Just after the start of Tuesday’s UConn football preseason practice, head coach Jim Mora watched his receivers closely. They were working with all five quarterbacks, running short 10-yard routes.
On several occasions however, routes were not complete and passes were a bit off, causing the ball to hit the turf.
“Catch the ball! Catch the football!” Mora repeated with his voice raised.
“Demand more of yourself. Please demand more of yourself,” he continued.
Shortly after, fade passes were being caught in the back corner of the end zone, the receivers often landing one foot just barely in bounds. That’s all they need for a college reception, and to satisfy the new coaching staff.
“I don’t like to yell,” Mora said after practice. “I really don’t like to yell. But I think sometimes that’s one of the ways you can motivate to challenge them. And sometimes, you know, it’s scripted. Sometimes it’s unscripted, sometimes you script it to see how they react. Sometimes it just comes out.”
The receiving group was one of UConn’s strengths last season despite the Huskies losing two of their top pass-catchers — Matt Drayton (knee) and Cam Ross (foot) — to season-ending injuries.
Keelan Marion led the team with 474 receiving yards and five touchdowns on 28 catches, just five less than classmate Aaron Turner. Both have returned to Storrs along with Drayton and Ross, who are back from their respective ailments.
“It’s one of the most talented rooms I’ve been in since I’ve been here. We got guys, and we got coaches to call plays for us,” Ross said. “Iron sharpens iron, and I’ve always believed in being a product of your environment and as long as our environment is competitive, carrying ourselves with a sense of urgency with a good mentality, I think everybody in that room could be a Wide Receiver One.”
As much as the receivers count on each other for motivation, Mora will be there instilling the urgency as he did Tuesday. He said he needs to see more before he is impressed. More consistency in catching the ball and in running routes.
“Keelan (Marion) had a very good day after I jumped them, he was the one that I noticed rise up,” Mora said. “[Monday] it was (red-shirt freshman) Darius Bush, I saw him rise up. The whole group just needs to rise up – and that’s gonna happen. We’re five days in and it’s gonna happen because they work at it and they’ve got a great attitude.”
Quarterback update: The most important position in football has yet to be filled in Storrs, with Mora still needing to see more out of his quarterbacks before establishing a starter. Five days in he has yet to see any separation.
Each quarterback has been rotating with the first receivers and the first offensive line in an effort to give equal reps. Ta’Quan Roberson and Tyler Phommachanh still started with the ones and twos, respectively, on Tuesday.
“One of the problems that we’re having right now is we’ve had some minor injuries at receiver some pulls, some strains, so there’s a lack of consistency for the quarterbacks in terms of who they’re throwing to.I think that’s really affecting them, but eventually as they get synced up with everybody we should hopefully see some separation,” Mora said.
Mora spoke about how impressed he was with Phommachanh after seeing him at full speed for the first time on the first day of practice last Friday. Phommachanh, who started three games for the Huskies in 2021 before suffering a season-ending ACL tear, may be seeing some fatigue set in that wasn’t there on Day One.
On Tuesday, Mora noticed a decrease in Phommachanh’s accuracy and force on his throws.
“I told him, ‘You’ve got to find that blend of patience and pushing yourself and we have to realize that you’re still rehabbing,’” Mora said.
“I’m not at all discouraged. I just want to make sure that we continue to make the right decisions with him going forward so he can make the progress and not have a setback.”