STORRS - The depth at running back that UConn football coach Randy Edsall was so excited for this season took a hit Monday morning when sophomore Nate Hopkins suddenly quit.
Hopkins, the Huskies’ second-leading rusher in 2017 with 343 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns, now plans to transfer. A sophomore from Flower Mound, Texas, Hopkins (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) was apparently displeased that he wouldn’t be UConn’s featured back.
“We had some changes in the depth chart. He just told me he wanted to go somewhere else,” Edsall said after practice Monday evening. “I think we have some decent players at running back. And I think the competition there is pretty good.
“The one thing we’re going to do, we told him what we thought his role was going to be. A short-yardage and goal-line guy, that’s what we thought he would be. We just try to be honest,” Edsall added. “If guys don’t want to do the role that we think, or they think they can have a bigger role somewhere else, God bless ’em.”
Hopkins’ departure leaves UConn a bit short-handed but Edsall and his staff remain excited about the potential they have in the backfield. Among those players who perhaps would have played a key role whether Hopkins remained or not is junior Donevin O’Reilly.
A 5-foot-9, 191-pound former Glastonbury High standout, O’Reilly came to the Huskies last season as a walk-on but has quickly emerged as a team leader of sorts and could see some significant playing time.
“There’s pressure but it’s exciting for me,” O’Reilly said. “To be able to play on such a high level in front of a lot of people, it’s more excitement than pressure. I just have to do what I know how to do, play football, and the rest will come.”
O’Reilly was one of three Huskies to awarded scholarships before training camp began last week, Edsall said Monday. Carlton Steer, a senior defensive lineman from East Hartford, and wide receiver Mason Donaldson also are now former walk-ons.
“It was a great surprise,” O’Reilly said. “I came in last year in Week 2 and I’ve been working really hard to earn that scholarship and earn my way on this team.”
O’Reilly spent the 2015 football season at Merrimack College, playing mostly special teams as a freshman for the Division II North Andover, Massachusetts school. He spent the second semester of that academic year at a community college before applying to UConn.
“I actually had plans on playing when (coach Bob) Diaco was here,” O’Reilly said of the 2016 season. “But that didn’t work out so I had to be a regular student for a season, which was hard. That was my first time in 13 years of not being able to play football.”
When Edsall was re-hired, O’Reilly immediately fired off a half-dozen emails to UConn staffers reminding them that he was on campus and anxious to play.
After an open tryout, Edsall and his staff gave O’Reilly a shot. Needless to say, they don’t have any regrets.
O’Reilly and redshirt freshman Zavier Scott spent the majority of Monday’s practice with the starters.
Sophomore Kevin Mensah, the Huskies’ leading rusher last season (541 yards), is still working his way back into the good graces of the coaching staff after serving a brief academic-related suspension in the spring. Mensah (5-9, 195) was impressive with the UConn second-stringers Monday, catching a long pass at one point and also sprinting some 82 yards for a touchdown with the offense backed up in another drill.
O’Reilly and most of the Huskies were apparently shocked to hear of Hopkins’ departure.
“I was definitely hurt when he told us the news,” O’Reilly said. “He was a great contributor to our team as well.”