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UConn’s backfield hopes to stir up a storm this season

Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

STORRS, Conn. – The weather forecast includes a slight chance of rain for early Thursday, but it isn’t expected to linger into the evening hours when Connecticut opens its football season against Maine at Rentschler Field.

UConn’s actual concern is thunder and lightning, a man-made force that coach Bob Diaco hopes will drive the Huskies’ offense this season. Thursday will provide the first chance to unleash UConn’s offensive fury.

No one knows exactly if that forecast will come true or not.

Ron Johnson brings the thunder. Arkeel Newsome is lightning. Joining together in the UConn backfield, these two running backs will symbolically carry the promise and expectations of a team trying to discover its offensive niche and alter its image.

They can be found on UConn’s depth chart for the UConn game, listed together at the tailback position: “3 Ron Johnson (Jr., 5-11, 226) OR 22 Arkeel Newsome (Jr., 5-7, 182).”

“There will be more than enough opportunities for both,” Diaco said recently when asked about the two sharing UConn’s workload.

The split duty is something both players have accepted.

“It’s exciting to have some of the work load taken off and have someone else doing that,” Newsome said. “We’re helping each other out. We’re pushing each to get better and better.”

In the process, the Huskies will be able to utilize their different running styles to change the pace against opponents. Newsome’s lightning is full of quickness, shifty moves, speed changes and versatility.

“He’s got it all,” Johnson said.

Newsome will tell anyone listening that Johnson is a “violent” runner. Johnson loves that description so much it turns a regular conversation into a punishing warm-up drill.

“Never turn down contact,” Johnson said when asked to define violent. “If a guy comes at you, hit him, hit him and KEEP hitting him. Don’t STOP hitting him. Because when the fourth quarter comes, they’ll move out of the way.”

Last season, Newsome led the Huskies with 792 yards on 183 carries with six touchdowns. Johnson, who came to UConn from Naples, Florida, made the most of his limited touches with five TDs on 88 attempts. He netted 224 yards. That works out to per-game averages of 60.9 yards for Newsome, a home grown product from Ansonia, Connecticut, and 18.7 yards for Johnson.

Johnson knows that wasn’t a good season, but after an impressive spring, he worked hard to get in shape over the summer. Diaco told reporters a couple of weeks ago that Johnson has been a candidate for offensive player of the day at practice almost every day.

“That’s one of those things I really pride myself on, just making sure I come out here every day and give my all – just to show my teammates how much I love them,” Johnson said.

That’s what his entire summer was about. He lost 12 pounds and feels better that he ever has since putting on the UConn uniform.

“My goal was to get bigger, stronger, faster,” Johnson said. “I wanted to get in the film room, making sure I learn the playbook and prepare myself. It was just about getting my body in shape to be as versatile as possible. I feel better at this weight.”

With an experienced offensive line and an experienced quarterback in Bryant Shirreffs, Diaco feels even better about building the foundation for a solid offense.

It all starts with a little thunder and lightning.

“Arkeel and I complement each other,” Johnson said. “We have a bond on and off the field and it’s going to show at game time. It helps a lot. We’re comfortable with each other. That’s one of the main things. We know when one of us is down and the other isn’t. We don’t look at it as competition. We look at it as helping the team more. We have something special here offensively.”

UConn’s backfield hopes to stir up a storm this season

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