There are two constants surrounding UConn's longest rushing and passing plays this season.
First, both times the ball was in the hands of the always dangerous Arkeel Newsome for a 79-yard catch and run against East Carolina and his 64-yard scoring run against Memphis. Another player, however, had a role that has flown a bit under the radar as junior receiver Aaron McLean was down the field sealing off defenders to allow Newsome to fly right by on both plays.
It is something I asked UConn coach Randy Edsall about at yesterday's press conference and he said McLean's attitude and level of play was something that came up earlier that day.
"He got accepted into business school," Edsall said. "He goes out there the other day and the bone popped out of his hand, he went back in and played. It is important to him, he wants to do well and he is a guy who goes out there and practices that way every day. I don't know if I'd heard him say more than 10 words but that is what he does, he goes out, he knows what his role his, he knows what his job is and he goes out and does it to the best of his ability each and every play, that is what we are trying to get done from everybody."
I remember last year asking then UConn offensive coordinator Frank Verducci about McLean because once again he caught my eye by throwing a block during the Navy game.
"McLean is really the exceptional one because he played two plays," Verducci said. "One play he did a kickout block like a fullback and puts the guy on the ground. The other play, he catches a 24-yard pass so give credit to him for his preparation and staying in the game. He had every excuse to not be focused but when those guys got gassed on the two-minute drill, he goes in and makes a play. It is not a scripted play, it is a scramble, it is an adjustment and he makes an adjustment and makes a play."
What stuck with me about that quote was that I thought McLean would see a jump in playing time after that game but that wasn't the case. He would catch just one more pass the rest of the season and went the final seven games of the season without having a reception. It was more of the game this season. He had three catches in the season opener against Holy Cross and then one in the next two games.
McLean's reaction to his lack of playing time tells you all you need to know about him.
"It made me work harder," McLean said. "I am not the kind of person who blames the coaches for me not playing, if I am not playing it is something I am doing so I have to work harder to play."
In a Sept. 30 game against SMU, he was certainly out there on the field as he set career highs with five catches and 122 receiving yards with 64 coming on his longest play since his days at St. Mark's.
"I have grown a lot as a player with what Coach (Aaron) Smith is telling me," McLean said. "I think one of the biggest advantages is my size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds). I am not going to be a guy to make people miss all the time but I can break tackles and use that to my advantage."
So how does he explain breaking free for a 64-yard touchdown reception.
"I had one guy on me and I knew I had a chance," McLean said.
McLean drew interest from Ivy League schools before committing to UConn so its hardly surprising to hear that he fulfilled a goal by being accepted into UConn's business school.
"It is a blessing because it is what I wanted to do," McLean said. "When I first came here, I didn't know what I wanted to do but now I think I want to be in management. I was nervous about getting in."
UConn has six wide receivers who have caught between 9-16 passes so contributions have come from a variety of sources especially since Hergy Mayala went down with a high ankle sprain. His teammates are thrilled to see McLean featured more in the offense this season.
"McLean is an incredible example of leading by example," UConn senior tight end Tommy Myers said. "He leads with his attitude and work ethic on and off the field. He doesn't say much but when he does, people listen."
Mayala has returned to the field for the first time this week since getting injured (ironically while throwing a block) early in the East Carolina game. I noticed that he wasn't wearing a protective boot when he was on the field before the Memphis game so I asked Edsall for an update on his progress. Edsall said Mayala is doubtful to play this week but it sounds like he is getting closer to returning.