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Rant Sports 100 in 100 College Football Previews: No. 75 Connecticut Huskies

Today, we’re 70+ days away from the kickoff of the 2012 college football season. As such, we’ll preview the No. 75 team in our Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football previews, the Connecticut Huskies.

With a total of 14 returning starters– most importantly, 9 on defense– Huskies coach Paul Pasqueloni will be working with a talented, but somewhat inexperienced team in 2012. Connecticut will depend on a stout running game to set the tone given the uncertainty at quarterback, and will be looking for a huge improvement on the defensive side of the ball to ensure an overall improvement in 2012.

Impact Players

Offense

To say the Huskies’ quarterback competition is wide open would be an understatement. Theoretically, there could be as many as five guys competing to be the starting signal caller for offensive coordinator George DeLeone, and a starter will not emerge from the pack until well into fall practice.

Junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer promises to be the prohibitive favorite to take the first snaps of the 2012 season, but his lead is paper thin. Last year’s starter Johnny McEntee (2110 yards, 12 touchdowns in 2011) and two-time Connecticut High School Player of the Year and true freshman Casey Cochran promise to be Whitmer’s biggest competition.

With this instability, a successful running game will be paramout for the Huskies. 2011 Freshman All-American Lyle McCombs (1244 yards, 7 touchdowns in 2011) will be asked to carry an even heavier load this fall. An injury to McCombs would be devastating to the Huskies, given the general lack of experience and production among the backs farther down the depth chart from McCombs and an even more unproven wide receiving corps.

Senior tight end Ryan Griffin is the leading receiver returning for the Huskies (499 yards, 3 touchdowns in 2011) and will need some serious help from Boston College transfer Shakim Phillips and Clemson transfer Bryce McNeal. If all three guys can improve their games, it would be a huge boon to a Connecticut offense that will be run-first.

Everything above is a moot point, however, if an offensive line unit which struggled in 2011 doesn’t improve this fall. Led by seniors Adam Masters and Steve Greene, the offensive line must be more consistent and less erratic this coming season.

Defense

The Connecticut defense in 2011 was the ultimate paradox. While the Huskies had the fourth-best running defense in the country– allowing only 86 yards per game on the ground–their pass defense was terrible at 118th in the country–allowing an average of 281 yards through the air per game.

Most of the Huskies’ starters return in the secondary, so it’s reasonable to assume there will be substantial improvement in that part of the unit, bringing things back to the center.

The Huskies have always had quality linebackers, and this should again be their trademark unit in 2012. With the return of Jory Johnson, Yawin Smallwood, and Sio Moore– who between them accounted for 277 tackles and 17.5 TFLs last season– this position is the least of the concerns for defensive coordinator Don Brown.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson will be asked to be the leader of the secondary this fall and will expect substantial help from senior Dwayne Gratz and sophomore safety Ty-Meer Brown to round out a unit that will be scrutinized very closely.

Senior defensive end Travardo Williams– who finished second in Division I last season with 12.5 sacks– leads the charge up front.

Schedule

The Huskies open up at home against the Massachusetts Minutemen who enter their first season of FBS play this fall. The North Carolina State Wolfpack comes to Storrs in Week 2 before the Huskies make two consecutive trips to play the Maryland Terrapins and the RS No. 89 Western Michigan Broncos.

The non-conference slate ends with a home game against Buffalo before the Big East opener on October 6 at Rutgers.

A solid 3-2 or 4-1 split in the first five games should lead the Huskies down the path toward a bowl appearance– albeit a minor bowl– this season after missing out at 5-7 last year.

Kris Hughes is the College Football Network Manager for Rant Sports and a member of the Football Writers Association of America.

You can follow him on Twitter or check out his Facebook page.

Kris is also the host of Rant Sports Radio on the Blog Talk Radio Network Wednesday evenings at 8 Central Time.