When Tommy Tuberville made the decision to part ways with defensive coordinator Art Kaufman it was a bit shocking. On the heels of a wildly successful season in his one and only year in Cincinnati where he took what was already a good defense and made it better. Its not often that a coach who guides a team to top 30 finishes across the board gets the axe. Kaufman did, and is now undertaking the presumably sisyphean task of transforming the Cal defense from the colander it was last year into something that holds water just a little bit better. Tubs made it plain that his issues with Kaufman had nothing to do with his performance during the season. It was his effort during the other 8 months of the year that caused his head to roll like Lord Eddard Starks.
"The defense played well. This is more about recruiting. I always start with recruiting." Tommy Tuberville
So Tuberville went searching deep within his rolodex for candidates and he chose Hank Hughes as his man. On the one hand it was an odd choice. Unlike nearly everyone else on this staff Hughes is not from the south*, in fact he is from Albany, New York. For the last decade+ he has lived and worked in Storrs with the UConn Huskies. It remains to be seen exactly what having Hughes on the staff will do for the Bearcats recruiting. Hughes did recruit Pennsylvania very hard for UConn, something the Bearcats have struggled with for years** despite being under 300 miles from that rich recruiting terrain. As a concept Hank Hughes, Keystone State Sherpa (feel free to go nuts with the idea) makes a ton of sense with this staff, but that is another subject for another day.
*Hughes did have spells at Memphis, Louisiana Lafayette, and UC which everyone north of I70 thinks is southern.
** Current total of Pennsylvania Bearcats: 1, Shaikim Alonzo. Current total of Pennsylvania Huskies; 9
That wasn't the only surprise about Hughes getting the call from Tuberville. Hughes is a long time coaching vet and was an integral part of several great UConn defenses. But 2013 was the first time since 2004 that Hughes was given the chance to run a defense. If I'm honest it did not go all that well. Regardless of your preference for advanced stats or the traditional ones UConn was not up to their usual standard. The good thing about Hughes, strictly from a blogging perspective, is that he has accrued meaningful experience, so this won't be a guessing exercise like it was for Eddie Gran. Here are the Huskies stats, or the ones that I think actually matter from all five years of Hank Hughes calling plays.
|Yards Per Play
|3rd Down Conversions
*For simplicities sack the categories with asterisks are kept in their raw form rather than national rank. Shockingly the NCAA in the early 2000's did not see the utility in sorting how many yards a team allowed per play, or how good they were converting third downs, or how much pressure they exerted on opposing offenses in the form of sacks and TFL's. We now know that teams that do those three things well tend to win a shit-ton of football games. For the purposes of like for like comparisons those categories are staying in their raw forms.
Depending on the level of pessimism inherent with you, the dear reader, that chart either says one of two things. The optimist says Hank Hughes is a pretty good defensive coordinator as evidenced by his 2001-04 defenses allowing under five yards per play, and having an average rank of 26th in yards allowed and in pass efficiency defense. The pessimist, and lets be real thats most Cincinnati sports fans* will say that he had three lucky years that distort the true nature of his dreadful performance. Hughes had rough years in 2001 and in 2013, there is no point in denying that, but the context matters a great deal here.
*And not without reasons
The 2001 season is in many respects the start of the modern era of UConn football. It was the first year that they played as a member of Division 1, and their talent level was not what it would be down the road.* It is unreasonable to hold what was, in retrospect, obviously a transitional year against Hughes 13 year later. Not when his defenses saw such marked improvement in the following seasons.
Two main points.
- UConn lost four long term starters to graduation / the NFL draft. Dwayne Gratz, Blidi-Wreh Wilson, Sio Moore and Trevardo Williams were gone. Regardless of who was calling the plays the Huskies were going to be taking a step back on defense in 2013, even with Yawin Smallwood coming back. The talent level in Storrs was better than it used to be, but that group was the last of the Edsall era, and their replacements where nowhere near as good, particularly at corner.
- Chaos, complete and utter chaos in the wake of the end of the Paul Pasqualoni. He was the Kragthorpe of his time. You really can't overestimate the deleterious effect that Coach P. had on that program and on that team.
If the desire is there it is possible to hold those two seasons against Hughes and declare that he is a bad fit and a bad idea. Personally I think that is jumping the gun a little bit. That one would look at last years UConn Huskies and despair that Hughes will bring that same brand of uninspiring defense to the Bearcats. That is a simplistic assumption to carry.
Yes, Hughes was at the head of a very average defense in 2013, albeit one that made great strides when the anchor formerly known as Coach P. was rightfully jettisoned. But Hughes was also an integral part of pretty good run of defenses, not as the coordinator, but as a great defensive line coach from 2005 through 2012. UConn being located in Connecticut has always had to work to find difference makers on defense. The northeast is whatever the opposite of a recruiting hotbed is (recruiting freezer?). As a program they have successfully waded into highly contested areas of the country, eastern PA, Florida, the south in general and found enough guys to make due.
The flipside of that is that Hughes will have more talent at his disposal in Cincinnati than he did in Storrs. For instance I doubt UConn ever had the kind of depth of talent at linebacker that the Bearcats will have this coming fall. UConn has had some really good defensive players during Hughes's time, but depth has always been their struggle. It won't be as big of a question with the Bearcats. The big question is a simple one, what is Hughes going to do with these guys.