STORRS - Despite its struggles a year ago, the UConn football team possessed a pretty impressive 1-2 punch of runners in the backfield. The Huskies had two players gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground, the first time that had occurred since the tail end of head coach Randy Edsall’s first stint in Storrs.
Things haven’t changed much this season, except that instead of a quarterback and a tailback doing the running, it’s going to be two tailbacks this year for the Huskies.
Running back Kevin Mensah returns for his junior season, trying to build on the 1,042-yard campaign he put together in 2018.
But quarterback David Pindell’s 1,142 rushing yards aren’t likely to be replaced by the Huskies’ new man under center, Mike Beaudry. Beaudry isn’t exactly slow, but the 250-pound West Florida transfer isn’t going to be mistaken for the ultra-speedy and shifty Pindell, either.
Instead the Huskies are likely to lean on running back Art Thompkins, a grad transfer from Toledo, for the left hooks and uppercuts that will follow Mensah’s jab steps.
Thompkins amassed 1,427 yards rushing in three seasons of play with the Rockets, and he racked up another 291 yards receiving.
It would seem UConn has more than a puncher’s chance on most offensive plays to gobble up yardage on the ground. And Mensah and Thompkins certainly don’t seem to mind sharing the workload a bit.
“It just makes the offense more effective. They (defenders) are worrying ‘Who do we have to key on?’ They can’t key on both people,” Mensah said Sunday. “The fact that we bring two to the table is going to be good.”
With 18 days until their season opener against Wagner, the Huskies have yet to release a depth chart or announce any starters. In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether Mensah or Thompkins begin the game in the backfield. Edsall is likely to ride the hot hand either way.
“May the best man win. At the end of the day it’s all about the team,” Thompkins said. “Coaches and the staff are going to put us in the best position for the team to win.”
That obviously is the bottom line. UConn, perhaps the worst team in all of FBS a year ago, hasn’t done much winning in recent years. The team’s backfield duo is confident that will change, however.
“I’m confident about how we can be used in this offense. I think we can be dominant as far as our receivers, dominant in the offensive line, our quarterbacks. Everybody has a lot to bring to this team. I feel we can be a very explosive offense this year,” Thompkins said.
UConn’s options at running back don’t end with Mensah and Thompkins, either. Donevin O’Reilly is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury, and the senior from Glastonbury is ready to contribute if called upon, too.
There is healthy competition for playing time, but it seems none of it has brought out any enmity between the competitors.
“We love each other. We’re one big family in that room,” Mensah said.
The coaches were so pleased with their depth at running back that sophomore Zavier Scott, who played in 10 games at the position last year as a reserve and has plenty of promise, was moved back to wide receiver.
Adding to the expectations that they will have dominant run game, the Huskies return four of their five starters on the offensive line.
As much as he believes in their abilities, Edsall hasn’t been exactly pleased with either Mensah or Thompkins during recent practices.
“They have to get better,” Edsall said. “Those two guys have to continue to work hard, get better in pass protection, do the things they need to do. They have to become complete backs. Right now they’re not complete backs. And if they’re not, Donevin O’Reilly is going to sneak in there and take some snaps away from those guys.”
In a season in which the Huskies have added grad transfers at many key positions, including quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and safety, Thompkins is glad he arrived at UConn in the spring to help him acclimate to the program faster.
“It’s allowed me to get my feet wet. I got used to the coaches, the players and especially school. I was able to get a head start on the grad program I’m in,” Thompkins said.
Mensah admits the team’s offense will look a little different this season, especially with offensive line coach Frank Giufre taking over as offensive coordinator, but things worked rather well on that side of the ball last season and the Huskies aren’t re-inventing the wheel this preseason.
“A little bit,” Mensah said. “We’re still going to run the ball. We’re still going to pass it.”
And, providing their counterparts on defense can pull their weight, the Huskies are planning to run their way to a winning record.
“This team wants to win. Last year, we underachieved. We’re trying to go places this year we haven’t been in a while,” Thompkins said.
NOTES: The Huskies held their first intra-squad scrimmage of training camp Saturday. Edsall said it involved 134 plays, including 47 for the first-team offense. “Defensively I thought there were some really good things,” Edsall said. “Offensively I didn’t think we were as sharp as we had been during the week.” … Beaudry seems to be taking the majority of the snaps with the starters, but Edsall said he is not ready to name a starting quarterback. “When we’re ready to decide, we’ll decide. But we have to have a reason,” Edsall said. “Somebody’s gotta give us a reason to decide.”