STORRS, Conn. – Connecticut football coach Bob Diaco has erased any doubt surrounding the Huskies’ quarterback situation as the season opener rapidly approaches.
Bryant Shirreffs, a junior who started 12 of UConn’s 13 games last season, will be Diaco’s starter — even though backup Garrett Anderson has been highly praised by the coaching staff since last spring and through the first 15 practices of preseason camp.
Diaco indicated Wednesday that the incumbent always had the job.
“That’s never changed,” Diaco said after the first of two practices Wednesday. “He’s taken over and is moving his game forward. We don’t have a quarterback controversy. We’re not going into practice 16 wondering who the quarterback is.”
UConn’s season opener is Sept. 1 against Maine. With Navy, Virginia, Syracuse and AAC favorite Houston on the schedule in September, the stability at quarterback should establish a distraction-free zone for the Huskies.
Most had assumed Shirreffs, who passed for 2,078 yards and nine touchdowns last season, would be the guy. Diaco certified everything with his statement Wednesday.
As recently as last week, Diaco had called the quarterback situation a true competition. He had set that tone on Aug. 2 at media day for the American Athletic Conference when he said that Shirreffs, a 2014 transfer from North Carolina State, was being pushed just before the start of camp.
“That’s still competition,” he said then. “Garrett Anderson is not drifting off into the night. This guy is a high-level competitor and very mature.”
Of course, it never hurts a team for two guys to keep pushing each other – especially at that position. And it does not cause a coach any pain to praise the backup, who might be asked to fill in at any time.
Anderson, a transfer from Laney Junior College in California before the 2015 season, worked hard to be ready last season and it paid off on Nov. 21, 2015 when the Huskies upset Houston. Shirreffs, who took a beating behind an ordinary offensive line, had been knocked out of the game and backup Tim Boyle was taking snaps. Anderson, UConn’s third stringer, surprised everyone by lining up as a tight end in the fourth quarter. He took a swing pass from Boyle and kept his composure under pressure as he threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Noel Thomas with 9:48 remaining.
The play gave UConn a 10-point lead and the Huskies held on for a 20-17 win that spoiled Houston’s perfect record.
That shows the value of keeping Anderson ready to go. In three games last season, he was 2-for-2 passing. But he also spent time on the kick return team and felt he was a total player rather than a quarterback waiting his turn. Anderson also had a strong spring game for the Huskies, bringing even more attention to his versatility and ability to respond in different situations. He’s a guy who loves the game and wants to help the team in any way possible.
Having a clear-cut starter has been unusual for UConn in preseason practice. Before Diaco arrived in Storrs, previous head coach Paul Pasqualoni entered almost every season in his tenure with at least two – sometimes three – quarterbacks in the running for the top slot on the depth chart.
Diaco clearly feels good about the quarterback spot and the fact that Shirreffs has stepped forward.
“It’s really a lot of fun that way,” Diaco said.
Two more quarterbacks earned Diaco’s praise Wednesday. He indicated he has been pleased by redshirt freshman Brandon Bisack and true freshman Donovan Williams.
“It’s a healthy group,” Diaco said. “They really help each other. They’re all getting ready for when their opportunity comes and they’ll all get an opportunity. And we’ve been pleased with all four, right down to Donovan. The freshman, Donovan, special player, talented player.”
UConn has 10 returning starters on offense. With the Huskies coming off a bowl appearance and hoping to have the momentum to start attracting better home crowds, the performance of the offense is weighing on Diaco’s mind.
“I think it’s pretty obvious we’d like to make an improvement with our offense,” he said. “I’ve heard the quote that they ‘struggled.’ That is true, but it’s not entirely true. They did improve, from [2014 to 2015]. I’m really looking forward to the improvement from 15 to 16.”
Diaco would like to see his quarterbacks and running backs – Arkeel Newsome and Ron Johnson – make more decisions for themselves. Those decisions should be made with a deeper understanding of the offense and lead to surge on offense.
With so many players returning and with so many of them with the experience of more snaps in games, Diaco talks about “system continuity.” He says that puts his players in a mentally anticipatory role “which only creates fast-acting play on a day-to-day basis.”
For Bryant, who wilted some under bad protection from the line last year, that means making a “UConn quarterback decision”, as Diaco calls it.
“Bryant is improved in all areas,” Diaco said. “He’s bigger, faster, stronger. He’s healthier than he’s ever been, physically and mentally. But the biggest thing for Bryant is he’s been a season-trained quarterback. A year ago, he quarterbacked. He quarterbacked an offense. He quarterbacked the way he believes a quarterback should play.
“This year he understands he needs to quarterback his team. I’m ultimately responsible for the football. If you don’t like what happened with the football, come talk to me. The next guy is Bryant.”
And that is official now.