2022 G5 Preview: Fine. I'll Talk About Jim Mora At UConn
I don't like you, Jim, and you don't like me. Let's get this over with.
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There’s something to be said for a clean slate. Everything must come to an end in college football, and sometimes it must come to an end after a decade of erosion and atrophy. That’s the case for UConn, which fired Randy Edsall during the 2021 season, all but signaling the end of the first era of UConn football at the FBS level.
It was Edsall who brought the Huskies up to this level, coaching them as an independent program in 2000 when they made the leap, leading them into the Big East in 2004 and sticking around through 2010. He was successful enough to land the same gig at Maryland ahead of the 2011 season, and UConn enjoyed his tenure enough to hire another coach off the Dick MacPherson assistant, bringing in Paul Pasqualoni.
Edsall and Pasqualoni worked under MacPherson at Syracuse together from 1987-90. Edsall was with the Orange for a decade, Pasqualoni for three years before becoming MacPherson’s replacement. Like Edsall, he was considered something of a Northeast whisperer – someone who understood the struggles of leading an FBS program housed in a relatively barren recruiting landscape. He struggled to keep Edsall’s consistent 8-5 ethos rolling and fell completely off the tracks when the Big East died and UConn dropped into the American, where it had no real cultural or geographical fit. He was fired four games into UConn’s tenure as an AAC member.
Looking for someone a bit more worldly (but still from the area), UConn nabbed Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco – a New Jersey native, but a coach who spent most of his career in the Midwest – to replace Pasqualoni. He was young, energetic, new, and ultimately not nearly good enough to be as annoying as he was. His gimmicks soured quickly, and he was fired after a 3-9 campaign in year three.
So, UConn turned back to Edsall, most recently fired by Maryland, in hopes of reconnecting the roots that Diaco had frayed with his antics. He won six games in five years (four seasons, because the Huskies didn’t play in 2020), and after his third season, UConn departed from the league it never fit, rejoining the Big East in basketball while sending its football program to the ranks of the independents.
This has proven much trickier than it did last time.
UConn is still without a natural recruiting base, but it’s now without the recent winning pedigree that it brought to the FBS ranks in the 2000s, without an especially strong TV contract, and without 12 interesting teams to play per year. The Huskies took on the likes of Clemson, Fresno State, Houston, Middle Tennessee State, Purdue, UCF, Vanderbilt, and Wyoming to pad out a schedule featuring only four opponents – Army, Holy Cross, UMass, and Yale – within 200 miles. The other eight were, on average, 1,444.5 miles away. Purdue, the closest of that bunch, is 865 miles from UConn. Clemson and MTSU are the only other two within 1,000 miles.
The 2022 schedule features Ball State, Florida International, Fresno State, Liberty, NC State, and Utah State along with more regionally sensical matchups with Army, Boston College, Central Connecticut, Michigan, Syracuse, and UMass.
When they went 9-3 as an independent in 2003, the Huskies played Akron, Army, Boston College, Buffalo, Indiana, Kent State, Lehigh, NC State, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Western Michigan. It’s harder to be an independent now than it was then, and that the Big Ten and MAC play nine conference games (and that the ACC basically does with the Notre Dame rotation) now certainly doesn’t help for scheduling.
It’s harder to do the “Northeast roots” schtick, too. UConn isn’t playing Army, Boston College, Buffalo, Maryland, Navy, Penn State, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, UMass, and West Virginia every season as it would probably like to. There’s no real talent base around the area as there once was in the early 2000s, and the talent that is in the area is largely going to Boston College or being siphoned off by Michigan, Penn State, or Pitt.
Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont produced 36 top-2,000 prospects in 2022. Six went to Boston College, three to Pitt or UConn, two to Arizona, Buffalo, Penn State, Syracuse, or West Virginia, with one apiece to Central Michigan, Duke, Iowa, Louisville, Michigan, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Stanford, UMass, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Yale.
If we’re defining the Northeastern teams as Army, Boston College, Buffalo, Rutgers, Syracuse, UConn, and UMass, 15 of the 36 FBS caliber players in the Northeast stayed home. The three four-stars of the bunch – Graton (Mass.) Lawrence Academy offensive tackle Ty Chan; Springfield (Mass.) Central wide receiver Joseph Griffin Jr.; and Brooklyn (N.Y.) Erasmus Hall linebacker Moses Walker – went to Notre Dame, Boston College, and Rutgers, respectively.
It’s just not tenable. You can’t sustain seven teams – three at the P5 level – in an area that produces 36 FBS players without some of those teams getting creative. Army runs the option, and that’s about the least unique thing about it. Buffalo found its way to manball under Lance Leipold and built an identity. Syracuse briefly did the same with the air raid. Rutgers and UMass are trying the “reclaimed Northeastern greatness” schtick.
In replacing Edsall, UConn has chosen Boston College’s path. The Eagles hired Jeff Hafley away from Ohio State to implement an attractive system for professional evaluators, in hopes of attracting national recruits by proving itself as a program that can identify talent and develop for the pros. UConn stepped up to the podium on November 11 and announced that it was hiring Jim L. Mora as its head coach.
It’s certainly one way to declare your intentions. Mora spent 25 years in the NFL in some capacity, working largely as a defensive backs coach or defensive coordinator with three seasons as Atlanta’s head coach and one as Seattle’s closing out his time in the professional ranks. When UCLA hired him in 2011, it do so explicitly because he was a pro-centric coach – the next Pete Carroll, the Bruins hoped. UConn is making the same bet.
Mora’s staff says as much, too. There’s a lot of youth and a noticeable focus on pushing development as the core goal of the program.
It also says that he hasn’t spent a minute in the Northeast before this job, which is true.
He was born in California, moved to Boulder, Colorado for six years as his dad, Jim E. Mora, worked for the Buffaloes, and then bounced briefly back to California before spending his teenage and college years at the University of Washington. Beyond his college career, Mora has worked three years in Georgia, four in Washington, five in Louisiana, and 20 in California.
His staff is almost entirely locational plays. Wide receivers coach John Allen; running backs coach E.J. Barthel; offensive coordinator Nick Charlton; linebackers coach Siriki Diabate; tight ends coach John Marinelli; offensive line coach Gordon Sammis; and special teams coordinator Doug Shearer all have ties. Defensive backs coach Dalton Hilliard and defensive line coach Kenny McClendon are the only real outliers. Hilliard played for Mora at UCLA. McClendon has no obvious tie.
Allen was a Pennsylvania high school coach who broke into the college ranks in 2013 with Delaware State; Barthel played at Rutgers and UMass; Charlton has spent his entire career in the Northeast; Diabate graduated from Syracuse; Marinelli is the son of Lou Marinelli, one of the best high school coaches of all time in Connecticut; Sammis has spent his entire career in the Northeast; Shearer graduated from UConn in 2013.
The only guy who actively bucks the trend is Lou Spanos, who I expect will serve as Mora’s right-hand man. He was a long-time NFL assistant, joining Mora at UCLA in 2012 and 2013 after more than a decade with the Steelers and two years with Washington and jumping back to the league for four years with the Titans. He was an Edsall hire in 2019 and the interim in 2021, but he fits Mora just about perfectly.
Whether this plan works isn’t worth predicting. I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. I don’t like Mora as a coach and I certainly don’t like anything I know about his personality. I think a coach with less baggage could have built essentially the same staff. But, UConn has tried the Northeast winner (twice), it’s tried the young innovator, and it’s tried the “prodigal son redux.”
Edsall’s first term is the only one with any real success, and that was more than a decade and two conference realignments ago. Maybe UConn’s path is as a pro factory. It’s either that or the option, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of hunger for that (even though it would work, and this probably won’t).
To predict this season is a lot easier: it’s going to be extremely bad. UConn has a fun core of young players who found significant playing time and can rally around that group as having potential for a breakthrough in 2023 or 2024, but the great class of hope is only a year into its career here. True sophomores aren’t that much more prepared for FBS play than true freshmen are (even if some of them had the bizarre 2020 off-season), especially with a new staff, and the Huskies have a much tougher schedule than last year’s 1-11 bunch did.
If Mora’s staff is worth its salt, the team will improve. But that still yields, at best, wins over Ball State, Central Connecticut, Florida International, and UMass. If this team gets all four, Mora needs a statue.
A big piece in that is that, unfortunately, the youth movement excitement does not extend to the quarterback room. Three of UConn’s 2021 quarterbacks, Steven Krajewski, Micah Leon, and Jack Zergiotis, are transferring and the fourth, Tyler Phommachanh, is recovering from an ACL tear that ended his season after three starts, the last of which came to a close after 15 snaps.
Phommachanh is young, at least. He signed with UConn in the class of 2021, drawing far less interest than his brother Taisun – partially because he missed out on a senior season, leaving him largely without film as he sat behind Taisun until he signed with Clemson in the class of 2019, and partially because he’s about five inches shorter than his older brother. Tyler is listed as 5-10, and that may be generous.
He’s certainly talented, though. He flashed more arm talent than UConn has seen in some time and looked at least capable as a runner, but the sample size is still so small. UConn took him on a flier, hoping that he’d have his brother’s talent but none of the exposure that pulled his brother out of Connecticut in the first place. That could be true, but we still don’t know that, and he still isn’t back to full strength – he missed all of spring camp. That’s a whole lot not to know about your starting quarterback.
There are other options. Ta’Quan Roberson signed on with Penn State in 2018 as a four-star and the No. 8 dual-threat quarterback in the nation, but his sample size is both small and insanely bad. You may remember him from his televised nightmare in replacing an injured Sean Clifford against Iowa, and that’s the only thing you’d remember him from because he hasn’t had any other major exposure.
He’s thrown 29 career passes and completed 11 of them for 85 yards. He was good enough to earn recruiting plaudits, but he comes to UConn at a serious discount for a good reason, and Charlton is going to have to be sure that he’s not entirely broken before declaring him the director of what he’s describing as a “Rams-like” offense.
As an aside, an offensive coordinator saying that he wants to run “the Rams system” is a tremendously bad sign if he hasn’t worked for the Rams. Yeah man, I think you should probably run the best offense in football. It’s extremely easy to do and that’s why everyone is doing it perfectly. That he worked under Ryan Day at Boston College and ran his own program at Maine makes me feel a little better, but not enough to wash away the image of an OC without a quarterback who can throw the ball dialing up 40 sail calls per game. Let’s rethink this.
Northern Arizona transfer Cale Millen and true freshman Zion Turner will also be involved. Turner may be the least busted of the bunch, but starting him as a true freshman would risk changing that.
Whoever wins that job will have plenty of help. Kevin Mensah departs from the running back room, but rising sophomore Nathan Carter was the better of the two last season. He’s only 5-9, but he’s a solid 200 pounds and he runs like a crazy person. He’s tremendous through contact and could be fantastic with any kind of offensive line to work behind. He snared 19 receptions, too.
Fellow halfbacks Brian Brewton and Devontae Houston will do more work as pass catchers than they do as runners, so long as JUCO transfer Will Knight is as advertised. Both are far better in space than they are as power backs, and fit well as receiving backs in the Charlton offense.
The receiver room has taken a hit in its depth, but all of last year’s main starters return, as do a few former starters returning from injuries. The core trio last season was Kevens Clercius, Keelan Marion, and Aaron Turner, and all three are back. Cameron Ross, who started the first two games of the season in the slot in front of Turner, returns after a season-ending week two injury, as does Matt Drayton. He had 21 receptions in 2019 but didn’t play in 2021 with an injury of his own.
None of the five qualifies as spectacular, but it’s a good room. Clercius is a good WR2 on the outside and works well in the short game. Marion led all receivers in yards and touchdowns and would be a great deep threat with a competent quarterback. Turner is a pretty standard slot receiver and likely falls behind a healthy Ross, but either guy is going to be responsible largely for screens and short-yardage work. If he can go, Drayton rounds out the group on the outside as a valuable piece off the bench.
No. 2 tight end Brandon Niemenski returns too, but starter Jay Rose is gone, as are his 27 receptions. I’d guess those go to the receiving room rather than to another tight end.
The offensive line has two starters to replace, but I feel okay about the guys who return, and Dartmouth transfer Jake Guidone is going to be an immediately valuable piece in one of the guard spots. He was an All-Ivy League pick and an FCS All-American. The bar for improvement on the line as a group is tremendously low – it can’t get a whole lot worse.
The defensive line is going to need to provide improvement of its own, largely in the pass-rushing department. UConn couldn’t even pretend to rush the passer last season and has to replace the best player on the roster by a large margin in tackle Travis Jones. With two starting ends returning and a valuable pass-rushing tackle transferring in, this would be a good year to shift into a havoc-centric unit and away from “run stuffers who can’t stuff the run.”
Those ends are Kevon Jones and Eric Watts, both of whom started for most of last season. neither was bad, but both showed more against the run than they did against the pass. If they’re going to line up outside of the offensive tackle – as they pretty much always did – they need to deliver more against the passing game. Sokoya McDuffie, a transfer from Old Dominion, shores up the group from the inside next to incumbent three-tech Dal'mont Gourdine and may already be the best pass rusher on the team.
Starting linebackers Jackson Mitchell and Ian Swenson return, with Hunter Webb, who started six games last year, rising sophomore Tui Faumuina-Brown and Kentucky transfer Marquez Bembry battling for the third spot. UConn doesn’t always use three linebackers, but it has one safety on the entire roster and three usable corners, so I’d guess we’ll see a lot of 4-3 looks this season. I’d start Faumuina-Brown, but I’m also biased towards building for the future as an extremely bad team. Webb and Bembry are probably a little better this season. None of the linebackers stand out, though Mitchell and Swenson have certainly played a lot of football. That’s… a plus? I guess?
Rising sophomore Durante Jones gets the nod as the free safety again after starting as a true freshman. He’s also, again, the only safety on the team because Jalon Ferrell transferred to UMass and Diamond Harrell is not on the roster. No other safeties played last season. Jones had his moments and should be solid against the run, but he also looked a lot like a true freshman last season and will be in for more growing pains regardless of how much good another offseason of development does.
The cornerback room is deeper and easier to get a good read on. Starter Jeremy Lucien is off to Vanderbilt, but Tre Wortham lined up on the outside opposite him and looked serviceable in his first season as a starter.
He’s back to lead the room as CB1, with Malik Dixon around as a versatile slot corner who can help Jones out in the back-end as needed. Stan Cross found plenty of reps on the outside last season and steps into Lucien’s role, although Myles Bell looked pretty good and should push for time there, as could rising sophomore Kaleb Anthony.
UConn had bottom-10 units on both sides of the ball last season. The skill positions are intriguing on both sides of the ball, and competent line play with a vaguely capable quarterback would be enough to challenge for those four aforementioned wins. To hit on all of that is a lot to ask, but moderate improvement is certainly within reach.