Lyle McCombs was not supposed to be the man for UConn last season.
That was supposed to be USC transfer D.J. Shoemate, who many believed would be able to step in for Jordan Todman and keep the Huskies running game going. But after Shoemate got hurt early, all eyes turned to the redshirt freshman. McCombs was the most consistent form of offense UConn had last season, rushing for more than 1,000 yards while earning Big East second-team honors.
Now that spring practice is in full swing, McCombs is in a spirited competition to keep his starting job. Shoemate is in the mix, though his status is uncertain because of a sore shoulder. Joe Williams, Martin Hyppolite and Max DeLorenzo have all gotten opportunities to show they deserve to be the ones to carry the load, as reps have been distributed evenly throughout camp.
McCombs may not have huge size, at 5-foot-8 and around 170 pounds, but he showed incredible durability last season when depth was an issue in the backfield. McCombs had 275 carries -- only 12 players in all of FBS had more last season. Only twice did he get the ball fewer than 20 times a game. Despite his smaller build, McCombs got the tough yards.
Now his main focus is improving his leg strength, top-end speed, and trying to add 5-10 pounds in the weight room. A bigger focus is also working on his leadership.
"I think being a freshman last year, I was not as much of a leader as I need to be," McCombs said in a recent phone interview. "I want to be more of a leader for the offense and be that motivational guy to lead us when times get hard. I didn't do as much of it last year because I was young. In practice, I'm motivating the guys to go every day, making sure nobody is slacking off."
McCombs handled the situation last season as well as can be expected. He went into the season thinking he was a backup. But that mind-set had to change quickly.
"When I stepped in, I didn't expect them to trust me with the ball as much as they did," McCombs said. "I embraced it and took advantage of the opportunity. I was young, and I wasn't the biggest of backs, so that's why I was surprised they trusted me so much. I know I'm a guy who can be trusted, and I proved that."
McCombs ended up finishing the year No. 2 in the Big East in rushing, with 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns. There is no doubt coach Paul Pasqualoni wants a featured back he can rely on, as he has alluded to several times this spring. Williams may be faster, and DeLorenzo, Shoemate and Hyppolite might have more size.
But McCombs has proven he can be the starter, and he can take withstand whatever is thrown at him. That should count for something.