University of Connecticut president Susan Herbst openly campaigned for a spot in the ACC last year, but instead the Huskies are stuck in the American Athletic Conference -- and they seem likely to continue struggling for a while in a far lesser league than the ACC. UConn has had a combined 10 players selected in the past three drafts, including a school-record five in the 2013 NFL Draft. But those guys had played on back-to-back 5-7 teams, and while there is a potential first-round pick on the roster this season, another 5-7 season might be expecting too much from this team.
Should he choose to turn pro a year early, inside linebacker Yawin Smallwood could become just the second first-rounder in school history; RB Donald Brown was the first in 2009. While defense has been a constant the past few seasons, Smallwood is one of just four returning starters on that side of the ball this season. The offense has been awful the past two seasons, with the passing attack especially rancid. There are zero playmakers at receiver and also questions at quarterback. That puts a lot of pressure on the rushing attack and the offensive line. UConn played in a BCS game following the 2010 season, and that memory is getting further and further away.
Top senior prospects
DT Shamar Stephen: Stephen (6-foot-5, 323 pounds) has great size but doesn't always use it well. Still, he is at his best against the run and when he uses his size to his advantage. While he is a huge man, he's not as strong as you'd think. On the flip side, he has some athleticism, and if he can maintain his consistency this season, he would become an intriguing prospect.
OT Jimmy Bennett: He had the talent and athleticism to be a big-timer, but injuries have wrecked his career. Bennett (6-9, 306) received a sixth season of eligibility in the offseason. He has played in just 19 games in his career, and 12 of those occurred last season. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2008, he missed the 2009 season with a knee injury, played in just four games in 2010 because of thumb and knee injuries, and saw time in only three contests in 2011 after another knee injury. Bennett plays left tackle for UConn, and if he can stay healthy this season, some team might take a chance on him as a right tackle in the NFL. He does need to add some bulk.
ILB Yawin Smallwood: If this guy was toiling for a better program, a lot more people would know about him. Smallwood (6-3, 244) -- a junior -- is the prototype middle linebacker: He is tough, is always around the ball and delivers a blow. Smallwood has started 24 consecutive games and has been extremely productive; he has 214 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, a pick, three forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown. He has top-flight instincts, runs well and is comfortable in space. At this time, he appears to be one of the top five or six linebackers in the nation. He played safety, linebacker and quarterback in high school in Worcester, Mass.
CB Byron Jones: Jones (6-1, 190) has good size and speed. He is heading into his third season as a starter but his first at corner. Jones played free safety the past two seasons. It's expected that he will bring a physical nature to corner; he had 88 tackles last season to go along with an interception and two pass breakups. UConn has a recent history of solid cornerback play (both starting corners from last season were third-round picks in the 2013 draft) and Jones' upside is high.
RB Lyle McCombs: He lacks ideal size (5-8, 169), but he has shown an extraordinary ability to handle a heavy workload. McCombs, a junior, has had at least 20 carries in 18 of his 25 career games, including eight contests with at least 25 carries. He has average speed and is quite comfortable running between the tackles. McCombs became more of a receiving threat last season. He missed a game last season after an arrest on a disturbing the peace charge and also was suspended by the school for 10 weeks in January of 2011 after marijuana was found in his dorm room.
Three must-see games of 2013
Sept. 21 vs. Michigan: Yep, that's right -- the Wolverines are traveling to East Hartford, Conn. play at Rentschler Field. It will be a chance for Stephen and Smallwood to go against a talented offensive line. McCombs has struggled in non-conference games against schools from other major conferences, but Michigan's defensive front seven has some questions.
Oct. 12 vs. South Florida: The Bulls are expected to have two of the best pass rushers in the AAC in Aaron Lynch and Ryne Giddens, so their work against Bennett will be worth watching.
Nov. 8 vs. Louisville: Louisville's offense should be the best in the AAC, so Smallwood -- who had 11 tackles in an upset of the Cardinals last season -- will be on the spot. Jones will be tested by Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater and a plethora of talented receivers.