— New UConn football coach Bob Diaco opened spring practice to the media for the first time Saturday morning.
And within that Practice No. 7 — of 15, including the annual Blue-White Spring Game April 12 (3 p.m. Rentschler Field) — were some scrimmage-like situations with officials for the first time under the new staff. Formations, personnel groupings and defensive changes with fronts and coverages were emphasized.
Yes, quarterbacks threw. Running backs ran. Receivers caught. Offensive and defensive linemen blocked. The cornerbacks and safeties tackled and were fleet afoot at hitting their targets and trying to pick off passes.
However, none of it was as impressive as how the players actually looked in trying to execute these tasks.
Some Huskies look sleeker. Some looked bigger, stronger. Some looked faster. The result, seemingly, was more energy, a key element to playing at a consistently high level, which this team and program needs to do.
The weightlifting and diet are one aspect, but Diaco said Saturday that scientific evaluations, including blood panels, were done on each player to determine what their deficiencies are from a vitamin and mineral standpoint.
"Let's just say a normal Vitamin D count for a young man would be 50," Diaco said. "We had one player close to 50 — one, and it was [kicker] Bobby Puyol, and that's because he's from Florida. He was at 49. Most of the guys were down in the teens. That's a huge piece for a young person, in particular a young man, to not have that vitamin in his body."
Diaco said that through the analysis and work done by UConn sports nutritionist Nancy Rodriguez, great menus have been created for performance and taste. Players' bodies, he said, are changing for those reasons and also because of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis, whom Diaco calls the best in America.
Bottom line: The Huskies look different and feel it, too. It could mean something on game day.
"You can see the changes," said junior running back Max DeLorenzo of Berlin, the Huskies' second-leading rusher in 2013 (99 carries, 349 yards, five touchdowns). "I think it's all going to help. The food, vitamins, the training has already made a huge difference with [Diaco's] program. I think it's all good and all positive right now. Everybody dropped down. Everybody got stronger and slimmer."
Diaco has been hellbent on the players being in optimal condition to compete, and he promised that his initial focus through the first seven or eight weeks before spring practice woukd be improving the Huskies' body composition. He's been clear on what he likes: big and strong players, so if nothing else they can win one-on-one battles and have the energy to compete consistently at the Division I-A level.
"I know that being a senior, I've got a lot more responsibility now," said B.J. McBryde, a defensive lineman. "When I'm training, it starts with diet. I make sure now I eat a lot of carbohydrates, make sure that I work out when I'm supposed to, get a lot of food in me. It helps when I'm on the field in practice and doing the drills. I mean the diet, the weightlifting, it all transcends to the field."
If one thing is clear within the program under Diaco, it's that the training program will continue to be addressed.
"Since I've been here, this is the best weightlifting program we've ever had," said Deshon Foxx, a senior receiver who came on strong for the Huskies toward the end of the 2013 season, finishing with 43 catches for 543 yards and two touchdowns. "We're just training and everybody is in it. Everybody is hitting the weight room, everybody is eating right, everybody is doing what they have to do to benefit the team, and it's showing on the field.
"I know for me personally, I can feel my stamina. I'm not getting as tired as quickly. I'm able to cut better. I'm able to burst out better. My strength is a little bit better when I'm going to block. When I hit, I just feel a little bit more sturdy. I'm not the biggest guy around (5 feet 10, 173 pounds), so it's good to be able to feel like that when you're going out there blocking for the running back."
Sophomore offensive lineman Richard Levy lost 10 pounds from last year, when he couldn't get on the field. But now, the 6-6, 305-pounder snaps to the line with a purpose when the first group of linemen is called. On Saturday, that was Levy at left tackle, redshirt freshman Kyle Schafenacker next to him at guard, senior Alex Mateas at center, freshman walk-on Jacob Basilica of Montville at right guard and junior Dalton Gifford at right tackle.
It's an outstanding development for Levy, and it has to be encouraging to all since the offensive line is thin with experience. Levy is naturally strong.
"I'm in much better shape than I was in last year, no question," he said. "It's going to help me go in the direction I want to go. Day in and day out, I like to grind and just push it to the limit until I'm gassed. I can say I did something today, but everybody is working hard. You can see the difference."
Senior cornerback Byron Jones (6-1, 196) added seven pounds of muscle, and his body fat is down to 4.8 percent. DeLorenzo is roughly around the same weight he was at 210 pounds, but his body fat is at 12 percent, the lowest it's ever been. And there are more stories like these.
"Ooh, man," Jones said. "This guy is killing us in the weight room, but in a good way, and the best thing about it is that we're measuring ourselves every day, so we know if we're losing weight, if we're gaining, if we're losing body-fat percentage. It's great.
"It's a new coaching staff here, and everyone wants to put their best foot forward. In order to do that, you have to have a good guy pushing you, so, yes, you see a lot of guys jumping on each other, so it's nice." ... About 60 schools from the New England area and as far away as Pennsylvania attended the high school coaches football clinic. ... Reserve quarterback Kivon Taylor, who had been suspended indefinitely a couple of weeks ago, was back with the team Saturday in a red jersey and shorts. He did not compete in any drills.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun