Inspired UConn seeks breakthrough year

STORRS, Conn. -- As the final seconds ticked off the clock of the Papajohns.com Bowl in January, the Connecticut Huskies began looking toward the future.

"We were already thinking about first game of [2010] against Michigan and who we'd have coming back," running back Jordan Todman said.

Spring optimism has never run higher in Storrs since UConn joined the FBS level in 2002. The Huskies finished last season on a four-game winning streak, including a 20-7 victory over South Carolina in that bowl game. Their five losses last year came by a total of 15 points. Eight starters return on both offense and defense, along with a host of improving young players.

But while the Huskies eagerly look forward, they also won't forget the past. The story of their 2009 season wasn't that they went 8-5. It was how they dealt with the tragedy of losing starting cornerback Jasper Howard in the middle of the year.

The memory of Howard, who was stabbed to death on campus the night of the Oct. 17 Louisville game, hovers constantly on the players' minds. A large display of Howard's image greets visitors to the Burton Family Football Complex. Howard's locker, complete with the possessions he left in it, remains preserved and will be so until the end of this year, when he would have graduated.

After Thursday's practice, a former player presented the team with a stained glass window depicting a football with Howard's name and number. The players applauded when they saw the window and immediately started offering suggestions for where it should be placed.

The pain has lessened with time. What has endured is inspiration and compassion.

"We came together and bonded as a team, and Jazz would have wanted that," quarterback Zach Frazer said. "We worked harder and came in this year with more motivation. We're all pretty close now. We get on each other if we're not doing the right things, but then we get together and hang out, have a barbecue or something."

Coach Randy Edsall, whose poise and grace in guiding his team through the adversity won national respect, said he noticed players grow and mature toward the end of last season. No longer were they hanging out with just their position groups or guys from their hometown. The whole team was spending time and talking with one another, and the approach to offseason workouts took a more serious tone.

"We're all brothers now," Todman said.

The players who changed the most, Edsall said, were the ones closest to Howard. Receiver Kashif Moore held Howard as he bled from the stab wound before the ambulance arrived. Moore emerged as a key playmaker late last season and has been one of the offensive stars of the spring.

"He was my best friend," Moore said. "When I'd go home for the weekend or the summer, he'd come with me. My family was his and his family was mine.

"I think about that every day, and I come out and try to play well in honor of him."

The Huskies can think of no better way to honor Howard than to turn in a banner year in what would have been his senior season. They appear to have enough talent and depth to challenge for the Big East title.

Though still thought of as a conservative offense, UConn embraced the no-huddle attack last season and finished as the Big East's second-best passing team while averaging 40.8 points in the final four regular season games. Frazer is back under center after hitting his stride late in the year, and Todman returns following an 1,188-yard season. The defense features a pair of fourth-year starters at linebacker in Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson, who led the Big East in tackles a year ago.

There are pressing issues in the secondary, but Edsall's practice of redshirting as many freshmen as possible has resulted in a team that's two- and even three-deep at many spots.

"This is probably the first spring that we've had this kind of depth, this kind of competition in my 12 years here," Edsall says.

So the future looks promising. And the Huskies race into it while always remembering the past.