NCF Nation: Omaine Stephens

Big East spring game previews

April, 19, 2013
4/19/13
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Nine of 10 Big East teams will be through with spring practices come Monday, with Rutgers serving as the outlier. With UConn, Temple and SMU all gearing up for their annual spring games this Saturday, here's a peek at what to look for.

UCONN
Fans in attendance for the noon start at Rentschler Field should keep an eye on how the offense moves under new coordinator T.J. Weist. The Huskies ranked 118th in total offense last year as coordinator George DeLeone was stripped of his duties, though he remains the offensive line coach. But the squad returns all five starters up front to protect incumbent quarterback Chandler Whitmer, as well as top running back Lyle McCombs, as the unit will look to keep pace with a defense that was nothing short of outstanding last season but is down a few stars who will hear their names called next weekend in New York.

Hank Hughes is the new man in charge of the defense, and he has Yawin Smallwood back to anchor a unit that has said goodbye to Sio Moore, Jory Johnson, Trevardo Williams and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. The Huskies boast plenty of potential in the middle with linebackers Graham Stewart, Ryan Donohue, Jefferson Ashiru and Omaine Stephens -- but that is just potential, for now.

UConn needs answers on both sides of the ball if it hopes to improve off head coach Paul Pasqualoni's consecutive 5-7 seasons.

SMU
The Mustangs will have an open practice at 9 a.m. local time at Pettus Practice Field, with many current and former players signing autographs afterward. There will be an NFL Punt, Pass and Kick competition afterward for kids ages 6 through eighth grade.

The Mustangs are intriguing, first and foremost, because they brought Hal Mumme aboard as their assistant head coach and passing game coordinator. Pairing the Air Raid curator with head coach June Jones and his run 'n' shoot pedigree is a fascinating experiment in and of itself.

Kenneth Acker, who is coming off a second-team All-Conference USA season in the secondary, is another experiment this spring, with the staff splitting the cornerback wide to catch some passes with the offense.

Defensively, the Mustangs are replacing a bulk of their production from last season, with Margus Hunt, Ja'Gared Davis and Taylor Reed all gone. Kevin Pope and Robert Seals must step up at linebacker.

TEMPLE
Head coach Matt Rhule's first spring will feature live kicking and punting, normal scoring and 15-minute quarters. Who will eventually emerge as quarterback, however, is another matter. Juice Granger and Thomas Rumer will see action on the Cherry squad, which is coached by defensive coordinator Phil Snow, while Chris Coyer and Connor Reilly will take reps for the White team, coached by offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield.

Reilly has thrived under the pro-style attack, ascending to No. 1 on a depth chart that was expected to see Coyer and Granger fight for the top spot. Coyer has seen time as an H-back in practice, but Rhule said he will remain under center. Kevin Newsome, out with a shoulder injury, has been moved to H-back.

Reigning conference freshman of the year Tyler Matakevich leads a defense that struggled across the board last season, while Levi Brown and Sean Daniels are the big guys up front worth keeping an eye on.

The live kicking and punting part of Saturday's 1 p.m. contest at Edberg-Olson Hall is worth noting in that the Owls need to replace Brandon McManus, who held the school records for field goals made and punting average.

Q&A: UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni

March, 29, 2013
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Paul Pasqualoni is about halfway into his third spring with Connecticut. ESPN.com caught up with the head coach for a few minutes this week to check on the Huskies' progress as they look to build off consecutive 5-7 seasons.

I know you guys have been pleased with Chandler Whitmer's progress so far this spring. What specifically are you looking to see from him to take that next step moving forward?

Paul Pasqualoni: We're hopeful that, obviously, this is his second year here now and becoming more comfortable with the offense. He's done a good job in Year 1 of knowing what he had to do, what his assignments are. Hopefully Year 2 at the quarterback position he really starts to get familiar and comfortable with what everybody on the offense is doing so that when problems and issues come up on the field, he can get things corrected out there, almost like being a coach on the field in between series, being able to get over with the offensive line, backs, receivers and talk about what happened on the field during the last possession. I really think that when quarterbacks really get to be really comfortable in total schemes of what everybody's doing, that gives them the authority become like a coach on the field, because they know what everybody's doing and they know what happened and they know what's got to be done to get it corrected. So when you look at the great quarterbacks, if you ever on a Sunday watched a [Peyton] Manning or a Drew Brees or a [Matt] Schuab, those kind of guys, you'll notice that on the field they're really authoritative, they're directing people, in between series they're over there if there's an issue with their teammates, or they're talking to the coaches and discussing things that are happening on the field. These guys are great at that because they not only know their position but they know the entire offense and what everybody's doing. It gives them a license to be an authority on it. You're hoping in the development process that Chandler takes a step in that direction this spring.

[+] EnlargePaul Pasqualoni, Bill Belichick
AP Photo/Jessica HillPaul Pasqualoni, right, chats with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick during UConn's pro day.
How much will it help him having five starters back on the offensive line?

PP: It's going to help a great deal, especially in the context of what I'm talking about. They've been through it -- the communication process with the offensive linemen in the run game, in the pass game; obviously should be really more advanced the second year than it was the first, so that's a big part of it this year.

What do you expect transition-wise with a new coordinator [T.J. Weist] this spring? Do you expect to have the whole offense installed by the end of the spring or does that process take a bit longer?

PP: I expect it to go pretty smoothly. We're learning our offensive terminology and that type of stuff has not really changed, so there's going to be somewhat of a transition, but I hope it would be minimal and that we'd be moving along in that area.

Defensively you lose some pretty talented guys at linebacker. What are you looking for from that position this spring?

PP: We're looking, first of all, Yawin Smallwood's coming back, he's a pretty good anchor there in the middle of the defense. We're looking for Graham Stewart to see exactly what Graham can do this spring. Ryan Donohue I think is practicing really well right now in spring ball, and Marquise Vann has had a lot of reps out there -- as has Jefferson Ashiru, he's had a lot of reps out there. Brandon Steg is playing pretty good in coverage right now. We've got Omaine Stephens, who had a shoulder surgery done after the season, so he's a young guy who's got some talent there as well. So I think we've got some guys, some good players we've got to replace -- Sio [Moore], we've got to replace Jory [Johnson] and various players, but I think if we can stay healthy and they can keep making progress, I think we've got the potential to be good at the linebacker position.

Defensive lineman Andreas Knappe is a guy with an interesting background, having started playing football later in life than most. What have you made of his progress so far, and what do you expect from him this fall?

PP: He's taken big steps, but the nice thing about Andreas is he finds a way each day to get things corrected, to improve and get better on a daily basis. What I really like about Andreas is his focus, his concentration -- his attention to what he's doing is there every single day. He's a very steady, consistent-effort player, which is a really good sign. And the fact that he is getting better every day is terrific. So we're going to see just how far he can come this spring and how far he can come in the summer and preseason, and then see where he's going to be able to help us defensively and see exactly what he can get done for us next year.

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