It was a foregone conclusion that a running back from the Valley would be taking part in UConn's Senior Day festivities. Now there will be two backs from one of the most talent rich part of Connecticut being honored on Saturday.
Arkeel Newsome, who rewrote the Connecticut High School football record books during his unforgettable four-year run at Ansonia High, won't be able to play against USF due to the upper-body injury he suffered in a recent win over Tulsa. Shelton High graduate Jason Thompson is one of four players listed as a junior who will be taking part in Senior Day festivities. With injuries to Newsome and leading rusher Nate Hopkins, Thompson could get more offensive touches than at any other point in his career.
"Obviously I'm excited for a great opportunity, my last time playing at Rentschler," Thompson said. "I've been looking up at that since I was a little kid always wanting to play there but I am going to take it all in but it is not going to change my performance. My parents told me to take a step back, make sure you enjoy it all so I am going to do that but it is not going to change the preparation."
Thompson joins quarterback Brad Westmark, offensive lineman Dan Oak and defensive back Anthony Watkins as the juniors who will not be returning to the team next season.
There are times when coaches "strongly encourage" fourth-year juniors to exit stage right opening up more scholarship in the next recruiting class. It's uncertain whether than happened with any of the players mentioned above but it most certainly is not the case with Thompson who would have to be considered one of Edsall's favorite players on this year's team.
Thompson is the only player to be named a game captain three times this season and it didn't take much prodding for Edsall to rave about Thompson's attitude and work ethic.
"I love being around that kid, that kid there is something special," Edsall said. "You could see how hard of a worker he is and how much pride he had in doing things the right way. His position group selected him as the leader of that group. When you watch the kid go out and practice and he just goes hard every play, gives everything he has whether it is practice or the game, that is what you want for everybody. He sets a great example for not only his position group but his unit and for his team.
"Earlier this season he ended up having to go down and do some work on the scout team, he just went and did his job but still prepared to go in and play. That is a guy, you can depend on, he is reliable. He is going to be very successful at whatever he does. He goes in there and has productivity when he is in there, we put him on special teams because we knew he was going to get the job done. He is a really good kid, he is a good leader, has his priorities in line and gives it everything he has each and every day. He's been a joy to be around, to me he is one of those special type of young men, he's got everything that you are looking for."
Thompson, who came to UConn as a non-scholarship player, has done the work in the classroom as well. He is on pace to graduate at the end of the semester and his future plans won't include playing football.
"(He's pursuing a) doctor of physical therapy degree and that could be at any school so with that in consideration, just focus on my future and that profession, I felt like it was best for me to make this my senior year, go into that graduate (school) without football being there because I don't know if it is even possible to do both."
Thompson has seen more and more time on the field with each passing year. He's been a standout in the spring games and this year is a mainstay on special teams. He is the guy sent back to be the voice of reason when freshmen Quayvon Skanes or Jordan Swann field kickoffs. When Thompson believes it is in the team's best interest for them to settle for the touchback, they quickly oblige.
Thompson would love to have all the running backs healthy and available to play but with that not being the case, he's going to be ready when his number is called.
"I am going to do what I can with my extra opportunities to help this team win," Thompson said.
Mensah leads all healthy UConn running backs with 274 rushing yards and Thompson is considered to be the team's best blocking running back. What surprised me was when Edsall said that Donevin O'Reilly will serve as the No. 3 tailback. I figured Ja'Kevious Vickers, a redshirt freshman on scholarship, would have that role or perhaps Donovan Williams might get some reps at running back since the converted quarterback is buried a bit on depth chart at receiver.
O'Reilly was one of four players who recently were added to the roster after attending a tryout for walk-ons. Edsall said O'Reilly only became eligible on Friday and now he has moved past a scholarship running back who looked pretty good at the practices I attended last year (this year's practices are closed to the print media). Naturally, I asked Edsall what Vickers' status was because if he can't get into the mix this week, when is that going to happen?
"It is not the head coach's decision, it is a player's decision," Edsall said. "You watch players work and you watch players practice and both of these guys were on the scout team. He didn't become eligible until Friday of last week but what I saw with the energy guys were giving on the scout team, if I am going to move a guy up, I am going to move a guy up that I think has been busting his butt and giving the effort, doing the things you need to go where another guy is down there just kind of going through the motions, not pushing himself ...
"In the NFL, a guy comes onto the practice squad, he doesn't get it done, he's not working hard guess what he gets cut and you bring another guy in. I can't do that, sometimes I wish I could. I wish there was a waiver wire but you can't do that. If I am true to the team and true to the word that I tell those guys, guys who work the hardest, I don't care freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, scholarship/non-scholarship, if I stand up in front of them and say things to them and I don't follow through than I am not doing right for those kids. He has earned that right to be up over the other guy.
"The same thing in terms of Tyraiq (Beals) and Keyion (Dixon), Tyraiq has earned that right. He didn't pout, he just kept working, maybe the other guy didn't work as hard or wasn't as productive. To get that culture established, that is the way we have to do it and that is the way it is always going to be done. Play the guys who give the effort, guys who deserve it and show that they want to be out there and give everything they are going to give each and every day because that is the only way you are going to get better."
SUMMERS OUT FOR FIRST THREE QUARTERSThe good news is that senior cornerback Jamar Summers was on the two-deep chart which I wasn't sure was going to be the case after Edsall vanquished Summers to the locker room after he threw the ball at a Missouri receiver after making an interception late in the third quarter of the Missouri loss.
Edsall, with input from the 10-member leadership council, has decided that Summers won't be able to play in the first three quarters against USF.
"You know things are going to way you want them to go because I sat down with our leadership council and talked to them about the situation that took place, what they thought we needed to do as a team and as a program regarding that situation," Edsall said. "I was very impressed with the feedback and response I got back from those nine young men. They felt there was a component that needed to be dealt with away from the playing field, if there was going to be playing time taken away or not so they set that themselves. I won't get into what they set but it was a pretty harsh punishment, I shouldn't say punishment, discipline they put in place for Jamar to fulfill. They felt there should also be game time taken away. I asked them to give me parameters for what they thought would be fair in terms of the situation that happened.
"I got a range of things in term of half game to a full game to maybe a quarter that they brought up. Each young man had an opportunity to express himself. As I sat back and listened, I told them I would make the final decision based on the recommendations that you guys put out there. I told them it could be the low end, it could be the high end, it could be somewhere in the middle. I made the decision, I brought the leadership council in with Jamar and told them what I was going to do so Jamar could hear it front of his teammates who are the leaders of this team and told him he will not be able to play in the first three quarters of this game which would really end up being a full game suspension based on a quarter last game and three quarters this game. Tre Bell will start and if he is playing well, doing what he is needing to do I'm not going to make any substitution there.
"I am proud of those guys for the way that they handled it and what they felt was necessary in order for our program moving forward in terms of what they want to establish from a culture and what I wanted to establish from a culture standpoint."