Offensive Players to Watch in 2011 - NBC Connecticut
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Offensive Players to Watch in 2011

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    NEWSLETTERS

    The biggest issues facing the Huskies football team in the fall are all on the offensive side of the ball and include, in random order: learning Paul Pasqualoni's new scheme, naming a quarterback, finding big-play threats at wide receiver and adding depth at running back.

    Defensively, UConn is in great shape and that unit's performance early in the season, while the offense figures things out, could be critical to the Huskies' success in 2011.

    Also important -- to paraphrase Hank Stram -- matriculating the ball down the field. And that brings us back to the offense. It all starts with the quarterback, and Pasqualoni acknowledged early on that the position wouldn't likely be settled until the fall. Of course, until the season starts, we're just speculating but it's May -- what else are we going to do?

    Which seems like the perfect time to mention Brian Bennett, ESPN.com's Big East blogger, and his recent post on two UConn players most likely to breakout in 2011. He defines breakout as "players who haven't seen the field yet but showed they could be major contributors in 2011; players who have gotten some time but could move into much bigger roles this season; and players who have started but could blossom into stars."

    Lucky for the Huskies, both players are underclassmen, and more importantly, play on the offensive.

    Lyle McCombs, RB, RFr: McCombs missed about half of spring practice as he served a suspension for an offseason marijuana arrest. When he got back, he showed some of the speed and shiftiness that had people excited about his potential. D.J. Shoemate exited the spring leading the competition for the starting running back spot, but McCombs could overtake him this fall.

    Kevin Friend, OG, Jr.: UConn didn't have a lot of breakout spring players, owing to the fact that the defense is loaded with veterans and the offense is still searching for a quarterback and consistent play from its receivers. So my second nomination goes to Friend, a guy who played and started two games at tackle last year. In the spring, he moved over to guard to take over former All-Big East performer Zach Hurd's position. He should help keep the Huskies strong O-line tradition going.

    Shoemate, the USC transfer, is atop the depth chart at running back, but that doesn't mean much. Injuries, scheme and situation all dictate playing time, and at the running back position it's not uncommon for several players to get carries. McCombs, coming off the offseason suspension for marijuana possession, sounded like he had learned from the experience earlier this spring.

    I wasn't allowed in the building. I wasn't allowed to eat or work out with the team. I wasn't allowed to practice," he said last month. "I'm just thankful for another chance. … There are certain things as a college athlete you can't do and I was trying to do it. I was basically throwing away free money so I'm just happy for the second chance to be back here and just do what I was born to do, and that's play football."

    Friend has seen limit action in his career, but he's replacing Hurd, an important cog in UConn's offensive line. He will be tasked with protecting whoever wins the quarterback job, and opening holes for Shoemate, McCombs and company.

    More generally, the Huskies' 2011 schedule is back-loaded with Big East opponents, meaning that the first month or so should allow the team -- both offense and defense -- to get comfortable. The Hartford Courant's Desmond Connor notes that UConn's "benchmark" game of the year -- the contest that best exemplifies what type of team they are -- will be the conference opener against West Virginia on October 8.

    "It's the sixth game of the season and the Huskies should be 5-0, 4-1 at worst. They'll then host University of South Florida and travel to Pitt. A win in Morgantown? Imagine the kind of momentum the Huskies would have (for) the remainder of the season…"

    Connor also points out that UConn has never won in Morgantown, so history and probability are against them.

    But that match-up is five months away; no need to lose sleep over it. Between now and the start of the season the Huskies have plenty to do, and hopefully Bennett is onto something: McCombs and Friend will have a lot to do with UConn's success in 2011.