NCF Nation: Sio Moore

One of the bigger surprises nationally from an NFL draft weekend that produced no shortage of them was just how well UConn fared. The Huskies had a school-record five players selected in the 2013 draft, a number that was tied for 10th-most among all colleges, along with Oregon, Texas A&M and North Carolina.

Gee, which of those is not like the other?

In fact, you could extend that question to include all 13 schools that had five or more players taken in this year's draft. The Tar Heels are the only team among the group of 13 that did not play in the postseason, and that's because the 8-4 program was dealing with a bowl ban.

Do UConn fans look at this year's record NFL sendoff as a positive recruiting tool, or does it just make consecutive 5-7 seasons in Paul Pasqualoni's first two years all the more disappointing?

To be fair, anyone who has followed this program closely either during this past season or throughout the lead-up to the draft should not be all that surprised by the showing this past weekend. Trevardo Williams (fourth round, 124th overall, Texans) led the Big East in sacks in each of the past two seasons, Blidi Wreh-Wilson (third, 70, Titans) was the team's MVP and Sio Moore (third, 66, Raiders) dazzled throughout the evaluation process.

The Huskies, after all, ranked No. 9 nationally in total defense in 2012, allowing just 309.92 yards per game. Four of their five draftees were on the defensive side of the ball, with tight end Ryan Griffin (sixth, 201, Texans) being the lone outlier.

The problem, of course, was an offense that ranked 110th nationally in yards per game, 118th in scoring, 117th in rushing and, most of all, 110th in turnover margin.

Pasqualoni was quick to the point in an interview Monday with the Hartford Courant's Desmond Conner:
“Well if you turn the ball over [on offense] and you give up a big play at an inopportune time [on defense] regardless you’re chances of winning are slim,” Pasqualoni said. “That would be my first response to it. The biggest factor in winning football games, still, and it’s no revelation, nothing new and it’s not anything anybody doesn’t know, it’s that the turnover…if you turn the ball over in tight games you stand a good chance of losing, No.1.”

UConn brings back Chandler Whitmer under center and Lyle McCombs in the backfield, along with its entire starting offensive line from 2012. It also stripped George DeLeone of his offensive coordinator duties, though he is still in charge of the line.

Whether all of those pieces, plus the addition of offensive coordinator T.J. Weist, can help the Huskies make the jump to postseason play in 2013 remains to be seen.

Big East spring game previews

April, 19, 2013
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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.
UCF KNIGHTS

Spring start: March 13

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Bortles' progress: Blake Bortles threw for 3,059 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, and he figures to be one of the better signal-callers in a Big East that has few consistent returning standouts outside of Teddy Bridgewater.
  2. Replacing Ishmael and McDuffie: UCF loses arguably its two best players in Kemal Ishmael -- who was the Conference USA defensive player of the year and team MVP, notching 124 total tackles and three interceptions -- and Quincy McDuffie, who was the C-USA special-teams player of the year and offensive team MVP.
  3. Beginning the transition: You voted UCF as the newcomer most likely to succeed in the Big East in 2013, and the Knights do seem to be the most ready of the C-USA newcomers. They won 10 games last season, play arguably the toughest nonconference schedule annually of the newcomers, and will have the most natural rival in USF.
CINCINNATI BEARCATS

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 6 (open practice), spring ends April 13

What to watch:
  1. The Tommy Tuberville era kicks off: Tuberville's stint at Cincinnati got off to an unceremonious start publicly, but Cincinnati got a proven coach who has had plenty of offensive success. The school has usually been a step up the ladder for coaches -- the past three of whom left after three successful seasons each -- but the Bearcats have gone in another direction this time.
  2. The ground game: Cincinnati faced the same question last year upon losing Big East offensive player of the year Isaiah Pead. George Winn ended up outproducing Pead. Who will replace Winn this year? Ralph David Abernathy IV is the most proven returner, but he does not fit the mold of an every-down back. Regardless, with all five offensive line starters back, the transition figures to be relatively smooth, if not as productive.
  3. Defensive line production: Cincinnati got used to playing without Walter Stewart, but it also loses Dan Giordano, who had five sacks in 2012. Although its 31 sacks as a team were good for second in the Big East, the production was down from the previous season.
CONNECTICUT HUSKIES

Spring start: March 11

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
  1. Offense under T.J. Weist: The numbers were ugly -- 110th nationally in total offense, 118th in scoring -- resulting in George DeLeone being stripped of his duties. (He's still the offensive line coach.) Weist comes over from Cincinnati, where he coached receivers the past three years.
  2. Defense under Hank Hughes: Conversely, UConn must now replace defensive coordinator Don Brown, who lifted the Huskies to 10th nationally in total defense last season. Hughes enters his 13th season on staff but is tasked with replacing a number of standouts at each position -- Trevardo Williams, Sio Moore and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, to name a few.
  3. Whitmer's growth: Chandler Whitmer returns after passing for 2,664 yards with nine touchdowns and 16 picks in 2012. He had little help up front, and there is more depth at the position this year with Scott McCummings and incoming recruits Richard Lagow and Tim Boyle, both three-star prospects.
HOUSTON COUGARS

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  1. Quarterback competition: David Piland is the returning starter, having thrown for 2,929 yards with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2012, but he will be challenged by juco transfer Billy Cosh and three-star recruit John O'Korn.
  2. Defense under David Gibbs: The Cougars' defense really has nowhere to go but up after a 2012 season that saw it finish 115th nationally, 107th in scoring, 92nd in rushing and 115th in passing -- numbers that resulted in the ouster of Jamie Bryant. Gibbs most recently worked with the NFL's Houston Texans.
  3. Building depth: The Cougars bring back 43 players from 2012, 14 of whom were starters. Throw in a 26-man recruiting class -- five of whom are currently enrolled -- and Houston can begin to build depth needed to sustain its level of play in a new, better conference.
LOUISVILLE CARDINALS

Spring start: March 20

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
  1. Backfield options: Senorise Perry, last year's starter, will not be in full-contact practice after tearing his ACL late last season. His backup, Jeremy Wright, is not enrolled in classes. Dominique Brown, Corvin Lamb and Brandon Radcliff are the next three guys on the depth chart, although Brown is the only one to have proved much thus far.
  2. Teddy Heisman continuing arc: Bridgewater went from conference-known to nationally known in 2012, and his strong finish against Rutgers and Florida will only amplify the hype heading into this season. If Bridgewater's improvement resembles anything like that of this past season, those Heisman whispers will become much louder.
  3. Clint Hurtt's shadow: Simply put, this is an issue that isn't going away anytime soon. AD Tom Jurich stands behind the defensive line coach, whom the NCAA says provided false or misleading information during its investigation of Miami, and the situation figures to linger until this never-ending Hurricanes case is complete.

Big East recruiting primer

February, 6, 2013
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ESPN RecruitingNation has signing day covered. Follow ESPNU’s coverage, chat with analysts and get breaking news on our Signing Day Live page beginning at 7:30 a.m. ET through 7 p.m. ET. For more on what to expect on signing day, check out the Big East conference breakdown Insider.

Bold Prediction for the Big East: The conference will continue its descent toward obscurity as fewer high-end prospects consider the Big East an attractive first option.

Cincinnati
Biggest need: The Bearcats need help in the secondary, at receiver and on the defensive line, where they lost anchor Dan Giordano at end.
Biggest recruit: Florida-bred quarterback Tyler Cogswell was recruited to play tight end for the Bearcats. Cincy landed him after Arkansas pulled its offer late.

Connecticut
Biggest need: Seniors Jory Johnson and Sio Moore are gone from the corps of linebackers. Depth is also needed at running back.
Biggest recruit: Outside linebacker Jalen Stevens is a steal for the Huskies, who went into SEC country and found a defensive playmaker who looked at schools from the South to the West.

Houston
Biggest need: The Cougars were young last season at most spots but lose a lot up front on defense, including three of their top four tackles. And they want another quarterback.
Biggest recruit: Joseph Glenn has a typical Texas running back pedigree. He’s productive, quick and he’s got a burst that makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field.

Louisville
Biggest need: Star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater returns for his junior year, but the Cardinals must find an heir apparent. They need to restock at running back, too.
Biggest recruit: A top athlete from one of the nation’s best prep programs in Charlie Strong’s backyard, receiver James Quick was a necessity for the Cardinals. He had offers from Alabama and Ohio State.

Memphis
Biggest need: The Tigers, moving to the Big East from Conference USA, are looking to replenish the secondary and the offensive line, where they return only six players with experience.
Biggest recruit: Quarterback Brayden Scott, a midterm signee, picked the Tigers over Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, among others. He has a chance to be the future in Memphis.

Rutgers
Biggest need: The Scarlet Knights boasted plenty of experience at receiver and in the defensive backfield. Not next season.
Biggest recruit: Athlete Nadir Barnwell possesses the skill set that Rutgers will need to stay ahead in the Big East. He’s a difference-maker in the league’s best recruiting class.

South Florida
Biggest need: Under new coach Willie Taggart, the Bulls prioritized finding help at running back, in the secondary and at quarterback after the loss of top recruit Asiantii Woulard.
Biggest recruit: Eric Mayes’ long list of offers illustrates his potential. As a defensive end, he may mark the Bulls’ best athlete since Jason Pierre-Paul.

SMU
Biggest need: Running back Zach Line leaves a big hole for the Mustangs as they shift from Conference USA. Help is also needed up front on defense.
Biggest recruit: Running back Traylon Shead will play immediately out of junior college. He’s big, runs downhill and signed in December.

Temple
Biggest need: The Owls were young at receiver and on the offensive line last season but need depth in both areas. Lots of experience is gone from the secondary.
Biggest recruit: Running back Zaire Williams showed excellent big-play ability in New Jersey and should compete right away for time at the next level.

UCF
Biggest need: A Conference USA transfer, the Golden Knights want bodies on the defensive line and depth at quarterback.
Biggest recruit: Defensive end Seyvon Lowry fills a need and sends a message that UCF can compete for prospects in the Big East and even occasionally beat an SEC team.
Sio Moore barely had time to unpack his bags following the East-West Shrine game before leaving again, this time for the Senior Bowl.

Though it is rare to find players who end up in both college football all-star games, the former UConn linebacker recognized the unique opportunity handed to him him. A guy who needs all the exposure he can get in front of NFL scouts and front-office personnel had just received an opportunity to get all the exposure he could get.

So Moore arrived in Mobile, Ala., last Wednesday after being added as a late replacement and immediately began turning heads. His performance in the actual game served as more proof that there should be a spot for him on the next level. Moore led the North team with six tackles -- including a sack and two tackles for loss -- after coming into the game off the bench.

Kevin Weidl of ESPN Scouts Inc. said this about Moore Insider following the game:
"No 2013 draft prospect has helped himself more during the all-star process than Connecticut LB Sio Moore ... Moore showed the ability to run and hit, blitzed well and held up in coverage. ... Moore clearly looked like he belonged. His stock could be rising out of the later rounds."

Though Moore made the Big East first-team after an outstanding season, he realized he had work to do to get people to see his true potential. And he did that in those two games.

"I feel like for me, I always look at everything with a chip on my shoulder," Moore said in a recent telephone interview. "That’s how it’s been my entire career at UConn. We’ve always had to go out and earn it and prove to people we’re a good ball club. For me, there’s a part of it that always makes me want to work harder. I always try to work harder than whoever I’m competing with and right now everybody’s competing.

"I just try to be a guy that brings more than the normal things to the table. Everybody’s an athlete. But just being an athlete doesn’t cut it. That’s why I pride myself in my university, and my coaches. They build up the person and when you build up the person, it only helps the player. So I definitely feel like that’s big because it helps with fundamentals and technique. I gained that from them."

Interestingly enough, those two games have not been life-changing experiences for Moore. Training at Athletes' Performance just outside of Pensacola, Fla., has altered the way he approaches preparing for a professional career. Because Moore has completely transformed the way he eats.

Out: Hot Pockets.

In: Vegetables and eggs. For the first time in his life.

"We're on a very healthy and very regimented diet," Moore said. "It's making me leaner, making me stronger. My body feels 10 times better than when I was eating burgers. I was so big on eating twice a day and I would eat in large portions but I would fall asleep and get real heavy eyes and take heavy naps, because of the carbohydrates and fat I was eating. Now, I feel like I've conquered the world. My mom tried to do this for 22 years. She wants me to stay down here because I’m finally eating veggies."

Moore hopes that changing his eating habits will help him when he attends the NFL combine next month, and wherever he may land. He said he has no idea where he might get drafted and does not waste any time pondering the possibilities. As for where he could line up on the next level, Moore believes he could fit in a 3-4 or a 4-3 because of his versatility.

"I can play anywhere on the field," he said.

He certainly has proven that the last two weeks.
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.

Big East helmet stickers: Week 11

November, 11, 2012
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Here are the players who stood out the most during Week 11 in the Big East.

Sio Moore, LB, UConn: Six tackles, three for loss -- including two sacks -- and one hurry. Moore had two pass break-ups, too, as the Huskies notched their first win in more than a month and their first Big East win of the season. Special recognition here for Chandler Whitmer, too, who delivered a strong performance in completing 19 of 25 passes for 213 yards.

Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers: What more can you say about the reigning Big East defensive player of the year? He was probably the front-runner to repeat before Saturday, and he definitely is now after his 22-tackle performance in a 28-7 win against Army. He forced a fumble in the red zone, too.

Alec Lemon, WR, Syracuse: Lemon constantly got open Saturday, burning Louisville's secondary and playing the biggest role in the Orange's rout of the Cardinals. Lemon finished with 176 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches. Special recognition here for Ryan Nassib (15 of 23, 246 yards, 3 TDs) and Jerome Smith (144 rushing yards) as well, as Syracuse was brilliant offensively and did not turn the ball over.

Brendon Kay, QB, Cincinnati: Coach Butch Jones waited until game day to name Kay his starter, and the fifth-year senior did not disappoint. Kay completed 13 of 21 passes for 244 yards and threw touchdown passes of 75 and 65 yards, leading the Bearcats to a 34-10 rout of Temple. Kay added 71 rushing yards on seven carries as well.

UConn surprises Pitt 24-17

November, 9, 2012
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Many of us thought a letdown could be in store for Pitt on Friday night after the Panthers dropped a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Notre Dame last week.

But nobody expected what actually happened against the Huskies.

Connecticut -- so hapless on offense for most of the season -- set the tone early on with dominant play up front and then held off a furious Pitt rally to end a four-game losing streak and win 24-17 and keep its bowl hopes alive. Pitt failed to show up in the first half, trailing 24-0 at halftime before deciding to make a game of it.

The Huskies (4-6, 1-4) helped them out, continuing their second-half scoring struggles. In five Big East games, UConn has a total of three second-half points. In this one, Jarred Holley intercepted Chandler Whitmer in the end zone with 4:57 to go and the Huskies up 24-10.

Pitt (4-6, 1-4) turned the mistake into a score when Tino Sunseri threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Mike Shanahan with 2 minutes, 46 seconds remaining. But Whitmer made up for his earlier miscue with a huge third-down conversion on a pass to Shakim Phillips to ice the game.

Pitt now has to win out over Rutgers and South Florida to get back to a bowl game. Panthers fans have come to expect these types of games from the most enigmatic team in college football. One week, they lose to Youngstown State. Another week, they nearly upset the No. 3 team in the country.

On Friday night, it was just another bad loss to a team that was winless in Big East play going into the game. Consider:
  • UConn was one of the worst teams in the nation in total offense, scoring offense and rushing offense going into the game. The Huskies had gone four consecutive games without rushing for 100 TOTAL yards. But against the Panthers, they went over the century mark and Lyle McCombs had his first 100-yard game since Sept. 22 against Western Michigan.
  • The Huskies scored over 20 points for the first time since notching 24 on Sept. 29 against Buffalo.
  • UConn, maligned all season for the play of its offensive line, had perhaps its best game of the season in successfully controlling the line of scrimmage.

The Huskies also got an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown from Nick Williams in the first half to help build their 24-0 lead. Two huge players on the night for UConn: tight end Ryan Griffin, who tied a career-high with six receptions for 84 yards and a score; and linebacker Sio Moore, who was a one-man wrecking crew.

Pitt simply could not move the ball with any consistency, getting 48 total yards rushing. Sunseri ended up with over 300 yards passing, but it was too little, too late.

Big East helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 16, 2012
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Time to give out a few helmet stickers for a job well done.

Jawan Jamison, RB, Rutgers. Jamison set a school record with 41 rushing attempts in a 23-13 victory over USF on Thursday night, breaking the previous record of 40 carries, set by J.J. Jennings in 1972 against Colgate. Jamison finished with 151 yards, for his third consecutive 100-yard game of the season and his fourth straight dating back to last season. He is the first Rutgers running back since Ray Rice to record four straight 100-yard games. Included in all those yards was a 41-yard touchdown run -- featuring one of the niftiest spin moves you will see -- with 54 seconds left to seal the win.

Tino Sunseri, QB, Pitt. You know what? Sunseri played perhaps one of the best games of his career, so I am giving out two Pitt helmet stickers. There is no player in the Big East -- not even USF quarterback B.J. Daniels -- who has taken as much heat as Sunseri in his three years as a starter. But he delivered in a big way in the 35-17 upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech, throwing beautiful touch passes and a few deep balls and returning to the game late on a bad ankle to close out the win. Sunseri finished 19-of-28 for 283 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.

Rushel Shell, RB, Pitt. Shell ran with power and determination in the victory. He finished with 157 yards, becoming the first Pitt true freshman to rush for 100 yards in a game since Dion Lewis had 159 against North Carolina in the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl. Lewis had 10 100-yard games as a true freshman in 2009.

Yawin Smallwood, LB, UConn. Smallwood has been on a tear to start the season. In a 24-21 win over Maryland on Saturday, Smallwood had a team-high 14 tackles, including four for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble. That fumble came following a sack of quarterback Perry Hills. On the season, Smallwood has 35 total tackles, including nine for loss. Teammate Sio Moore was just as active with seven tackles, three sacks and two pass breakups.

UConn holds on to beat Maryland

September, 15, 2012
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A defensive struggle through the first three quarters turned into a down-to-the wire finish between UConn and Maryland in the "Edsall Bowl" on Saturday afternoon.

In the end, the Huskies defense proved to be too much for the young Maryland offense, and they held on to beat former coach Randy Edsall 24-21 in College Park. UConn linebackers Sio Moore and Yawin Smallwood wreaked havoc all day long, but Maryland quarterback Perry Hills made some big fourth-quarter plays to help give his team a shot at the win.

After getting the ball back with 3:29 left, Hills made a few nice passes, including a third-down conversion to Stefon Diggs to keep the drive alive. But a third-and-13 at the UConn 35 resulted in a loss of 4 yards, and then Hills threw incomplete in the end zone to end the game.

Hills continued to mature, but he also had his share of mistakes. Maryland had two turnovers -- all to Hills (one interception, one fumble). He finished 10-of -24 for 109 yards, after going 2-of-11 for 24 yards in the first half. What really kept Maryland in the game were some big plays from Diggs, who had 223 all-purpose yards as a receiver, kickoff returner and punt returner. His 29-yard touchdown catch was pretty terrific, considering it was tipped by a teammate and into his hands.

For the third straight game, the UConn offense was completely ineffective. The Huskies got a huge lift from their special teams, as Nick Williams returned a punt 58 yards to start the scoring. But it almost seemed as if the Huskies had no confidence in Chandler Whitmer or their pass game. Whitmer went 10-of-16 with no touchdowns and no interceptions. With a chance to ice the game late, he threw a terrible pass incomplete that gave the Terps their final shot at the win.

UConn finished with 223 total yards -- and won. It can thank its defense. Despite some ragged play in the fourth quarter, that unit stepped up when it needed to, and came up with the big plays on the final Maryland drive.
The Civil War raged, tearing apart neighbors and friends. She had no way of knowing whether she would live or die. What she knew for sure: she had to get out.

To save herself. To save her children.

Assunta Nimley-Phillips packed up one suitcase, bundled her five-month old boy, Sio, and her adopted daughter and said good-bye to Liberia, to her job as a deputy auditor general for the government.

[+] EnlargeSio Moore
Photo courtesy of Sio MooreSio Moore's mother, Assunta, and his sister, Tiplah, played a vital role in getting him to UConn.
Good-bye to a good life.

She moved first to New York, then Pennsylvania and finally Connecticut. Her son grew quickly, but he had no real direction and got into constant trouble. Nimley-Phillips needed to save her son again.

So she let him go.

Now here is Sio Moore, going into his final season as a starting outside linebacker at UConn, poised to become one of the best defensive players in the Big East this season. Already he is on preseason watch lists for the Butkus and Lombardi Awards, as the Huskies prepare to open the season Thursday night against UMass.

"My mother, she is my cornerstone," Sio Moore said in a recent phone interview. "Between her, my grandmother and my sister, those people made me the person I am. If it wasn't for those three women, so important in my life, I wouldn't be having this conversation on the phone."

When Nimley-Phillips arrived in this country in 1990, she found it extremely difficult to find a job as an auditor. She just picked up whatever odd jobs she could, holding down four at one time, just to make sure she could provide for her family. With her out of the house, Moore had his grandmother to raise him.

But even the guiding hands of strong women were not enough to keep Moore focused. He needed a father figure. But he had none. He was angry. Distant. Unfocused. Even when he started playing football as a freshman in high school, he did not care. He slacked on his academics, hung out with the wrong kids, allowed peer pressure to steer him.

After a close friend was shot to death, Moore knew he needed to set himself straight. He asked his mother if he could move to Apex, N.C., to live with his older sister, Tiplah Broadnax.

"I didn’t want him to be a statistic," Nimley-Phillips said in a phone interview. "He would say to me, 'Mommy, every time I go to school my friends expect me to follow them and I don’t want to do that.' He wanted to make that change. It was hard to let him go, but knowing that it was with his own sister -- if you love your child, you have to make some sacrifices."

When Moore arrived in North Carolina, Broadnax found a young man who was rough around the edges, who did not know how to express himself in the right way. They constantly argued.

But Broadnax -- 19 years older than Moore -- was determined to show him the way. His first year there, he had to focus on his academics. No football. But Broadnax worked with the coaches to dangle the carrot in front of him. Improve your grades, get a spot on the team.

She drove him to school every day and picked him up. She knew what his classwork assignments were, and what was coming home for homework.

"He couldn’t get out of my way so he figured eventually, he would work with the plan," Broadnax said. "He did have issues. If it got too hard, he would say he wanted to go back. When he got back to Connecticut, he realized it wasn’t where he wanted to be. At the end of the day, it was up to him. If he decided to stay in Connecticut, his life would have taken a different turn. He made that decision to become something of himself, and I’m so proud of him."

Sitting out, Moore says, “was one of the most painful things I ever had to go through. But my sister, she didn't want me to crawl back into the same hole that I did when I was in Connecticut.”

Moore ended up with a 3.2 grade-point average his first year living in North Carolina, and was able to play football his junior and senior years. He also ran track, and made the all-conference academic team. He slowly changed his attitude, and got some male guidance from his brother-in-law.

Recruiters began to take notice and Moore decided he wanted to go to UConn, which just so happens to be where Broadnax went to college. It also allowed him to be closer to his mother, who goes to all of the UConn home games.

“I feel very blessed because he could have fallen in the wrong track,” Nimley-Phillips said. “I am lucky to have him as a son.”

Moore is plenty lucky, too.
Here are my picks for the Big East all-conference team.

Offense
QB B.J. Daniels, USF
RB Lyle McCombs, UConn
RB Ray Graham, Pitt*
RB Montel Harris, Temple*
TE Ryan Griffin, UConn
OT Justin Pugh, Syracuse
OT Martin Wallace, Temple
C Mario Benavides, Louisville
OG Chris Jacobson, Pitt
OG Mark Popek, USF
WR Alec Lemon, Syracuse
WR Andre Davis, USF

Defense
DE Trevardo Williams, UConn
DT Scott Vallone, Rutgers
DT Aaron Donald, Pitt
DE Ryne Giddins, USF*
DE Walter Stewart, Cincinnati*
LB Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
LB DeDe Lattimore, USF

LB Sio Moore, UConn
CB Logan Ryan, Rutgers
CB Adrian Bushell, Louisville
S Hakeem Smith, Louisville
S Duron Harmon, Rutgers

Special teams
PK Kevin Harper, Pitt
P Pat O'Donnell, Cincinnati
RS Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati

* = tie

Notes: About those ties. Graham is a no-brainer all-conference back when healthy. The only problem is I have no idea how healthy Graham is right now or how healthy he is going to be when the season ends. He could start slow and finish fast. Or maybe he won't regain his old form. So I am hedging my bets a little and putting him on there with Montel Harris of Temple. Harris has the potential for a 1,000-yard season.

Defensive end: I really think Williams, Giddins and Stewart have the potential to hit double-digits in sacks this season. That is how highly I think of them. And if the Big East coaches have ties on their all-conference team at the end of the year, so can I!

Tight end: This was a tough one. Griffin is in my preseason Top 25 countdown, but I was a little worried when I saw he would not be starting against UMass. Coach Paul Pasqualoni said not to pay attention to the depth chart because he and John Delahunt are interchangeable. Still got me to thinking that Hubie Graham of Pitt could very well be the first-team tight end at the end of the season.

Receiver: This is a toss-up. I really love Davis' potential. I know a lot are going to clamor for Devin Street to be on the list. He is my next man up. I went with Lemon over Street because I have more confidence in the Syracuse passing game than Pitt.

Big East: D-E-F-E-N-S-E

May, 4, 2012
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Anybody who has watched the Big East in recent years realizes this a much more defensive league, than offensive league.

Last season, seven of the eight teams ranked in the top half of the nation in total defense. The "worst" defense, Syracuse, ranked No. 64 -- just outside the top half. In 2010, six of eight teams ranked in the top half of the nation in the same category. The "worst" two defenses -- Cincinnati and Rutgers -- were ranked No. 61 and 63, respectively. In 2009, the worst defense, Cincinnati, ranked No. 67 in the nation.

I went back and looked at recent draft history to see how this translated to the next level.

[+] EnlargeChandler Jones
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireSyracuse defensive end Chandler Jones was drafted in the first round by New England last month.
Sure enough, defensive players were selected more than offensive players, and in higher rounds to boot.

In the past two drafts, 21 of the 34 players selected came from the defense. In the recently concluded NFL draft, eight of the 12 Big East players came from the defense. More pronounced, five of the seven players drafted in the first three rounds were defensive, and all played defensive line (Bruce Irvin, Chandler Jones, Derek Wolfe, Kendall Reyes and John Hughes).

Going back to the 2010 draft, 12 of the 16 players taken in the first three rounds were on defense.

We can continue looking a bit deeper to see defensive line has been an incredible strength, not just in the draft this year. In the past four drafts, the Big East has had at least one defensive lineman drafted in the first three rounds. Last year, two of the first four Big East picks were linemen. In 2010, Jason Pierre-Paul of USF went in the first round.

Coaches like Charlie Strong, Greg Schiano, Randy Edsall, Dave Wannstedt, Paul Pasqualoni and Jim Leavitt all have had a hand in the transformation, given their defensive backgrounds.

So will the trend hold for the 2013 draft?

In the super early mock drafts for next season, there are no Big East players listed in the first round. But CBS Sports already has a listing of the top draft prospects, by position. Eleven defensive players are listed among the Top 25 players at their respective positions, compared to five on offense.

However, there are more offensive players ranked among the Top 5 at their positions. Justin Pugh of Syracuse is listed as the No. 4 offensive tackle; Ray Graham of Pitt is listed as the No. 5 running back; and Ryan Griffin of UConn is listed as the No. 5 tight end.

The top-ranked defensive player is Khaseem Greene, at No. 6 among outside linebackers. Sio Moore of UConn also makes that list, at No. 9.

There is obviously an entire season of football to be played, and all these projections will change. But the way the Big East's defensive players have emerged is a trend worth noting.

Big East position rankings: LB

February, 22, 2012
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We continue with our final 2011 position rankings by moving to linebacker. There were plenty of exemplary individual performances in this group, as six teams were represented on the Big East first and second teams. But this evaluation is of the unit as a whole, so I am factoring in the performance of every starter, along with depth and stats.

[+] EnlargeKhaseem Greene
Rich Kane/Icon SMIKhaseem Greene's position switch went better than anyone could have expected, as he ended up leading the conference in tackles.
1. Rutgers. Khaseem Greene's move to linebacker was the smartest position change of the year, pushing the Scarlet Knights into the top spot in this category. Greene led the league with 140 tackles en route to Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was essentially all over the field. Greene and Steve Beauharnais were the only linebacker tandem to finish in the top 10 in the Big East in tackles for loss. Add in the much-improved Jamal Merrell and it's easy to see why this group is No. 1. Preseason ranking: No. 4.

2. Cincinnati. J.K. Schaffer had yet another outstanding season for the Bearcats, racking up 100 tackles once again. But quietly, Maalik Bomar put together a nice year as well, and that helped make up for some serious question marks that surrounded this unit going into the season. True freshmen Dwight Jackson and Nick Temple made contributions, but on the whole it was the Schaffer show again and that was enough to boost this group. Preseason ranking: 8.

3. Louisville. Dexter Heyman and Preston Brown had career seasons for the Cardinals, elevating the position and helping Louisville post another outstanding season on defense. Heyman and Brown finished in the top 15 in the Big East in tackles, and Heyman ranked fourth in the league with 16 tackles for loss. His play earned him second-team honors, and he leaves a big hole to fill for 2012. Preseason ranking: 3.

4. UConn. The Huskies were one of two teams without a linebacker on the Big East first or second team. But I thought this position group was vastly underrated for most of the year. Sio Moore came up with some big plays, and Yawin Smallwood and Jory Johnson developed nicely throughout the season. To illustrate how active Moore was, he was the top linebacker in tackles for loss with 16. This unit should be even better in 2012. Preseason ranking: 2.

5. USF. The Bulls were the other team without a linebacker named to the Big East first or second team but that shouldn't diminish the season DeDe Lattimore had. He had seven sacks, 13 tackles for loss and led the team in tackles. In fact, all three linebackers led the team, in Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington. But the group as a whole underachieved, as the Bulls struggled to get teams off the field and were often times out of position to make a play. Preseason ranking: 1.

6. West Virginia. Middle linebacker Najee Goode had a terrific season, earning first team Big East honors. But beyond him, there were few significant contributions. Injuries hurt and so did inexperience. Plus, the expected emergence of junior college transfer Josh Francis never materialized. Between Jared Barber, Jewone Snow and Doug Rigg, there was not much doing in this group. Preseason ranking: 5.

7. Pitt. The problem in evaluating Pitt is this -- Brandon Lindsey played both end and linebacker in the hybrid Panther role. Does he get evaluated with the line group or the linebacker group? He started eight games on the line, so I gave more weight to his contributions at end. However, I did take him into account for this unit, though it was not enough to life this group up much as a whole. Max Gruder was solid, but otherwise this was a lackluster bunch. Todd Thomas showed some spark but injuries slowed him down. Between Shane Gordon, Greg Williams and Tristan Roberts, there were problems all year. Preseason ranking: 6.

8. Syracuse. It was a struggle for the Orange on defense this season, and linebacker was no exception. Marquis Spruill had to make the transition to middle linebacker and struggled at times. Dyshawn Davis showed glimpses as a true freshman. Dan Vaughan actually was the leading linebacker in tackles. You generally want your linebackers to lead the team in that category, and that was not the case this season. But there is talent here. Another year of development for Spruill and Davis could yield big things in 2012. Preseason ranking: 7.

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