By: Steven Tucker
This season wasn’t what anyone expected. Coaches, players, and fans alike expected more this season. A lot more.
If you had told me on August 31 that this UConn Football team would finish the season 3-9, I would have called you crazy. Reasonably, this team had all the tools to go 8-4.
But among all of the analysis, game breakdowns, and dissection of the season that could have been for UConn Football, one thing must be included in that conversation today: the heart and dedication of the team’s graduating senior class.
Start with safety Obi Melifonwu and wide receiver Noel Thomas, Jr. Cream of the crop players not just for UConn or in the American, but in all of college football. Their talent and athleticism captivated UConn fans en route to the team’s 6-6 regular season last year, which included a win over No. 13 Houston, undefeated up until that point.
In the Burton Family Football Complex, there is a quote on the wall from former cornerback Jasper Howard that reads, “Play each play like it is the last play you’ll ever play.” UConn as a team plays with that spirit in them, but Melifonwu and Thomas, Jr. exemplified it, even when things went south.
We will see Obi and Noel playing on Sundays next year, you can count on that.
Three Huskies played with the “C” on their jersey for the final time at Rentschler Field: offensive lineman Andreas Knappe, linebacker Matt Walsh, and defensive lineman Mikal Myers.
Anyone who has competed in any sport knows that the “C” isn’t given. It’s earned.
On the field and off, these three players earned that letter even after it was stitched on their jerseys. Numerous times this year, head coach Bob Diaco praised the leadership of his senior captains.
“Anytime [Mikal] talks, the rest of the room goes quiet, and everyone listens,” Diaco said of Myers. “That’s another level.”
Diaco characterized Knappe’s leadership as “fatherly,” and lauded the growth of Walsh during his time in Storrs.
Jhavon Williams has incredible athleticism and dedication that shined when it mattered the most. He was a key piece to the team’s suffocating secondary during the 2015 season. His diving interception against South Florida this year embodies in a single play the type of character that Williams brought to this football team.
A mainstay of UConn’s character as a program is in-state energy. Madison native Nick Vitale and Xavier graduate Sean Marinan, both former walk-ons, brought that energy to the program.
Vitale started his college career at Stony Brook, where he redshirted the 2012 season before transferring to and walking on at UConn in 2013. He would see no playing time that season, and play a fraction of one game in 2014. By midway through the 2015 season, he became the team’s starting punt returner, and remained a mainstay on special teams this season.
Marinan walked on and redshirted for UConn in 2012, the team’s last season in the Big East. Before playing a single down, he was already named to the conference all-academic team, both in the Big East and the American. His academic success has continued throughout his college career, as he was recently named to the CoSIDA District All-Academic Team. As Coach Diaco has said, Marinan is simply one of the strongest students in the entire university. His drive carried over to the gridiron, where he played defensive line behind Foley Fatukasi and special teams this year.
Both Marinan and Vitale earned scholarships this past offseason after years of selfless dedication to the UConn program.
You can look to so many other inklings to get a sense of the character of this class: Garrett Anderson’s “Pass Heard ‘Round the World” to Noel Thomas, Jr. in the Houston game; punter Justin Wain’s plans to go to medical school and become a plastic surgeon.
Each senior brought his own personal characteristics to the program and made the class what it is.
Much of this senior class has been on one heck of a roller coaster ride the past four seasons. Three head coaches (including interim head coach T.J. Weist in the 2013 season), 3-9, 2-10, 6-7, and another 3-9 season. A win over No. 13 Houston. The St. Petersburg Bowl. A 3-point win over FCS Maine. Two straight shutout losses. The ConFLiCT.
With all the inconsistencies and sidebars that have enveloped this program over the past four years, the dedication of this senior class has stayed true.
As much as UConn fans expected more on the scoreboard in 2016, they equally owe a great deal of gratitude to the 18 young men who played under the lights of Rentschler Field for the final time today.
On a personal note, I have this senior class to thank, in part, for some of my favorite memories in my young journalism career, and in my time at UConn. Experiencing the team’s win over Houston and covering a bowl game at the age of 20 were opportunities of a lifetime, and created memories along the way that I’ll cherish for my entire life.
So to the 18 young men who exited Rentschler Field for the final time tonight: Thank you.
UConn’s Senior Class: Garrett Anderson, John Green, Jon Hicks, Andreas Knappe, Brian Lemelle, Nicholas Lensander, Richard Levy, Sean Marinan, Obi Melifonwu, Mikal Myers, Bobby Puyol, Omaine Stephens, Jalen Stevens, Noel Thomas, Jr., Nick Vitale, Justin Wain, Matt Walsh, Jhavon Williams