NCF Nation: Dwayne Gratz

Big East recruiting recap, Part 1

February, 7, 2013
National signing day is in the books. Let's take a look at how some of next season's Big East schools fared. (Andrea Adelson will have Part 2 for you later in the day.)


Needs filled: Defensive linemen. The Knights brought in four defensive linemen, including a pair of top-50 defensive end prospects in four-star Seyvon Lowry (Jacksonville, Fla./First Coast) and three-star Blake Keller (Bradenton, Fla./Manatee).

Holes remaining: Wide receiver. UCF did not sign a single receiver prospect this year, although it had landed four in the Class of 2012.


Needs filled: Tight end. The Bearcats brought in three tight ends, including ESPN 300 four-star prospect Travis Johnson, their highest-rated pickup this year. Cincinnati had landed no tight ends in the Class of 2012.

Holes remaining: Offensive linemen. Cincinnati signed two offensive linemen, one year after landing just three.


Needs filled: Tight end. The Huskies signed four tight ends after losing their top two (Ryan Griffin, John Delahunt) to graduation.

Holes remaining: Defensive backs. UConn signed just two true DBs (one safety, one cornerback) a year after signing just three. The Huskies lose two starting corners (Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Dwayne Gratz) from this past season, too.


Needs filled: Defensive linemen. The Cougars signed four defensive linemen last year and added five more this year. You can never have too many bodies up front, especially when jumping to a new conference.

Holes remaining: Running back. It's hard to find holes over a two-year recruiting period that netted 52 total new players, but just two from the Class of 2013 were running backs, one fewer than last year.


Needs filled: Wide receiver. The Cardinals' top two commits of this class are receivers: ESPN 150 prospect James Quick (Louisville, Ky./Trinity) and ESPN 300 recruit Richard Benjamin (Tampa, Fla./Tampa Bay Tech). They return their top four pass-catchers from this past season, too, with all having notched at least 40 receptions in 2012. (They also bring back quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the reigning Big East offensive player of the year.)

Holes remaining: Running back. Louisville did not land any running backs this year, and it signed just one in the Class of 2012.
Time to take an early look at the new-look Big East headed into 2013. Now, a few caveats: First, these rankings are subject to change many times before the season begins. Second, I am basing them mostly on returning starters and results from 2012. Since a majority of this league is new, I have not had time to sit down and watch every single game from every program.

Third -- we still have no idea if this is what the league will look like in 2013!

So give me a little time and take these for what they are -- a first take on 2013 with much more to come. *Note: Those looking for Pitt and Syracuse, check the ACC blog.

1. Louisville. I think we can all agree here -- the Cardinals will go into the season as the prohibitive favorite to win the Big East. Teddy Bridgewater returns, along with just about every starter on a team that beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Get ready for this team to try to make another run.

2. Cincinnati. I know the Bearcats have had a coaching change, but I like that the core nucleus returns. Cincinnati should have the best offensive line in the league; Brendon Kay got his sixth year, and so did emerging middle linebacker Greg Blair. While there are major players who have to be replaced, Cincinnati showed this year it has players to step right in and get the job done.

3. Rutgers. I honestly think this might be too high for the Scarlet Knights. I may just still be suffering from sitting through the entire Russell Athletic Bowl. But there are major questions that have to be answered -- is Gary Nova any better at quarterback? Can Savon Huggins step right in for Jawan Jamison? Who steps up on a defense that loses its biggest playmakers? Far too many unknowns.

4. UCF. I like Blake Bortles, and I like Storm Johnson, and the Knights are coming off a 10-win season as they join the Big East. To me, they are the best looking of the newcomers. Key players on defense have to be replaced, and don't forget that this team could be serving a postseason ban.

5. San Diego State. The Aztecs return a majority of their starters, including Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year Adam Muema, who ran for 1,458 yards and 16 touchdowns this year. I watched their San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl meltdown from start to finish. My takeaway -- if this team wants to make a serious run, it needs much better play out of quarterback Adam Dingwell.

6. USF. In all honesty, the Bulls could be lower, given their performance the past two years. They have no quarterback. No running back. Questions all over the place on defense. And a new coach. Willie Taggart is going to need some time to change the program, but I think there is enough talent at some of the skill positions and up front for the Bulls to be more competitive in 2013.

7. Connecticut. Considering the best players on defense are gone, it is hard to believe the Huskies will be much improved in 2013 over 2012. The defense was the best part of this team, and now it must replace the Big East leader in sacks, (Trevardo Williams), along with Sio Moore, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Jory Johnson and Dwayne Gratz. Offensively, this group needs an overhaul. Will it get one before it's too late?

8. Houston. The Cougars had a rough first year under new coach Tony Levine, finishing 5-7 in 2012. But there are some key players returning and a new offensive coordinator who should help steady the ship. Watch out for cornerback Trevon Stewart, named a FWAA freshman All-American.

9. Temple. I think the Owls have a chance to make some major leaps up this list depending on how spring practice shakes out. There is a new coach in town in Matt Rhule, who knows better than anyone what it takes to win at Temple. He needs to make a decision at quarterback and find a running back, for starters.

10. SMU. I do not have much hope for the Mustangs in Year 1, at least not yet. This team is taking bigger losses than any Big East newcomer. Starting running back Zach Line is gone. So are defensive standouts Margus Hunt, Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed.

11. Memphis. The Tigers made marked improvement in 2012 under Justin Fuente, going 4-8 -- including a three-game winning streak to end the season. Seventeen starters return, including quarterback Jacob Karam, so the Tigers definitely have momentum going into Year 1 in the Big East.

Half: Louisville 14, UConn 10

November, 19, 2011
Louisville appeared to be in control of this game in the early going, but UConn scored 10 unanswered points and the Cardinals lead 14-10 at halftime.

Adrian Bushell got Louisville on the board first with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Then on the Cardinals' only offensive scoring drive, they dominated on the ground and capped the series with a touchdown run by Dominique Brown. UConn does not have a high-powered offense, so overcoming a double-digit deficit is not something the Huskies aren't built to do.

But they slowly started a comeback. They missed an opportunity after getting to the Louisville 7-yard line and settling for a 24-yard field goal by Dave Teggart. But they were able to take advantage of a critical mistake from Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Dwayne Gratz intercepted Bridgewater late in the second quarter, and UConn turned around and got a 5-yard touchdown run from Kashif Moore. Neither team has been particularly good on third down (Louisville has 2 conversions, UConn just 1). UConn has 165 total yards of offense; Louisville has 105 total yards of offense -- just 5 more than Bushell's interception return.
Time to finish up the rankings before the frenzy of media days next week. I am going with the top five safeties and top five cornerbacks on this list of defensive backs. Safety is a much stronger position leaguewide than cornerback, where many teams lost their top players.


[+] EnlargeHakeem Smith
Kim Klement/US PresswireLouisville's Hakeem Smith was a unanimous selection as Big East Rookie of the Year.
1. Hakeem Smith, Louisville. Smith had a breakout season as a freshman last year and was selected the Big East Rookie of the Year. He led the team with 88 tackles, including six for a loss, and became known for his ability to make big plays. Imagine what he can do as a sophomore.

2. Jarred Holley, Pitt. A second-team All-Big East selection in 2010, Holley enters his third year as a starter. Last year, he ranked third in the Big East with five interceptions. This year, he should anchor a unit that has the potential to be among the best in the league.

3. Phillip Thomas, Syracuse. Thomas is the top returning tackler for the Orange, having made 92 stops last season. He is a physical player and brings an incredible energy to the field, but has to make sure to keep his emotions in check.

4. Jon Lejiste, USF. The Bulls have one of the best secondaries in the conference, and Lejiste is a reason why. He especially excelled last season on the safety blitz USF liked to use -- he racked up four sacks from his safety position.

5. Terence Garvin, West Virginia. Garvin led the Mountaineers in tackles last season. In fact, he had five or more tackles in nine games last season. He brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 222 pounds), and great leadership and experience as well.


1. Keith Tandy, West Virginia. Not only is Tandy the best cornerback in the league, he is one of the best in the country. Tandy was named to the Jim Thorpe Award watch list this season after a breakout 2010, when he ranked No. 5 in the nation in passes defended (17) and was named first-team All-Big East. He is moving to the left side this season.

2. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, UConn. Wreh-Wilson found his comfort zone last season and became a force. Of his four interceptions, he returned two for touchdowns. He should be even better this year in a secondary that returns all four starters.

3. Quenton Washington, USF. With Mistral Raymond gone, Washington should step in as the team's best cornerback. USF coaches are confident he is going to have a breakout season after an impressive spring. One area he can work on -- helping the secondary get more interceptions. He had just one last season.

4. Dwayne Gratz, UConn. The Huskies overcame a shaky start in the secondary last season and should be one of the best this year. Gratz and Wreh-Wilson team to form the best cornerback duo in the league.

5. Antwuan Reed, Pitt. Reed returns as the most experienced player in the Pitt secondary. Despite missing the spring as a precaution (concussion), Reed should be full-go for fall practice and much is expected of him in his second year as a starter.

Previous rankings:
We round out the defensive team position rankings with the cornerbacks. There are some teams with plenty of experience. Others are in desperate need of improvement. Where do they stack up?

[+] EnlargeBlidi Wreh-Wilson
David Butler II/US PresswireUConn's Blidi Wreh-Wilson is one of the Big East's top returning cornerbacks.
1. Connecticut. Both starters return in Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz, and the Huskies should continue to make the improvements they made in the second half of the season. The two combined for six of the team's 20 interceptions. Wreh-Wilson should be a preseason All-Big East selection and is one of the best in the league.

2. West Virginia. Keith Tandy returns after making first-team All Big East last season, though the Mountaineers have to replace Brandon Hogan, a second-team selection. They do have an experienced player in Pat Miller set to take over, with Brodrick Jenkins and Brantwon Bowser providing depth as well.

3. USF. The Bulls have to make up for the loss of Mistral Raymond, but have plenty of experienced players back in Kayvon Webster, Ricardo Dixon, George Baker and returning starter Quenton Washington. West Virginia gets the nod ahead of USF because of Tandy.

4. Syracuse. Both starters are gone in Mike Holmes and Da'Mond Merkerson. Kevyn Scott and Keon Lyn are penciled in to start. Scott has experience, while Lyn has plenty of potential. The problem is depth. Walk-on Joe Nassib is listed as a backup. Early enrollee Jaston George needs to show big improvement in the fall.

5. Pittsburgh. Coach Todd Graham has talked up K'Waun Williams and fifth-year senior Buddy Jackson after both had good springs. Antwuan Reed missed spring with injury but should be fine for the season, giving the Panthers three players with the potential to have a good year. The problem is that Williams is inexperienced and Jackson has failed to live up to expectations. Reed was inconsistent last season, too.

6. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights lose their best cover cornerback in Brandon Bing, and David Rowe moved to safety. Both starting jobs are up for grabs. On the post-spring depth chart, Logan Ryan and Marcus Cooper were battling for one spot and Brandon Jones and Mason Robinson for another. Robinson moved over from receiver. Jordan Thomas also is in the mix after moving from running back.

7. Cincinnati. The Bearcats were pretty dismal in the secondary last season. They return everybody, and Dominique Battle should be back from a knee injury that cost him most of the season. Still, they need to tackle better and become more aggressive to help this unit improve.

8. Louisville. The Cardinals have major problems at cornerback. They lose starters Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns, and Darius Ashley is suspended indefinitely following his second DUI arrest. Jordan Paschal, Anthony Conner and Preston Pace are in the mix. Freshman receiver Charles Gaines was moved here in the spring to provide some relief. But this is a major area of concern.

Previous rankings
One big mistake has made this somewhat of a game, but Oklahoma is getting it done on both sides of the ball and could run away with it in the second half.

Turning point: Oklahoma led 14-0 and had the ball near midfield, but Sooners quarterback Landry Jones was intercepted on a pass over the middle of the field by Dwayne Gratz, who returned the pick 46 yards for a touchdown to get the Huskies within seven. This would be a bona fide blowout if not for Jones' mistake.

Stat of the half: Just five yards of penalties have been doled out in the first half. Connecticut was flagged for an illegal substitution in the second quarter that turned a third-and-4 into a third-and-9, which the Huskies couldn't convert.

Stat of the half II: Connecticut's All-American back, Jordan Todman, picked up some momentum on Connecticut's final drive of the half, but he had just 14 yards on his first 11 carries while Oklahoma raced out to its early lead. Outside of a 19-yard run on the final drive, he has 15 yards on 13 carries. That's an impressive effort from Brent Venables' defense.

Best player in the half: Jones. His mistake aside, he's been fantastic. He completed his first 12 passes and finished the half 21 of 27 for 233 yards and a score to James Hanna.

Second guessing: Facing a fourth-and-1 on their opening drive, Connecticut punted the ball. Giving the Sooners the ball instead of trusting Connecticut's biggest strength, it's running game, sends a pretty poor message to your team, Oklahoma and fans on both sides. Of course, the Huskies were stuffed on a fourth-and-inches later in the first half, so maybe coach Randy Edsall knew what he was doing.

What Oklahoma needs to do: Prevent big plays and don't turn the ball over. The Sooners will need to do both to close this one out and produce the blowout everyone expected to see. Another big play early in the second half like Gratz's interception or a long Todman run could set a dangerous tone in the second half for the Sooners.

Pick-six awakens UConn

January, 1, 2011
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Just when you thought it was time to count out Connecticut, the Huskies get a huge play on defense.

Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones, who'd completed his first 12 passes, got unlucky on his 13th when Huskies cornerback Dwayne Gratz picked it off and went 46 yards the other way for a touchdown and cut Oklahoma's lead, 14-7.

It woke up the Huskies fans, who surely were starting to fear a blowout was on. And now UConn has some hope.

And maybe Jones will get rattled? Might find out on this next possession.

Cincinnati makes it interesting

November, 27, 2010
So Connecticut wants to get to the BCS? Let's see what the Huskies are made of in another pressure situation.

UConn and Cincinnati traded turnovers and punts for most of the third quarter, but a Bearcats drive ended with a Zach Collaros touchdown with 8:42 left to make it 24-17. Cincinnati was aided by three pass interference calls on cornerback Dwayne Gratz against Armon Binns and a questionable call on the Collaros score when it looked like his knee might be down. West Virginia fans like these officials.

Anyway, UConn showed a lot of resiliency against Pitt and West Virginia at home, but with the BCS bid so close there's a bit of pressure on right now. Time for the Huskies to show they're BCS-worthy with a strong finish.
It's time to get back to our post-spring rankings of each Big East position group. A lot of teams have question marks in their secondaries heading into this summer; let's look at how they stand in comparison to one another:

[+] EnlargeSands
AP Photo/Jeff GentnerRobert Sands snagged five interceptions last season.
1. West Virginia: The Mountaineers play five defensive backs in their 3-3-5 alignment and should be well stocked for 2010. Safety Robert Sands should compete for league defensive player of the year honors if he continues his rapid development, while senior Sidney Glover is an experienced playmaker at one of the other safety spots. West Virginia needs Brandon Hogan to rediscover his form and for Keith Tandy to keep improving, and this could be one of the team's strongest units.

2. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights lost the best cornerback in the Big East when Devin McCourty took his skills to the NFL, but I still like the group that's returning. Joe Lefeged should step up and assume McCourty's leadership role as a senior safety, while Khaseem Greene looks ready to become a front-line safety. David Rowe is a solid corner, and either Brandon Bing or Logan Ryan should fill the other spot. The Scarlet Knights have a lot of talented young players here to provide quality depth, as well.

3. Syracuse: The Orange officially have five returning starters in the secondary because of injuries last year, and several players gained valuable experience during 2009. There's a good mixture of veteran leadership with guys like seniors Mike Holmes, Da'Mon Merkerson and Max Suter as well as rising stars like Shamarko Thomas and Phillip Thomas.

4. Pittsburgh: Antwuan Reed helped answer a big question with a strong spring at cornerback. The other corner spot will likely be filled by either junior college transfer Saheed Imoru or Buddy Jackson, with Ricky Gary around to add depth. The safety position should be in good shape when Dom DeCicco and Andrew Taglianetti return from their injuries, while Jarred Holley established himself as a dependable safety last year.

5. South Florida: The Bulls lost a pair of draft picks in Nate Allen and Jerome Murphy and have some young players moving into key roles this season. The good news is those youngsters have talent. The key will be whether Quenton Washington and Kayvon Webster can hold down the cornerback spots.

6. Cincinnati: There's healthy competition in the secondary for the Bearcats, who increasingly gave up big plays in the passing game as the 2009 season wore on. Dominique Battle, Camerron Cheatham, Chris Williams and Reuben Johnson all vied for playing time at corner this spring. Drew Frey is a steady safety. The group needs to make more plays than it did a year ago but should embrace a more aggressive scheme this year.

7. Connecticut: The Huskies ranked last in pass defense last season and lost two senior stalwarts from the secondary. The defensive backfield was in disarray at times this spring. The return of Blidi Wreh-Wilson from his shoulder injury this summer should help out the cornerback spot with Dwayne Gratz. Jerome Junior should be solid at one safety spot, while Kijuan Dabney is trying to win the other job after moving from linebacker. The Huskies are counting on a lot of young players to improve quickly before the season begins.

8. Louisville: The Cardinals had so much trouble finding playmakers in the secondary this spring that running back Darius Ashley moved to corner to help out. Johnny Patrick is one of the league's better cornerbacks but needs help in the defensive backfield. The healthy return of safety Terence Simien would provide a boost, but this remains a trouble spot heading into the fall.
Spring football in the Big East kicks off March 16. Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:

  • Building depth: New coach Butch Jones said this is the biggest key for the spring. The Bearcats have a lot of top-flight players with starting experience back, like Zach Collaros, Armon Binns, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer. But there's a lot of youth and inexperience in potential backup roles, especially at positions like offensive line, linebacker and receiver. All slates are clean with the new coaching staff, and the spring will be a time when new names can emerge in key roles.
  • Defensive line retooling: Jones will switch back to the 4-3 after a year in the 3-4 scheme. Both starting defensive ends from last year are gone, but the smallish line was overpowered at times near the end of the season anyway. Derek Wolfe should be a fixture inside, Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and John Hughes step into more prominent roles. Jones will have to decide whether to make Walter Stewart a defensive end or keep him at outside linebacker. The Bearcats could use a little more strength and bulk up front against the bigger Big East offensive lines.
  • Vidal's arrival: USC transfer Vidal Hazelton is eligible after sitting out last year. He reputedly dominated practices last season, and now he'll get to go full time with the first string. A lot of people will be watching closely to see how he and Collaros connect during the spring. A big year by Hazelton will lessen the loss of star wideout Mardy Gilyard and could keep Cincinnati as the Big East's best offense.
Spring practice starts: March 16
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:

  • Secondary matters: UConn returns a truckload of starters and looks rock solid in most areas. But the defensive backfield will be an area of emphasis starting in the spring. Gone are stalwarts Robert McClain and Robert Vaughn from a secondary that got picked apart much of the season by opposing passing games. Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson showed progress by the end of their redshirt freshmen seasons and should be the starting corners. The Huskies need someone to replace Vaughn at safety and overall better performance from the unit.
  • Frazer vs. Endres: Zach Frazer and Cody Endres have been splitting starts since the second half of the 2008 season at quarterback. Endres took over early last year and played well until he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Frazer picked things up late after a slow start. The competition should be back on this spring, with Frazer probably holding the edge given his late-season improvement.
  • Catch as catch can: Receiver was a major question for UConn going into last spring, when walk-on senior Marcus Easley surprised everybody with his giant leap forward. He became the go-to guy in 2009, but now he's gone, along with starter Brad Kanuch. So the Huskies are basically back in the same position as this time a year ago, needing to find some reliable pass catchers. Kashif Moore may be the next to break out after some good, late-year performances. And perhaps former highly-touted recruit Dwayne Difton will emerge. UConn hopes to catch lightning in a bottle again like it did with Easley.
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:

  • Switching to Strong: The Cardinals will have their first practices under new coach Charlie Strong, who promises to bring a much different style than former coach Steve Kragthorpe. Strong is known as being an intense guy on the field, and as a former top-flight defensive coordinator, he will likely be particularly demanding of players on that side of the ball. There will be new terminology to learn, new assistants and new standards to which the Cardinals must adjust in a hurry.
  • The quarterback shuffle: Louisville had three quarterbacks -- Adam Froman, Justin Burke and Will Stein -- start games last year. All three will be given the chance to win the job in the spring, and mid-year enrollee Luke Woodley might see some snaps as well. Don't be surprised if this competition goes into the fall and if other newcomers like Dominique Brown get a look. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford wants to run a Florida-style spread offense, which might favor the more mobile Froman if he chooses to go with a veteran under center.
  • Line play: The trenches have not been a particularly strong suit for Louisville the past couple of seasons, one of the reasons why the program has fallen out of annual postseason play. The Cardinals have gotten very little pass rush from the defensive line and not enough of a consistent push from the offensive line. Strong asked the offensive linemen to rework their bodies to prepare for the spread, and he'll need replacements for two senior defensive tackles. Junior-college imports Randy Salmon and Tyler Harrell will have a chance to impress on the defensive line. If the holdovers don't step up, we could see more newcomers in key spots by the summer.

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