STORRS - The UConn football team is being hit hard by injuries, even as it struggles to compile wins in coach Randy Edsall’s second stint in Storrs.
On Tuesday Edsall confirmed that starting center Ryan Crozier would have season-ending knee surgery and that the team’s top receiver, Hergy Mayala, would miss the next 4-6 weeks while recovering from a high ankle sprain. In addition, returner Jordan Swann will miss at least one game with a concussion.
All three players were hurt in the Huskies’ 41-38 loss to East Carolina Sunday. The Huskies (1-2, 0-1 AAC) will be in Dallas Saturday (4 p.m., ESPNEWS) to take on SMU (3-1) at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
Mayala hurt his right ankle on the second play of the game against the Pirates. He had a team-high 11 catches for 183 yards in the team’s first two games.
Against East Carolina, Mayala was replaced redshirt freshman Mason Donaldson. Donaldson, who will start Saturday, had an outstanding game with six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
Crozier tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in the third quarter Sunday. He will have surgery Friday to repair the injury.
Junior Dan Oak took over at center for Crozier and will be in that role going forward.
Edsall said Tuesday that Oak played well while seeing his first significant action for the Huskies.
“Dan Oak is a tough, competitive, get-after-you type guy,” Edsall said. “He’s like a gnat sometimes. You try to keep swatting him away.”
The Huskies will also be without reserve defensive end James Atkins for 4-6 weeks as well. Atkins hurt his calf in practice last week.
Secondary changes aplenty
Edsall and his staff made numerous changes to their depth chart and projected starting lineup this week, most of which had little to do with replacing injured players.
UConn (1-2, 0-1 American) is last in the nation in passing yards allowed, giving up 413 per game, and most of the changes came in the secondary.
Brice McAllister, a senior, will replace Tyler Coyle, a redshirt freshman, as the Huskies’ fifth starting defensive back. Redshirt freshman Tahj Herring-Wilson has supplanted senior Tre Bell at one cornerback spot.
“We’ve got some guys out there that are young, that are a little bit unsure of themselves and we’re trying to get them over that stage,” Edsall said. “And then we’ve got some older guys. They might have some past experiences in their head that maybe weren’t good.”
Edsall said some his players are having trouble identifying formations properly, and others at predicting what pattern combinations will emerge.
“At that position you have to have a short memory. But you have to go out there and be aggressive,” Edsall said.
McAllister was a starter when the season began, but was benched in favor of sophomore Marshe Terry. Edsall said this might be the last opportunity for McAllister to prove he deserves the job.
“It’s just not him. It’s everybody,” Edsall said. “That’s the kind of mindset we want. If you don’t perform, you’re not going to have that job.”
Not all of the changes UConn made were to combat negatives. True freshman tackle Ryan Van Demark has impressed the coaches enough in limited time to convince them he deserves to start. Senior Tommy Hopkins will, for now, be second-string.
“Ryan Van Demark is just a guy that has been gifted to play this game,” Edsall said. “He’s got to get stronger, he’s got to put weight on. But he picks everything up out there. He can bend, he can run.”
There weren’t many bigger UConn fans on Jan. 1, 2011 than 11-year-old Brian Keating.
So when Keating’s favorite team was playing Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl that night and he was cheering them on from his Darien home, a friend of his family painted the boy’s head blue just like the Huskies’ helmets looked against the Sooners.
“It even had the ‘Block C’ on the side,” Keating recalled proudly on Tuesday.
These days, the biggest UConn fan is the team’s long snapper. Keating, a 6-foot, 231-pound freshman who played for Darien coach Rob Trifone’s powerhouse Blue Wave, has taken over for the sidelined Nick Zecchino and has performed solidly in the two games he’s played so far.
“I think Brian Keating has done a really good job,” said Edsall, noting that Zecchino’s illness - which forced him to return to his New Jersey home recently - is likely to force him to miss the remainder of the season.
Although Keating is a walk-on, Edsall and his staff recruited Keating to join the Huskies as a long snapper. The coach was immediately struck by Keating’s affection for the program and the school.
“This guy is so passionate about UConn and UConn football,” Edsall said.
Keating may only be on the field for a handful of plays each game, though he had 10 key snaps last week against East Carolina, but he is enthusiastic about each one.
“I’m playing for everybody in this state. This state deserves a great football team,” said Keating, who added his collegiate career so far has been “a dream come true every day.”
And although Edsall and company spent some time recruiting Keating last winter, there was little doubt where Keating would attend college.
“It was UConn number one, whether there was a scholarship or not,” Keating said.