UConn football team shifting players to new positions as injuries mount: 'Trying to find guys'

Connecticut head coach Jim L. Mora talks on the radio during the first half of an NCAA college football game against North Carolina State in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Connecticut head coach Jim L. Mora talks on the radio during the first half of an NCAA college football game against North Carolina State in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

STORRS — The worst of the schedule is over for the UConn football team, which has dropped three straight games against Power Five opponents.

The latter half of the slate has left room for optimism, with seemingly winnable games against more evenly-matched opponents.

But UConn, which hosts Fresno State Saturday at Rentschler Field (3:30 p.m.), is not entering this next phase with its best players available. The Huskies have experienced a significant rash of injuries dating back to training camp and through the first portion of a schedule that included Syracuse, Michigan and NC State. 

Twelve players having suffered potentially season-ending injuries and the sheer lack of depth for a young roster has complicated the season for first-year head coach Jim Mora and his staff. The staff has managed the injuries by moving players to positions they played in high school to provide depth and scout team players.

“Guys are doing dual roles and it is great, they are excited about doing it,” Mora said at his weekly press conference Tuesday.  “I think it makes it kind of fun for them too, takes them back to the high school days doing it both ways.”

Norwalk's Cam Edwards, who came to UConn as a defensive back, was one of the first to make the switch. The freshman played both ways at Norwalk High, where he was 2021 GameTimeCT Player of the Year, and has shifted from defensive back to running back.

The need at running back is glaring as UConn lost its top two backs in Nate Carter and Brian Brewton. Meanwhile, third stringer Devontae Houston is playing through shoulder pain.

Carter is out with a separated shoulder and will likely miss the remainder of the season. Brewton, the team's best kick returner, is out for the season with an elbow injury.

Mora said that he is particularly concerned about the diminishing depth at the position. True freshman Victor Rosa has seen an increase in reps and seems poised to take over as the lead rusher moving forward, although Houston will share the load.

Rosa, the 2021 CT Gatorade Player of the Year, has been joined by fellow freshman Edwards, who has been working with the scout team while taking a spot on the depth chart.

The other option is graduate student Robert Burns, who played sparingly last year after transferring from Miami.

 “We’ve got Victor (Rosa) and Devontae (Houston), who is fighting that shoulder injury wearing a red jersey out there at practice,” Mora said.  “He goes through practice without getting hit and then he goes out Saturday and plays, he is tough as nails. Burns is doing a lot of things for us and the guy after that has spent most of his time here playing defense.”

So the search for running backs is on.

“We look at our roster and ask, ‘Who on our roster, no matter what position, has played running back and could play running back?’ ” Mora said. “... We are searching high and low for guys.”

The other position hit hard by injuries is receiver, which has seen various injuries impact the depth chart. The preseason injury to top receiver Cam Ross followed by the broken collarbone for Keelan Marion in the first game took away UConn’s top two pass catchers.

And last week the receiving group lost another body when Old Dominion transfer Nigel Fitzgerald, who was scheduled to start this past weekend, suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice. 

“The receiver room has gotten light all of a sudden,” Mora said. “(Defensive back) Lee Molette was a guy in high school who played some receiver, so we put down on scout team a little bit. He will play corner for a series, and then turn around and play against our defense for a series. We are just trying to find guys.”

Also, quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson tore his ACL in the first quarter of that game and is done for the season. True freshman Zion Turner inherited the starting job. 

“When you lose your starting quarterback, your two top receivers and top two running backs, that is hard to replace,” Mora said.

On defense, UConn lost starting cornerback Kaleb Anthony to an ACL injury in the loss to NC State. Starting linebacker Ian Swenson had back spasms throughout the game, limiting his availability.

But while the defensive side has not been hit with as many injuries, the unit's depth has shifted as UConn moves players around.

Players such as Edwards are drawing on their high school experience to serve on the scout team as offensive options.

“Jordan Morrison, for instance, is a backup linebacker who plays special teams and has seen some plays on offense,” Mora said. “I have been told he is a pretty darn good receiver and maybe running back, so (Tuesday) on scout team he played both roles. That is how Cam Edwards ended up playing more running back.”

It remains to be seen if any of these players see game action at their new positions. As UConn moves off the Power Five portion of the schedule, the games should be more competitive.

 Not that the level of competition resulted in so many injuries. Mora said there have been non-contact injuries and some that have occurred in the flow of the games. Other came in practice, such as kicker Joe McFadden tearing his ACL during offseason workouts and Ross breaking his foot in preseason camp.

“Nigel (Fitzgerald’s) injury was non-contact, he just came down awkward,” Mora said. “Kaleb’s was pretty much non-contact, he didn’t take a hit, he was engaged. Keelan Marion, laying out and making a great play which was a freak thing, there’s nothing you can do with that. Ta’Quan Roberson was scrambling and blew up his knee, kind of a normal play but his foot got caught awkwardly. Cam (Ross) in practice just gets folded over.

“I am not sure what you can do.”

12 DOWN

UConn players who are likely done for the season because of injuries:

QB: Ta’Quan Roberson

WR: Cam Ross

WR: Keelan Marion

WR: Nigel Fitzgerald

RB: Nate Carter

RB: Brian Brewton

TE: Brendan Heatherman

OL: Ben Murawski

OL: Brady Wayburn

K: Joe McFadden

DB: Kaleb Anthony

DL: Matt Hoffman