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STORRS—Devontae Houston almost always wears a smile.
That smile has only grown wider as his role in the UConn football team offense has grown.
The sophomore running back from Roanoke, Alabama has helped power the Huskies’ powerful rushing offense, which is averaging 59.5 yards per game and 5.6 yards per rushing attempt in two games. UConn (1-1) has rushed for more than 240 yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2018.
“He’s always smiling,” UConn coach Jim Mora said after practice Tuesday at the Shenkman Center. “We like his personality. He doesn’t say much, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him not upbeat and happy. During the game it’s a bit different. But he always had that energy around him. him. When you have that energy around you, it’s contagious. It rubs off on other people. … If you ask any of his teammates, they’d say he’s an inspirational player to them. And they feed on its energy.
Sophomore Nate Carter is the star guard, having carried the ball on 46% of the team’s running plays this season. He rushed for 190 yards in the Huskies’ season opener at Utah State and 123 in their 28-3 home win over Central Connecticut State on Saturday. He’s averaging 156.5 rushing yards per game, good for second place in the FBS, and has rushed for over 100 yards in consecutive games. He ranks eighth in the FBS in yards per carry (7.28).
Houston and second Brian Brewton punch off the bench.
Houston set career highs for rushes (four) and rushing yards (41) while Brewton hit career highs for carries (10), rushing yards (62) and receptions (three) against Central.
Running backs Victor Rosa – a Bristol Central freshman – and Robert Burns and wide receivers Aaron Turner and Dajon Harrison were also deployed in the running game. Rosa scored his first career touchdown in his first appearance on Saturday.
UConn’s depth at running back came as a relief to first-year quarterback Zion Turner, who is still learning on the fly. The Huskies offensive line, anchored by a trio of veteran center Jake Guidone and guards Noel Ofori-Nyadu and Christian Haynes, opened up gaping holes for the team’s stable of running backs to break through.
Each running back brings a unique style to the table, allowing the Huskies to put on different looks on defenses.
“We saw the advantages on Saturday and different types of runners, which sometimes presents problems,” Mora said on Tuesday. “Nate runs very, very well. And he’s powerful on the inside and he can get into the open field and make people miss. Then you put Devontae in there and Brian, they have this quick first step, they can go sideways and put their foot in the ground and hit the hole and get vertical. … It was good to see Victor in there. … Then the guy who didn’t carry the ball much but did a really good job was Burnsy. He had a huge play the other day when we ran the quarterback on fourth-and-one, he basically carried Zion (Turner) for the first down. Pieces like this do not go unnoticed by the staff. We have a ton of respect for Robert Burns.
Houston saw most of his action return kicks on special teams in 2021. He also had 11 receptions for 102 yards. This season, Houston has rushed for 44 yards six times, averaging 7.3 per carry.
“He’s a badass,” Mora said on Tuesday. “He will take a hit and pop up. And he never complains.
The running back group lives by the motto ‘Pound the rock’.
“There’s a competitive advantage in the running back room,” Houston said Tuesday. “Everyone challenges each other. Everyone has their own strength. Everyone helps each other. »
Running the ball against Syracuse on Saturday at Rentschler Field won’t be easy. In 2021, the Orange finished 21st in the FBS in average total offensive yards allowed (332.2), while allowing 127.9 rushing yards and one touchdown per game.
Syracuse held Louisville to just 137 rushing yards en route to a 31-7 win in its season opener on Saturday.
“We’re going to play our game, we’re going to pound the rock,” Houston said Tuesday. “We push each other every day. The best person in the room is the room. Everyone has their strengths, everyone has their weaknesses, but at the end of the day, when we’re connected, there’s no one outside who can stop us.
Turn the starting quarterback who advances
While Mora was clear that he and the coaching staff were committed to Turner as the team’s starter for Saturday’s game and beyond, the first-year coach said back-up Cale Millen, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery, could gradually be incorporated into the game plan. more in the coming weeks.
“The way I’ve always thought the best way to do that is to commit to a guy and put all his eggs in that basket and support him like crazy and make sure he understands that he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder,” Mora said. “He just has to go out and play.”
Millen appeared in each of the Huskies’ first two games, carrying the ball twice for 22 yards against Utah State and adding two carries for nine yards against Central. He also had a pass play called against CCSU but was forced to throw it away.
“I watched Cale for a long time and I know his throwing motion, and when he got here he wasn’t throwing it like he used to,” Mora said. “What we’ve seen over the last few weeks is that the movement is starting to feel smoother and it’s putting zip on the ball. He becomes this guy who went to Oregon on a scholarship as a big prospect. We’re going to start involving him more in the game plan.
Huskies defense still led by committee
The Huskies have quite a few voices involved in calling defensive play. But they figured out how to make it work.
Assistant coaches Dalton Hilliard (defensive backs), Siriki Diabate (linebackers) and Kenny McClendon (defensive line) consulted with Mora and team analysts to call plays while defensive coordinator Lou Spanos is off.
Diabate was a linebacker at Syracuse from 2011-13 and helped lead the Orange to the 2012 BIG EAST title. McClendon played on the defensive line for Central Michigan and recorded 37 tackles, 7 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles in 47 matches. Hilliard played safety at UCLA for Mora and had 114 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles in 41 games. He then returned to the program as a defensive graduate assistant under his former coach.
Mora made the defensive calls in-game, but not without first consulting Hilliard, Diabate and McClendon on headphones, asking them, “What do you like? What do you want to hear? What are you guys thinking? How do we feel?
“The way it works during the week is that we plan together, so we spend hours and hours and hours cooped up in this room together,” Mora said Tuesday. “Talking about the game plan and what is good against what and when we want to make calls in certain situations. So I think we’re all walking on the pitch really on the same wavelength. But in any game, there are adjustments to be made. Things happen. Things don’t work exactly the way you practiced them or they make you look different. With Dalton, Siriki and Kenny… there is constant chatter and constant input. And after each series, it’s: ‘What do you like? What do you think we should do? And they have their say. …And then during a set I always tell them, ‘tell me what you like. It’s not just me calling, we’re calling.
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