight ends coach Corey Edsall, has contacts. One of the Pennsylvania recruits is York High lineman Joden Nelson.

UConn is selling the independent schedule, which includes Purdue, Vanderbilt and Clemson in 2021, and several more Power 5 opponents in the following seasons, not to mention the school’s linear TV deal with attractive start times on SNY and CBS Sport Network.

“When we were successful here before, it was pretty much the areas we’re in now,” Edsall says. “We go in and tell them, ‘This is who we are, this is how we do things, this is what we’re going to be able to do for you.’”

Since June, recruits have been able to come to campus and spend some time with the players who have been working and bonding behind the scenes, setting a bowl appearance as their goal.

Pressure to show progress: Now, there will be pressure on Edsall to show progress in Year 5, and the road ahead without a conference and a bowl tie-in will not be easy for UConn football. But the football world is never shocked, surprised, or even entertained by pessimists. A program’s breakthrough usually comes when it’s least expected, and by players and coaches ready to play the us-against-the-world game.

That much, Edsall believes he has.

“I think they have that mentality that there’s not many people giving us a chance,” he says. “They’re the group that has a chip on their shoulder and that mentality that, ‘hey, we’ve got something to prove,’ and they just can’t wait for the opportunity to go prove it. When you have a group who are that passionate about what they’ve been doing over the last year, and as hungry as they are, as committed, as tight as they are, that’s something you want to invest in. If I were an investor and had the ability to just be around, I would be investing in this group of young men.”