Familiarity in second year of Jim Mora makes for ‘smooth’ first day of UConn football practice

Hartford Courant
PUBLISHED July 31, 2023 at 4:17 p.m. | UPDATED: July 31, 2023 at 4:31 p.m.
The windows in Jim Mora’s office look directly out over the UConn football team’s indoor practice field at the Shenkman Center, and, though he couldn’t plant himself and watch his players work out, the second-year head coach couldn’t help himself from glancing out a few times over the summer.
Leading up to the first day of preseason camp on Monday, what Mora, 61, saw on the indoor turf was a reminder of what inspires him to coach.
“It’s very rare that there’s not kids out there working. We had guys out there the last few days on their own with their shoulder pads and helmets on going through drills on their own,” he said. “They’re always working so it doesn’t feel like the first day, we say it feels like the next step. I think that’s exciting — we’re not restarting, we’re just taking the next step as a program and as a team. It’s a different way to look at it for me than what I’m used to looking at it as.”
A level of familiarity, now that the returning players have a year in Mora’s system under their belt, was evident on Monday as the tea got to work.
Leaders like star linebacker Jackson Mitchell, the Ridgefield native, and offensive lineman Christian Haynes, the preseason All-American, have a greater sense of what is expected and were able to pass along the message in the offseason.
“It helps tremendously. I mean this summer, even when the coaches were on vacation, it helps so much because we know the system really well now so we can coach ourselves, we can get in meetings by ourselves, we can do seven-on-seven by ourselves, that type of thing,” Mitchell said. “We think we can coach ourselves, we can watch the film and we can improve without even needing the coaches.”
One of the main focuses following a season where the roster was stretched to its limits with injuries was adding depth across the board and, with an “enhanced” ability to grab the attention of higher-caliber recruits.
“From just the look-test, we look bigger and more physical, more athletic and faster and more precise. Just off the eye-test and one two-hour practice it seems like we’ve upgraded there, but we’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” Mora said. “Our goal is to come out every day and max-out for that day. Hopefully that ceiling keeps rising and we can continue to push the standard up and I think we have the types of young men that want to do that.”
Three things to watch as UConn football practice begins Monday
Three-man race for QB1
As expected, the competition for the starting quarterback job is “anything but clear-cut,” Mora said.
All three of the frontrunners — Zion Turner, Ta’Quan Roberson and Joe Fagnano — showed improvement from a fairly rough spring game in April. A healthy Roberson, who won a tight competition last season before tearing his ACL, appeared to get the first-team reps on Monday.
“Between Ta’Quan and Zion and Joe, there’s three guys that have played college football and have had some success and are all really competitive guys. (They’ve) all done a great job this offseason of improving and you see the improvement in the way they carry themselves and their understanding of the scheme,” Mora said. “You’d like it to be clear-cut, but hopefully as we go through the next two, three weeks, it becomes more defined for us. But it’s not going to be easy because they’re all good players, they’re all talented kids, they all care and they all compete like crazy — it’s a good problem to have.”
Mora looking for ‘big step up’ in pass game
The need for added depth on offense after last season, which saw several receivers go down with injury, was an obvious one. Mora and offensive coordinator Nick Charlton made that a key focus in the offseason.
“We ran the ball well, we have to get better there obviously and become more consistent running the football, but I think that everyone probably knows that just becoming efficient and consistent in our pass game is what’s going to help us,” Mora said.
“I feel like we’ve added talent and experience to the receiving room and I think the tight end room as well and I believe that the guys that were here have taken a step up. It’s good to see Cam Ross back out here and healthy and I think that the quarterbacks and the work that they did with the receivers in the offseason on their own, I think that’ll certainly help us.”
Receivers Geordon Porter (New Mexico) and Brett Buckman (Delaware), both transfer portal additions, stood out with speed and route-running ability on Monday.
Kicking it at The Rent
After placekicker Joe McFadden tore his ACL prior to camp last season, the starting job went to Noe Ruelas, the former Hall-West Hartford standout, and the Connecticut high school record-holder for the longest made field goal (56 yards).
Ruelas made 12 of his 16 field goal attempts last season, all but one of his misses all coming from 40-plus yards, and converted on all 28 extra point attempts. His classmate McFadden, a former five-star kicking recruit from Texas, made 12 of his 17 field goals and all 19 extra point attempts as the starter in 2021. McFadden also served as the punter that year, punting 61 times for 2,426 yards, an average of 39.8 yards.
The starter yet to be determined, both kickers have been making trips to Rentschler Field in the offseason and working out together.

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