EAST HARTFORD - When the facilities building his team utilizes was erected in 2006, UConn football coach Randy Edsall joked that the meeting room set aside for the team’s kicking specialists should have padded walls.
Now in his second tenure as the Huskies’ head coach, Edsall’s jokes about the sanity of his kickers haven’t quite yet abated.
And his belief that placekicking is as much a mental challenge for young men as a physical one continued during the Huskies’ annual spring game Saturday afternoon at Pratt & Whitney Stadium.
Edsall, as he did in practice earlier this spring with many fewer onlookers, iced his own kicker Saturday in the final seconds by taking time outs.
“He didn’t pass that test during a couple other scrimmages we had,” Edsall said afterward of Michael Tarbutt. “So you come out and put him through that.”
Tarbutt, who missed a number of key kicks last season including late in games against East Carolina and Cincinnati, came through in a big way this time.
Kicking for both teams in the Huskies’ annual public scrimmage, Tarbutt was 9-for-10 at PATs and made all three of his field goal attempts, hitting from 43, 51 and 54 yards.
The 51-yarder came as time expired and just after his coach tried to shake his nerves.
“I’m starting to use the motto ‘bet on yourself.’ That’s the one I want to believe in. Whether people believe a kick is going to go in or not, whether it’s distance, a pressure situation, I know that I’m going to bet on myself putting that thing through the uprights,” Tarbutt said.
Before a crowd of roughly 2,000 fans on Saturday, Tarbutt was mentally strong.
“A lot of it was mental. I knew I had the leg. I was able to do a lot more mental stuff, read a lot of books, listen to a lot of people talk,” Tarbutt said of his offseason work.
He’s not exactly ready to wager but Tarbutt firmly believes the Huskies’ special teams will be much improved in 2018.
“I feel like we can be the top field goal unit in the entire country and that’s what we’re training for,” said Tarbutt, who missed two crucial late kicks that would have sent two of UConn’s 2017 losses into overtime (a 33-yarder field goal vs. East Carolina and a penalty-lengthened extra point vs. Cincinnati).
Special teams is one of only three areas the Huskies are hoping to improve upon, of course, joining their offense and defense.
The Huskies, 3-9 in each of the last two seasons, have a few months more before their season opener here against self-proclaimed national champion Central Florida on August 30.
The teams didn’t exactly keep score, but the first team offense produced 48 points, the second team offense 30, and the second team defense seven thanks to safety Quimonei Bell-Hunter’s late interception return for a touchdown.
Quarterback David Pindell wasn’t exactly fighting for a job Saturday but he appeared to entrench himself as the team’s clear No. 1 heading into the fall.
Pindell was 12-for-19 for 208 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the first half. Both of his scores went to wide receiver-turned-tight end Aaron McLean on deep throws.
The coaching staff has been working with Pindell to deliver the ball with more zip, and he appeared to do so in the scrimmage.
“He’s getting better at it. He’s working at those things,” Edsall said. “The thing is I think we have a good understanding of what he does really well and we’re going to take advantage of that.”
Pindell was sacked four times in the scrimmage, though that number was a tad unofficial. The UConn defenders were ordered to play two-hand touch on the team’s quarterbacks, so the officials erred heavily on the side of caution any time a defender came close to Pindell.
The rising senior had a couple long runs whistled dead just has he appeared to get into the open field.
“A couple of them would have been gone to the house,” Pindell said with a smile. “But the referee blew the whistle so that’s how it is.”
Testing the DBs
Coming off a season in which it was at the very bottom nationally in pass defense, UConn showed signs Saturday that its secondary will be improved in the coming season.
It gave up some large chunks of yardage to Pindell at times, but UConn’s starting secondary also had two key interceptions. Omar Fortt had a hand in both plays, intercepting one and tipping another that Windsor’s Tyler Coyle hauled in.
“They’ve made strides. We still have a lot of strides to make,” Edsall said of his defensive backs. “We’re not anywhere close to where we’re going to be or want to be in the secondary. We’re going to have freshmen that are going to come in and challenge for playing time.”
With an American Athletic Conference schedule full of offensive-minded teams often eager to throw long passes, Edsall wants his defenders to be prepared.
“The thing they have to continue to understand is you can’t fall asleep. You can’t have one mental lapse back there. You have to be on your game all the time,” Edsall said.
Oh, Oh, Oh, O’Reilly
Though likely starter Kevin Mensah did not play in Saturday’s game, the Huskies received a number of strong performances from its corps of running backs.
Redshirt freshman Donevin O’Reilly may have made the biggest impact. The Glaston-bury High product ran 18 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns with the second team, and also caught six passes for 49 yards and another score.
“He’s a young man that has a big heart and a big want-to,” Edsall said of the 5-foot-9, 191-pound O’Reilly. “I love watching the kid play. I love watching him compete.
“He’s going to give you everything he’s got,” Edsall added.
UConn’s other backs were rather productive Saturday, too. Nate Hopkins had 106 yards and two scores of his own, while Zavier Scott had a 61-yard touchdown scamper and 94 yards on the ground.
Some 50 former UConn players, including many with NFL experience, were on hand for the game. Wide receiver Marcus Easley, safety Andrew Adams, wide receiver Kashif Moore, and running back Andre Dixon were among those on the sidelines for the afternoon.