With the third offensive coordinator in three years for the UConn offense, it is not hard to figure out why there were struggles early on in 2014, especially inside the red zone.
The Huskies turned six trips into just two scores during the first two games against BYU and Stony Brook. Saturday saw the offense take a drastic step forward against Boise State, converting all four of their red zone opportunities into points, two touchdowns and two field goals.
“I think it’s just more time in the offense,” quarterback Chandler Whitmer said on Monday. “We’ve been in the offense since the spring, but until its’ tested with live bullets, you don’t really know where you’re at. We’ve played some good opponents and we’ve definitely made some improvements. That’s positive to see, there’s positive things we can take away from it, but we’re continuing to work and just seeing how much better we can get.”
A lot of the success has to do with Whitmer’s play directly, something head coach Bob Diaco touched on during his weekly meeting with the media.
“I thought Chandler made so many more positive decisions with the ball, where to go with it and when to run with it,” Diaco said. “When he was running and on the move, when to gas it for yardage and when to safely go down. I thought the timing was much better.”
Chandler concurs and credits the improvement to his better decision making.
“There were very little decisions where I was like, ‘why did I throw that ball?’” he said. “That’s something I’m trying to mature in my game and I’ve been trying to do it for a long time. I’m happy to see those steps moving forward, but there were even plays out there that I felt I could’ve done a better job. That’s every game, you’re never going to play perfect, but I’ll strive to be there and keep building from week to week.”
While the passing game has improved drastically, the running game and specifically the offensive line, need work. Diaco was more than revealing about the issues up front, that are limiting this team, offensively.
“The pressure is constantly on the offensive line,” Diaco said on Monday. “They are a group that needs a lot of mentoring and work. It’s no secret, it was no secret before I got here and it was no secret for you guys. The first questions you were asking me during our first opportunity was about, ‘hey, I know you don’t know this yet, but what are you going to do about the offensive line?’
“So, we’re in the midst of it right now and we need to help them be better than they would otherwise be,” he continued. “Those are the guys, so there won’t be a constant shuffling nonsense. They are all young, even the ones that are not, really haven’t played. The guys we are really counting on like Richard Levy and Andreas [Knappe] and Dalton [Gifford], they’ve never even played, let alone [Tyler] Samra, [Trey] Rutherford and [Ryan] Crozier, they just got here, so they need a lot of work, but they’re working.”
What will be done to help them?
“We need to be more sensitive as a total team to their needs than we’ve been,” Diaco stressed. “We’ve been working hard, but I think it needs another level of care. That might be systems, maybe really inspect the installation so we’re not a jack of all trades and a master of none. If we have a chance to master a few jobs, maybe we decrease some of the run menu and give them a few things that they can really sink their teeth into and do well. It’s not a play selection issue, it’s a play execution issue. All the plays look bad, every play looks like they’re [opposing defenses are] storming the castle. I’m watching the same thing you’re watching.”
The line gave up eight sacks on Saturday, but improved from the first (6) to second (2) half against Boise State. Whitmer has, at times, been running for his life from the snap, but he has improved his pocket presence and his composure, outside of the pocket, from game to game.
“From week one, to week two and now week three, I’ve definitely felt more comfortable,” Whitmer said. “I’m able to go back and watch the film and see what I want to do different, go to work during practice and improve on those and I’ve seen it translate into the game. I just want to continue to take those steps, preparation before the game and comfort level during the game.”
Being a young team and especially a young offense, the senior quarterback is looking to take on an additional leadership role in the first game away from Rentschler Field, under Diaco.
“Road games bring a different element, to get away from Storrs, get away from our comfort zone,” Whitmer said. “It takes a level of maturity for trips that we take on a plane ride, in a hotel and in a different setting. [We] just have to remain focused, as there’s a lot of distractions that could come about. That’s something we just have to do as seniors to help these young guys get ready and just know it’s another game, to be as ready and focused as we are for home games.”
Chandler, a Georgia native, will have a number of friends and family making the trip to Raymond James Stadium.
“My uncle actually lives in Tampa,” he said, “so him and my aunt will be there and I’ve got a bunch of people that I know in Tampa as well. It’s almost like my second home, to be honest. I spend a lot of time there, so I’ll have a good number of people [in attendance].”
The conference opener on Friday, is the start of the second season, which will go a long way in setting the tone, for the rest of 2014.