NEW BRITAIN – On the heels of a 1-6 start to the 2021 campaign, the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils looked helpless entering November. Despite sputtering out of the gate, senior inside linebacker Chizi Umunakwe said the team wasn’t going to hand out any free passes in the final month of that season.
“We weren’t able to achieve what we wanted to so we’re just going to ruin everybody else’s season,” Umunakwe said.
Umunakwe and the Blue Devils delivered on their promise, winning three of their last four games to finish with a more respectable 4-7 record.
Now that the team knows what they were able to accomplish when they put the pieces together, Umunakwe believes there’s no team that should be able to beat the Devils as long as they focus on each other in 2022.
Thursday, the Blue Devils will open the book on their 2022 season with the start of training camp, and Umunakwe says they won’t let hubris derail this season like it did a year ago.
“I feel like we went into last season really overconfident thinking everything was going to fall our way and forgetting how hard it is to get a win,” Umunakwe said. “It’s not easy to get a win at the Division I, Division II or Division III level and it showed when we lost that first game to Southern Connecticut State.”
Head coach Ryan McCarthy agreed he thought the team was immensely talented in 2021 after an 11-2 season in 2019 – the last time the Blue Devils took the field.
“We had more than enough talent,” McCarthy said. “In fact, we probably had as much talent as anybody in the league which is hard for a coach to hear and it’s hard for a coach to say, but it was the reality of it.”
A Week 8 loss to Long Island University served as a wake-up call to the Blue Devils for changes that had to be made.
“There was a lot of finger pointing while we were going through that losing season,” Umunakwe said. “Toward the end everybody just took accountability and said, ‘this is our team. The coaches can only do so much, and the best teams are the ones where the players police each other.’
It was more about dignity and pride than anything else. As a man, when you’re losing games back-to-back, especially games that you’re supposed to win, it doesn’t feel good.”
According to McCarthy and Umunakwe, the Devils have seen an impressive turnout throughout the summer from the team. The senior linebacker has spent much of his summer on campus preparing for the season and is trying to lead by example heading into camp.
“We have to make this the best camp of our lives if we want to achieve everything we say we want to achieve,” Umunakwe said. “Talk is cheap. Last year all we did was talk about how great the team was going to be and how talented the team was.”
Umunakwe explained a noticeable uptick in team chemistry as they gear up for the fall – something they lacked in 2021. He explained the buy-in from the team this summer and their commitment to getting 1% better every day.
“Our goal was to be season ready by the first day of camp,” Umunakwe said. “If we had to play UConn the next day, physically we wanted to be ready.”
McCarthy explained that when healthy, the inside linebackers are the strength of the defense at this point. In his final season, Umunakwe is taking the lead on building an identity from the middle of the Blue Devils’ defense.
“Our identity this year has to be being the most physical team on that field - I mean really physical,” Umunakwe said. “We want to take it back to old school football like Ray Lewis or the Miami Hurricanes back in the day. I just feel like we have to take our intensity to a whole new level.”
McCarthy is pointing to junior edge rusher Noah Washington as a player who he wants to see take the next step. A season ago Washington played in all 11 games tallying 23 tackles and three tackles for loss.
On the other side of the ball, CCSU is returning junior quarterback Romelo Williams along with the rest of their quarterbacks from a season ago. McCarthy says there is room to grow on the offensive line after becoming a very balanced offense in the late stages of last season.
Despite losing top wideout Tyshaun James to the NFL, however, McCarthy is still tagging his pass catchers as the strength of the offense.
“One through 14 it’s as deep of a room as I’ve been around,” McCarthy said.
Two players who the head coach believes could be primed for a breakout season in 2022 are redshirt-freshman tight end Naj Johnson and sophomore wideout Isiah Williams.
Last season Johnson only reeled in three receptions for 26 yards, but McCarthy says, “he’s got all the talent in the world.”
Williams was second on the team in receptions with 23 and yards with 243 trailing only James.
Only time will tell if the Blue Devils have truly made it back to their winning ways, but the winning mindset seems to have made its way back into New Britain.
Camp gets underway this Thursday before their week one bout against the UConn Huskies on September 3. CCSU’s first home game will be September 10 playing host to Sacred Heart.