Edsall says UConn is a close-knit team

By Pat Eaton-Robb
Associated Press Writer / August 16, 2010

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STORRS, Conn.—The Connecticut Huskies plan to hold on to the memory of slain teammate Jasper Howard forever -- that's clear from the 15-foot tall photo and memorial to him in the lobby of its training center.

As difficult as it was for coach Randy Edsall's team to deal with the stabbing death of Howard in October, the Huskies emerged from the tragedy a more unified team.

"It has brought us closer together," Edsall said Monday at UConn's media day. "I think this is probably the closest team we've had in the 12 years that I've been here."

UConn returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense from a squad that went 8-5 last season and won the PapaJohn's Bowl. They are expected to contend for the Big East championship this season, after opening on the road on Sept. 4 against Michigan in the newly renovated 110,000-seat Big House.

UConn's losses last season came by a total of 15 points, and three of those occurred in the three games after Howard was killed outside the student union.

The Huskies snapped that losing streak by beating Notre Dame in South Bend, and won the rest of their games, including the 20-7 victory in over South Carolina in the bowl game.

"Just having that four-game winning streak really put guys into a perspective, knowing where we could be if we just put the peddle to the floor," said fullback Anthony Sherman.

Notre Dame transfer Zach Frazer, who spent the middle of last season on the bench with a knee injury, won the starting job in the spring over junior Cody Endres.

"I am a lot more confident," said Frazer, a senior. "I feel like for this upcoming season, we have a lot of starters coming back, a lot of momentum carrying over and I feel like we're ready and prepared and we're all on the same page as an offensive system."

This will be the second year the Huskies will be running co-ordinator Joe Moorhead's spread offense. The team lost its top receiver, Marcus Easley, to graduation. But the returning corps, which features juniors Kashif Moore, Isiah Moore and Mike Smith all have experience.

"When you know the system, you just go out and play, you're having fun," Frazer said. "And I feel everyone is at that point now. "

Jordan Todman is expected to carry much of the load in the running game, after running for just under 1,200 yards while splitting time last season with Andre Dixon.

But there are at least three other backs battling for playing time, including D.J. Shoemate, who transferred from Southern California this summer and is making the move from fullback.

"He's another great athlete, and that just makes us a better team," Todman said. "It's good to have guys around you, pushing you, that makes us all better players."

The strength of the team was expected to be its defensive front seven. But the Huskies have suffered some setbacks there.

Greg Lloyd Jr., who was planning to make a switch from linebacker to defensive end, will instead redshirt as he continues to recover from a knee injury suffered late last season.

Defensive end Marcus Campbell, who was expected to start,will miss the entire season with a knee injury.

The Huskies' linebackers might just be the best in the Big East, with senior captain Scott Lutrus, and Lawrence Wilson, who had 140 tackles a year ago.

Edsall was concerned enough about an inexperienced secondary to add coaching the safeties to his other duties. Sophomore Mike Lang is slotted to start at free safety after moving from wide receiver.

The Huskies were picked to finish fourth in the Big East in a recent media poll but will play home games against Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati, the three teams that finished ahead of them.

UConn has never played Michigan, but is very familiar with coach Rich Rodriguez, who never lost to the Huskies while at West Virginia.

Defensive tackle Kendall Reyes said UConn has had a winged helmet in the weight room all offseason to remind the Huskies of their goal. And after beating Notre Dame a year ago, they won't be intimidated by the mystique of the program.

"The big crowd won't get to us," he said. "They wear the same uniform -- helmets, shoulder pads, all that. You just want to beat the person across from you. That's all it is. Keep it simple and we can beat anyone we play."