The Connecticut Huskies learned some difficult lessons on the way to a 5-7 record in the 2012 football season. Near the top of the list was a 3-2 record in non-conference play that came as a result of inconsistency.
Win one, lose one, win one, lose one.
Then the Huskies opened Big East Conference play with four consecutive losses that left them scrambling to become a bowl-eligible team in the final three weeks of the season. They almost pulled it off. But with camp opening Friday, the UConn veterans know they can't take that approach in 2013.
"It's so important to get off to a good start, especially with the teams we have on our schedule," UConn cornerback Byron Jones said Tuesday at media day for UConn's new conference, the American Athletic Conference. "If we win early, we'll be able to do well throughout the entire season. We need to string some wins together. Last year we would win, lose, win, lose. . . . I mean, come on."
The Huskies will face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in school history with Towson, Maryland and Michigan visiting Rentschler Field the first three games and a trip to Buffalo wrapping up the slate before play in the American begins. Towson may be a FCS school but the Tigers finished 7-4 last season and gave No. 3 LSU a battle in Baton Rouge before losing 38-22.
"I think the key thing with this conference is not the conference teams playing themselves but the non-conference games," UCF coach George O'Leary said at American media day in Newport, R.I. "You've got to get your share of wins there if you're going to take notice. That's how I look at it. This is my third conference I've been in. And I believe that's what you need to do, because that's how other schools are looking at you – not within your conference, but how you do outside the conference."
Huskies coach Paul Pasqualoni, starting his third season at UConn, admitted there is a sense of urgency coming off consecutive 5-7 seasons and missing out on bowl competition both season. This is a critical year for Pasqualoni and his staff. UConn was picked to finish seventh in the American preseason media poll, not exactly a vote of confidence for improvement.
But if Pasqualoni doesn't lead the Huskies to a bowl this season, he may not get another chance.
"I would say this: The way I look at it, the way I approach it, it's very hard for me to create more urgency because each season to me is a separate kind of entity," Pasqualoni said. "I think from a perception standpoint of where the program is going I think everyone would like to see it happen in this day and age [Pasqualoni snaps fingers], everybody wants greatness to happen quickly.
"I'm a firm believer that in this game and in life greatness doesn't happen overnight. I think for 99 percent of the population, it does not happen overnight. We're trying to do this thing the right way. We haven't gone the route of ‘Well, let's get a quick fix here or a quick fix there' because I don't think there are quick fixes. I think I'm very proud of the players we have in our program and how they work, how they act, who they are."
Pasqualoni made it clear he won't hesitate to turn to younger players if the veterans aren't getting the job done.
"I'm very proud of the two recruiting classes we brought in," he said. "I think this recruiting class, this past recruiting class, as they develop as college football players at UConn, they're going to be really good players. I mean legit, big-time Division I players that you can line up against future opponents…let's go play Tennessee, let's go play BYU, let's go play these teams, put your hands on them and go nose-to-nose. I think we're going to have guys that can do that."
Jones thinks the maturity of this year's team will translate into some experienced players stepping into leadership roles. The Huskies see quarterback Chandler Whitmer, back for his second season, as the primary leader. But Whitmer knows he has to elevate his game as well.
"Everybody looks at the quarterback," Whitmer said. "I've always said the quarterback gets too much credit and too much blame. That's the position and that's the life we're dealt. It's a ‘What have you done for me lately' kind of business. You don't want to press and force anything but the time is now."
Whitmer doesn't want to face that same end of the season situation that put so much pressure on him and the Huskies in the final games last year.
"At the end of year we're counting games and how many wins we need," he said. "It's motivation. It's fighting for your life. But it's another distraction where you can't just totally focus on the game plan and going out and playing. That's something that hopefully we don't have to deal with this year. We can rack up wins early and just focus on our next game. That will give us the best chance."
Pasqualoni knows there is no time to waste. The focus on improvement begins as soon as the Huskies step on the field Friday.
"I think there is a tremendous urgency to improve this year," Pasqualoni said. "I think we've got to improve things like taking care of the ball [UConn had 26 turnovers in 2012], playing smart and not giving up a play here and there at an inopportune time on defense, you know, we've been great on defense but we've given up a play here or there on defense.
"We haven't been good enough yet on offense to overcome those things. So I think there is urgency to get those things done and I think if we get those things done then I think the improvement will be there. There will be evidence. It will be documented and we can get going with the program – and that's what we all want to do."
Friday's practice is open to the media but not the public. The following practices are open to the public: Tuesday, Aug. 6 (3-5:30 p.m.), Tuesday, Aug. 13 (3-5:30 p.m.) and Saturday, Aug. 17 (8:45-11:15 a.m.). All three practices will be held on the practice fields behind the old Memorial Stadium/new UConn Basketball Development Center site, off of Alumni drive. Parking for these practices will be available for free in the "D" lot. In case of inclement weather, please check UConnHuskies.com for updates.