Posts Tagged ‘UConn’

When UConn takes the court tonight in Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on the 11th-ranked Tar Heels, it will be facing a different team than the one it beat by 41 points.

The biggest reason for the difference is the return of forward Jessica Breland, who missed all of last season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It proved the biggest challenge in her life.

“I don’t think I ever encountered anything like that in my life,” she said of feeling helpless. “I could say it was up there with going through treatments; having that mindset of going into the hospital and sitting there and not be able to do anything but get chemotherapy.”

Breland saw how much her teammates missed on the court as North Carolina went 19-12 and lost in the first rounds of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments a year after winning 28 games. Through six months of chemotherapy, all she could think about was her return.

She was cleared to resume basketball-related activities last February, but the going was tough. Between chemotherapy, and the emotional and physical tolls taken on her.

“I’ve (had) been thinking about my first game ever since I was going through the treatments,” she said. “Now that I’m getting back on the court, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ I haven’t been on the court in a long time so I don’t know what to expect or how to feel.”

The cancer was detected early enough that it is in remission, and according to her coach Sylvia Hatchell, Breland won’t be “cancer free for five more years.”

“It’s just a joy to have her back out there,“ Hatchell said. “She’s such an inspiration to the rest of the girls, especially when she steps in there and takes charges with all that she’s been through. She’s a come back kid.”

As a result of Breland’s return to health, a foundation was started in her honor at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center called the Jessica Breland Comeback Kid Foundation. All the funds go to the pediatric division at the center.

Breland, a senior, has started all but one game this season and is second on the Tar Heels in scoring at 13.2 points per game — nearly a point off her career best — and leads the team with 8.0 rebounds per game.

On top of the numbers, she was included in the list of finalists for the Wooden Award.

“That should be an inspiration to every kid playing basketball,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “Every person that’s not even involved in sports. I think it goes to show you that part of getting well, part of getting healthy in life is your outlook and how positive you are and the kind of attitude you have, Obviously, she has a tremendously positive personality and had a passion for wanting to get back to playing basketball and was able to do it.”

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STORRS, Conn. — The morning after UConn announced the indefinite suspensions of backup quarterback Cody Endres and offensive guard Erik Kuraczea, head coach Randy Edsall wasn’t about to divulge the specific team and university policies the players violated.

But he didn’t shy away from his disappointment in his players.

“I don’t want to talk about guys that aren’t here,” Edsall said Thursday. “The only guys that mean anything to me are the guys that are out here practicing. … The guys that aren’t here, I don’t want to talk about them because I’m wasting my breath, because obviously they didn’t feel it was in the best interest of our team to do what was right to be out here.”

Whatever the transgression, it sent a jolt through training camp. Endres is known for being easy going and has a reputation as one of the team’s nice guys.

Said starting quarterback Zach Frazer: “It’s definitely a shocking thing. It just all of a sudden hit us. We weren’t

expecting anything like that, we don’t expect that on our team. It was (Endres’) decision and he has to live with what happened to him. I wish him the best of luck. It was his decision, and it went that way.”

Frazer and Endres were the only quarterbacks with game experience. Last season, Endres started seven games and completed 98-of-154 passes. He had 1,354 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. Should Frazer sustain an injury during Endres’ suspension, the Huskies could be in trouble.

The loss of Endres means three untested players — Michael Box, Johnny McEntee and Leon Kinnard — are all battling for the No. 2 spot in Endres’ absence, however long that might be.

If Thursday morning’s practice was any indication of who holds the early lead, it’s Box. The redshirt freshman out of Suwanee, Ga., completed a higher percentage of his passes than his peers and had a better grasp of what was being asked of him.

The 6-foot-3, 209-pound Box said his biggest task is to make smarter decisions. He along with the other quarterbacks don’t hesitate to ask the two people who know the system best — offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead or Frazer — for advice.

Recognizing the opportunity at hand, Box called the added repetitions a “nice adjustment.”

“Things happen and you never know when your time is going to be called,” Box said. “All you can do every single day is train like you’re going to be the starter. You’re always one play, two plays, three plays away from going in and you just have to be ready when your time is called.”

Losing Kuraczea, who started five games last season, doesn’t hurt the Huskies as much as the loss of Endres because of the team’s significant depth across the offensive line.

Edsall said linemen Steve Greene, Gus Cruz and Gary Bardzak are vying for second-string spots.

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STORRS, Conn. — The air Zach Frazer breaths isn’t as sparse as it was a year ago. Nor does he see anyone on his heels when he looks over his shoulder.

For UConn’s quarterback, it’s a refreshing change of pace from a year ago. Amazing what a little job security will do for you.

Frazer begins the season firmly entrenched as the Huskies’ signal caller, a far cry from last season when Frazer had to do battle with Cody Endres. Injuries and performance created inconsistency at the position that, following four wins to cap last season and a solid spring, have the redshirt senior finally in charge.

“I’m definitely a lot more confident,” Frazer said. “I feel we worked hard over the summer in trying to get everyone in here working toward the ultimate goal, which is to try to win this season.”

Even with the full endorsement of his coaching staff and teammates, Frazer doesn’t take his spot for granted. He knows that if he fails to execute, Endres will be waiting to step in.

Still, coach Randy Edsall believes this year’s Huskies have a leg up on last season’s team because there isn’t a quarterback battle.

“I think that helps with the continuity of your offense, that people know that that’s the guy — they get used to one guy,” Edsall said. “Then I think that quarterback can really take on that leadership role a little bit more.”

In eight games, Frazer completed 116 of his 218 passes for 1,461 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

A year ago, the questions of who should start when both quarterbacks were healthy made Frazer uncomfortable and Edsall went as far as to restrict Frazer’s media availability.

But with a year under his belt running the offense installed by second-year coordinator Joe Moorhead, Frazer said he has gone from understanding to knowing what is expected of him.

“This year we have a great opportunity,” he said. “We’ve had the offense installed, we have plenty of starters coming back offensively and defensively, so I feel like we’re going to exceed those expectations and come out and win.”

The improvements started to show down the stretch of last season. It began when the Frazer-led Huskies narrowly lost on the road to conference champion Cincinnati in a shootout. The following week, Frazer paced UConn in an overtime thriller against his old school, Notre Dame. The Huskies tacked on three more wins, including an impressive win over South Carolina in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.

In those games, Frazer was expected to be more of a game manager who just so happened to have a big arm. Now, in his final season, Frazer appears ready to put it all together. His teammates have taken notice through the early days of training camp.

“He’s definitely matured,” center Moe Petrus said. “He’s taken on more of a leadership role. He’s got guys organized for 7-on-7 (drills) — he’s at every one, he’s directing the group, making sure guys are on time, holding guys accountable. His passing game — I think he has one interception in 350 passes this camp. He’s doing really well. He’s come a long way since last year and the year before that.”

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New UConn RB D.J. Shoemate. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images).

STORRS, Conn. — High on D.J. Shoemate’s left deltoid is a tattoo of the Lion of Judah. The lion, adorned with a crown of jewels, views the horizon with an intense focus.

The Lion of Judah is held in high esteem by several religions, including Christianity and Judaism. And according to UConn’s new tailback, the tattoo’s owner is much like the lion in that both are blessed and focused.

The University of Southern California transfer began his new journey in earnest Monday when UConn opened its 2010 training camp. Because of his high profile origin, Shoemate, a junior, was the center of attention.

“It’s phenomenal,“ Shoemate said of UConn. “I really like the atmosphere as far as the work ethic, the guys getting after it day-in and day-out; they don’t take any breaks. They don’t take anything for granted. Every play, every rep — everything that they do is full speed, full go.”

He committed to USC as a 15-year-old sophomore from Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., and chose to honor his word to then coach Pete Carroll. He arrived as a wide receiver, then moved to fullback.

The experience wasn’t what Shoemate had in mind, but he felt obligated to the program to do what was asked of him.

Used sparingly, he had two runs for two yards and two receptions for 23 yards and a touchdown with the Trojans.

“At fullback, I felt I had a lot more to offer,” he said of his time in Los Angeles. “As a player, I’m a little bit more diverse. They utilize the fullback a lot differently than other places in the nation. It just wasn’t for me.”

Even with the change of coaches from Carroll, now with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, to former Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, Shoemate didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.

That was until the NCAA levied punishment against the program earlier this summer. It opened the door for Shoemate to look elsewhere. He looked at Texas, Texas Christian, Boise State and North Carolina.

But it was a conversation with friend and high school teammate, Johnny McEntee, that turned his attention to UConn.

McEntee is a redshirt sophomore quarterback for the Huskies.

“I think when he came out here I think he really could see himself going here,” McEntee said. “Before, when he talked about Connecticut, he had no idea what it was. Connecticut, we don’t know where that is in California. He came and checked it out, then he realized it’s a cool place, a great program. Probably the facilities, coaches — everything. Everybody treated him well. They don’t have anything like this, from what I hear, at his school.”

Before Shoemate considered changing schools, McEntee invited him to UConn’s game at Notre Dame, a bye week for USC. That game, in which UConn rallied to win in overtime, along with McEntee’s encouragement, landed the one-time ESPN 150 prospect with the Huskies.

Coach Randy Edsall didn’t put on the full-court press. Instead, he treated Shoemate the same way he has countless others before him — by telling him to take his time and make the right decision.

“I was trying to guide him from more of a parental standpoint and just say, ‘Hey, here’s what I think you need to do,’ ” said Edsall. “Knowing that I wanted him here, but I didn’t want him here unless he felt good about being here and he knew that he could be happy being here. That’s all. It takes a mature person to figure all that out. He’s a mature person.”

Having never truly experienced the recruiting process, Shoemate did some soul searching before deciding whether he could change coasts.

Sure, he misses his family and the world he’s grown accustomed to. That includes In-N-Out Burger — the absence of which, Shoemate joked, will lead to noticeable weight loss.

“There were times when I was homesick, but you just got to get through it,” he said. “You have to realize I chose this decision, I sacrificed so much to follow my dream. I sacrificed so much to chase this game that I love so much.”

The offense run by coordinator Joe Moorhead is similar to what McEntee and Shoemate ran in high school. But what sealed the deal for the 5-foot-1, 225-pounder wasn’t the available scholarship or the opportunity to play, but his belief that his experience at UConn is going to be “for sure, it’s going to be genuine.”

Shoemate is absorbing everything his fellow running backs tell him as the team prepares for its season opener at Michigan on Sept. 4.

Starting tailback Jordan Todman said he isn’t feeling slighted by all the attention bestowed upon the new arrival, even though Shoemate has yet to produce on the field.

“It’s nice to have anybody on the team who is here to win, great competitors” said Todman, who added that he’s not worried about attention. “If he can help us win, that’s great. As for the running backs’ standpoint, we love it, we’ll take anybody in. He comes in, now he’s part of the family.”

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NORWICH, Conn. — When the UConn baseball team looks back on its season, the last image, despite their school-record win total, will be of what could have been.

Twice in the late innings of an elimination game on Sunday, the Huskies failed to produce and ultimately fell to Oregon, 4-3, in the Norwich Regional of the NCAA baseball championship at Dodd Stadium.

The Huskies (48-16) stranded nine runners on base, three in the final two innings.

“We spent an awful lot of the season playing, we won 22 games in a row and we relied an awful lot on two-out hits, two-out RBIs, two-out knocks under pressure and I blame myself that we kind of got away from some of the things we did in the preseason with small ball and being able to execute a little bit like Oregon did,” UConn coach Jim Penders said.

With the win, Oregon advanced to face Florida State on Sunday night. A win by the Seminoles would give them the regional championship. A loss would set up a winner-takes-all showdown tonight at 7 p.m.

In the eighth and ninth innings, UConn put two runners on with no outs. The Huskies picked up a run in the ninth, but their struggles were compounded by happenstance.

UConn’s No. 8 and 9 hitters Billy Ferriter and John Andreoli reached on singles with Andreoli’s hit being thrown away by Ducks’ third baseman J.J. Altobelli to put both runners in scoring position with no one out. The Huskies’ leadoff hitter Pierre LePage launched Scott McGough’s slider to deep left field.

Andrew Mendenhall, who entered the game in the inning as a defensive replacement, went back to the wall and made a leaping catch, robbing LePage of at least a game-tying double. Instead he and UConn had to settle for a RBI sac fly.

“I just saw Mendenhall run back,” McGough said. “I thought it was going to be a pop-up, to be honest. He kept running back and running back. I’m like, ‘Uh-oh.’ Then he got to the fence and jumped. I didn’t know if it went over, if he caught it. It was like a split second that went by, but it felt like 10 minutes.”

Said LePage: “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just kind of crossed my fingers and prayed.”

The eighth inning was no less kind. George Springer and Mike Nemeth led off with singles. An errant pick-off throw by McGough went into center field, allowing Springer to advance to third. But the Oregon reliever settled down and struck out the next three UConn batters.

The Ducks (39-23) stuck with what got them this far. Using bunts and speed to pressure the UConn defense, Oregon’s small ball created chaos.

“Coach (George) Horton always has a saying, ‘get ’em on, get ’em over, get ’em in,’ ” McGough said. “And that’s basically what we did. … It’s pretty fun to see because it frustrates teams whenever you don’t give up that big gap shot.”

Steve Packard beat out a high chopper to second for a one-out single in the second. Jack Marder singled and Shawn Peterson followed with a single to drive in a run. Altobelli followed with a sac bunt down the first base line to score the second run of the inning.

Oregon manufactured another run in the third. K.C. Serna (3-for-3) walked and moved to second on a sac bunt by Marcus Piazzisi. Serna stole third and scored on Eddie Rodriguez’s ground out to second.

The final run scored in the fifth. Serna singled and Piazzisi’s grounder was misplayed at first by Nemeth and ricocheted off the bag and into right field, allowing Serna to reach third and eventually score on Danny Pulfer’s sac fly to right.

Even though the Huskies entered the regional as the No. 2 seed, they aren’t happy with setting a school record for victories and earning UConn’s first tournament win since 1979.

“We can’t miss this opportunity to build from here,” Penders said. “We got to continue to get the best of the best; the best of the best people and players and students.”

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STORRS, Conn. — Ask any self-respecting thief, and they’ll likely tell you that there is an art to stealing. It’s so much more than simply setting your sights on another’s possession and taking it.

The good ones — the experts — leave their mark. And to the untrained eye, that mark can’t be noticed.

It’s the bold thief, however, that let’s you know he’s been there, done that. He makes you feel insecure and paranoid, as if you could be victimized again.

No one blames the Texas Longhorns — or their legions of followers — if there’s a sense of panic the next time they see UConn’s Jerome Dyson.

Dyson scored a career-high 32 points and had two steals, one of which helped change the game’s momentum in the Huskies’ 88-74 upset of No. 1 Texas on Saturday at a packed Gampel Pavilion.

Associate head coach George Blaney, filling in for Jim Calhoun while the coach remains on a doctor-imposed medical issue, calls Dyson a “full-court player.” That was never more evident than one minute and 5 seconds into the second half.

Coming off the heels of a Kemba Walker layup, Dyson picked the pocket of Texas star Damion James in the corner opposite the Huskies’ bench. Seconds later, Dyson found a driving Walker for a three-point play. A Texas turnover and Dyson dunk not long after cut a one-time 10-point Longhorns lead down to three.

UConn (13-6) could have easily fallen out of the game, but instead realized it was very much alive behind its senior leader.

“It’s big because Kemba puts the pressure on the point guards so well, he has to turn his back,” Dyson said of his teammate setting up the play with his defense. “I’ve been trying to get a couple steals very now and then. He’s doing that so well, the guard doesn’t see me coming from the other side. I’m able to get that, at least one a game.”

Dyson didn’t have the across-the-board stat line of Walker (19 points, 10 assists, eight turnovers, six steals), but he played the role of dagger. Inside or outside, the senior harassed the Longhorns (17-2) all game.

It was the second loss in less than a week for Texas, which lost to a Kansas State team that features former Husky Curtis Kelly.

“He’s obviously a terrific player,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said of Dyson. “They know what they’re looking for, they use him. Even what they do with him moving the ball, he creates shots and rebounding angles for the big guys. You have to pay attention to him, obviously, but he’s got a great pace to his game. He’s very slippery, gets through the cracks. He does a lot for the team, he really does.”

Blaney said Dyson goes in straight lines, or in other words, goes right to the basket. Over, around or through his defender, the 6-foot-4 guard knows what he wants to do with the ball — and what makes him dangerous is he knows how to achieve his goal.

“Once I started hitting 3s, they started running at me,” Dyson said of his 4-for-8 effort from long-range distance. “It was a lot of the game for me. I could go to the bucket or I could make the 3. (Saturday) it was falling for me so it made everything easier for me.”

Easy enough that he all but stole victory away from Texas right be for its eyes.

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Why bother? Just end the season now.

Wednesday’s matchup between No. 1 UConn and No. 2 Stanford in Hartford was supposed to be Act I to this season’s national championship. A rematch from the past two Final Fours, which the teams split.

This was supposed to be the next step in the development of the next big rivalry in the sport. Instead, it sucked the air out of the season, depriving everyone of whatever drama that March might have in store.

Even a UConn-Tennessee meeting would lose its luster upon the opening tip-off. Remember, the Cardinal did to the Lady Vols last weekend what the Huskies did to them Wednesday in their 80-68 drubbing.

Any talk of this being of the same ilk as UConn-Tennessee is on hold for a few more years.

Even before the game, members of UConn’s 1999-2000 national championship team, which was honored at halftime, questioned whether the expectations may be too big.

“I think it is great that there are other rivalries,” said Husky legend Sue Bird. “There’s a lot to be made of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry. It’s one of those that may never get matched. That’s just the way it was.”

There was so much riding on this game.

Putting these teams together on Christmas Eve eve prompted a national television broadcast on ESPN2 despite not having a primetime slot because of the 5:30 p.m. start.

Halfway through, the folks in Bristol had to love what they were seeing: Stanford up by two and both teams playing as the other’s equal, exchanging blows and even runs that gave false impressions of control.

The XL Center was packed — all 16,294 seats filled — a first since UConn battled, you guessed it, Tennessee on Jan. 6, 2007.

Clearly, this was a big deal to the sport and its broadcast partner.

Stanford was universally considered the field’s greatest chance at grounding UConn (10-0), which has now won 49 straight games. The last team to beat the Huskies? The Cardinal (9-1) in the Final Four two years ago. Stanford even held a winning record against UConn entering Wednesday’s game.

That’s a lifetime ago, unlike UConn’s 34-10 run to start the second half.

“They’re head and shoulders above us, and they play just at a different pace than anybody,” Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said.

UConn-Stanford was to have a ripple effect through not just the college game, but the pros, too.

Maya Moore, UConn’s National Player of the Year, may have been the marquee name, but there were two others who were drawing the most attention.

Moore’s teammate, Tina Charles, and Stanford’s Jayne Appel, are viewed as the top two players available in April’s WNBA Draft. How each performed could influence who is taken by Minnesota with the first overall pick. The Connecticut Sun have the second selection.

It looks like Charles will be joining former teammates Renee Montgomery and Charde Houston in a UConn spin-off, Huskies North

She distinguished herself as the head of the class, finishing with 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting and 12 rebounds in what Huskies coach Geno Auriemma called “one of her best games” at UConn.

Appel’s line: 12 points, six assists and four rebounds. However, she was invisible, scoring five of her points after UConn was up by 20 points.

“I feel like she’s probably the one post player I know everything about; what she likes to do, she likes to shoot more with her left hand going to the middle,” Charles said. “Probably every little key thing about her game just (from) the fact that I’ve been playing against her since I was 12. I think it’s vice versa.”

Charles and the rest of the Huskies did exactly what you’d expect from UConn in a Nos. 1 vs. 2 matchup: They won. UConn has played 13 such games and are 11-2 and 8-1 when in the top spot.

“Our staff does a good job of telling them, ‘What’s the big deal?’” Auriemma said. “‘You’re at Connecticut. Are you surprised that No. 1 is playing No. 2?’” I said this to the guys (Tuesday), ‘Everybody runs for cover when it’s going to snow 10 inches. This is Connecticut. What do you think is going to happen in the winter time?’ ”

Stanford found out first hand that snow would have been the better option.

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Q&A with Sue Bird

UConn great Sue Bird spoke to reporters prior to Wednesday night’s game between No. 2 Stanford and No. 1 UConn. Bird, on break from her team in Russia, was in Hartford, Conn., for the induction of the Huskies’ 1999-2000 national championship team into the school’s “Huskies of Honor” program.

Q: Is this fun– it’s almost Christmas, you’ve got Stanford, it’s almost a sell out?

A: I think it has the makings for a memorable night. It’s always great to come back. There’s some of the women on this team that I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s really good to see them, see how they’re doing, hear what they’re doing and just hang out. We got to go to Coach’s house (Tuesday) night for dinner. Everybody had a great time.

Suh-wing, batter!

Q: What did you eat?

A: Chicken, pasta, veggies; we’re athletes, we have to get all the food groups in.

Q: Is this like a smaller, more intimate high school reunion?

A: Yeah, it definitely has the reunion feel. When we were in college, we spent so much time together, but such is life, when you graduate, everyone sort of separates a little bit. You can lose touch at times, so to see people and really interact and hear about what they’re doing is really fun.

Q: You were part of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry. Seeing what’s happening between UConn and Stanford, is that a testament that the sport doesn’t need UConn-Tennessee?

A: I play overseas, so I’m not really hip to the Stanford-Connecticut rivalry. Is there one right now? I’m not saying that with any disrespect. … I think it is great that there are other rivalries. There’s a lot to be made of the UConn-Tennessee rivalry; It’s one of those that may never get matched. That’s just the way it was.

Q: How do big regular season games like this one figure in the realm of a season?

A: I think it’s no secret that a lot of the games you play at Connecticut you win by a lot; that’s the nature of the beast. Those big midseason matchups are huge. Some of us were talking about it. You lose a game in the WNBA and it’s on to the next game. You lose a game overseas, you’re still upset, but there’s the next one. In college, you were devastated and distraught for days, weeks; you knew it in practice, you heard about it. There’s a lot of build up for the game, but if you lost, it was huge.

Q: Did you ever get bored with the blowout wins?

A: No, (Geno Auriemma) doesn’t allow for boredom because there’s probably going to be practice the next day and that’s probably going to be harder than what you experienced in games. There’s no such thing as boredom when you have to face him in practice.

Q: Have you seen much change in the college game?

A: As I was saying earlier, I play overseas to see the games. I have to stay up until, like, four in the morning and hope they are on the Internet, so it’s kind of difficult. From what I do see, the players are definitely more athletic — I can see that in the WNBA. The women that come in, you can tell there’s more athleticism. … I think teams now, there’s a lot more parity. Think about my class, there’s five of us in the top 15 that went to the same school. I don’t know if that happens any more. I feel like it’s more spread out.

Q: Going into the last game in 2000, Rebecca (Lobo) called it the “Backdoor-palooza. Did you go into that game knowing that the whole backdoor thing would be available?

A: No. That year we played Tennessee twice in the regular season and we split. The one thing I remember about both those games was, talk about a battle. Physically, mentally, it was just, those games were very difficult to play, to win. Heading into Game 3 of that little series being the national championship game, I think we were already prepared. But we didn’t know that’s how it was going to turn out.

Q: Can you imagine another decade like the one UConn has just gone through?

A: I don’t know. In think there is something to be said for the way Coach Auriemma coaches his players, the talent he is able to get and the unselfishness. It’s a characteristic you don’t see much of these days. … I don’t think you’ll see it. It’s hard to come by the first time, I’m sure. That’s one of the things a bout UConn players; you can talk about the talent, you can talk about the winning attitude, the hard work, the one thing every UConn player is unselfish.

Q: Did Stanford ever contact you about playing there?

A: Yes, that was my top — Stanford, Connecticut and Vanderbilt . I think at the time distance played a role. UConn was just right for me, though, more than anything. I mean, it’s a beautiful campus and all that other good stuff. … It’s hard to say no, and then I got in, so it was even harder to say no. That was on the refrigerator for a while in my house. I come from a family of Ivy Leaguers, I had to hold my own.

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STORRS — UConn football coach Randy Edsall isn’t ready to divulge his depth chart, but that’s not stopping highly-touted freshman wide receiver Dwayne Difton from spilling some of the beans.

Difton, the highest-rated recruit to ever commit to play for the Huskies, said Monday that he will be the team’s starting Z receiver, or flanker.

“I’m going to work really hard, real hard,” he said at the team’s media day. “Right now they got me as Z on the first team right now. I’m going to work hard, stay humble, stay determined and take it from there.”

Edsall didn’t confirm Difton’s claim, but said the team saw the depth chart Monday. All Edsall would offer is that Difton could crack the starting lineup for the Sept. 5 season opener at Ohio University.

Even with the starting nod, Difton said he isn’t about to let up. He has much more learning to do with the team’s playbook under new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Difton also wants to prove his coaches right in placing faith in him as a true freshman.

“The possibilities of my opportunities are looking good right,” he said. “Basically I’m going to contribute and do what I can for the team.”

Wearing the No. 1 as did another South Florida Husky, current New England Patriot Darius Butler, Difton has come in taking a very Butler-like approach in that he wants to be challenged. For him, it’s going one-on-one with Jasper Howard, UConn’s top cornerback.

“He just wants to get better,” Edsall said “We’ve said it as coaches and you see the No. 1 jersey and you’re thinking of Darius out there. That’s the way Darius was, he always wanted to go against the best guy. That’s just Dwayne’s mentality. He knows he wants to be the best he can be.”

There are still freshman mistakes being made and to be made, but all indications are that Difton’s learning curve is less than that of others.

Quarterback Zach Frazer said the competition is certainly greater this season at the position and has seen “great improvements” from the freshmen from their summer workouts.

“He’s a quick player,” Frazer said. “He’s definitely mobile and has good agility and good balance. He’s been working hard. … He’s making the most out of the opportunities that he gets.”

Listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, Difton brings a pedigree to the wide receiver position that the program has never seen before. He is part of a much-ballyhooed crop of first-year wideouts, joining Mike Lang, Malik Generett and Marcus Aiken who will compete with returning players Kashif Moore, Michael Smith, Brad Kanuch and Marcus Easley.

At St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Difton played for the state championship the past two seasons and worked under the tutelage of former NFL great Cris Carter. Having played in the highly competitive environment of Florida, Difton’s ability to succeed in pressure situations drew interest from across the country.

He initially committed to South Florida at the end of his junior year, but decommitted, saying he “jumped the gun.” It was a decision that opened the door for the Huskies. UConn, Minnesota, Rutgers, Colorado, Purdue and Tennessee vied for Difton with the Volunteers stepping into the picture just days before Difton committed to UConn.

The Huskies are glad the process turned out the way it did.

“From what I’ve seen so far, he’s as good of a route runner as I’ve seen come in as a freshman,” Edsall said. “He’s a very good route runner, he’s got very good hands, he’s got courage — he’s not afraid to go across the middle, and he’s got a good background.”

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