Jeff Jacobs: Max DeLorenzo Emerging As Leader On UConn Football Team

STORRS — Max DeLorenzo was 50th on the UConn depth chart when he arrived in Storrs from Berlin High. OK, that's an exaggeration, but not by much. He was ninth.

What's not an exaggeration, Bob Diaco said Monday, is the significant number of votes the junior tailback got for captain of the 2014 Huskies. DeLorenzo wasn't chosen as one of the four, but there's a good chance he will next year and he was chosen to start Friday night in the season opener and Diaco's head coaching debut against BYU.

"Max does all the jobs good," Diaco said. "He's a leader. The players on the team respect him. He blocks. He has good, soft hands. He runs the ball hard. At this point, he's the most complete back of the four guys."

Good. Good. And good. If that doesn't scream three yards and a cloud of vanilla, what does? But that's OK with DeLorenzo. He's used to it. Coming out of Berlin, he had no other scholarship offers from FBS schools. He has scraped for everything he has achieved. And just when you think he gets no hype, along comes Byron Jones, a former high school rival from St. Paul-Bristol, to say, "I'm way better than him in basketball. And he knows it."

"Everyone seems to think I don't have speed, that I don't have any quickness," DeLorenzo said. "I can shock the defense that way."

There are a number of words to describe departed three-year starter Lyle McCombs and "miserable" is one of them. Whether it was because of the trouble he got into or the fact he didn't duplicate the 1,151 yards he had as a freshman, smiles and patience with the media were in short supply. He got busted for pot. He was arrested in an incident that involved pushing and spitting at his girlfriend.

McCombs did not figure to be a good mix with Diaco and if you took the under on six months before the new coach dismissed him, you win by a few days. Diaco cited an "ongoing lack of meeting expectations." To be fair, McCombs left as the fourth-leading rusher in school history with 2,681 yards and 11 100-yard games. He transferred to Rhode Island ranking ninth among BCS-FCS active rushers.

"No matter if I was the next guy in or not, it's sad," DeLorenzo said. "It sucks to see a teammate and a friend of mine get let loose. What I thought was, 'I'm the next experienced older guy.' Opportunity opened. I took advantage of it."

One of Diaco's mantras is that when players don't know what to expect they can't cut loose. Clarity, he reasons, means a better chance for productivity.

"Tailbacks are very particular about the groove, getting a groove, how many carries and this and that," Diaco said. "We'll see how the game goes, but going in I can see Max preplanned getting a little more on his plate."

Diaco figured 10 carries, give or a take a few, for DeLorenzo. He said he wants to be sure the other three get the ball a half-dozen times each.

"If a guy becomes hard to tackle, we'll just keep giving it to him," Diaco said. "If a guy is not having the production, obviously we'll stop at that point. But we're going to give them all a good chance."

Some of it was McCombs, who seemed to start falling down whenever he was touched. Some of it was the troubled offensive line. Some of it was a team-wide collapse. It added up to a lousy running game last year. They ranked 119th of 123 teams nationally at 84.4 yards a game, 2.6 per carry. It wasn't any better in 2012 when the Huskies averaged 87.9 yards and 2.5 per carry.

"I want the offensive line to set the tone, to establish their will and play with confidence," said DeLorenzo, who carried the ball 15 to 18 times in three games last season. "They got criticized a lot [last year]. They're doing a really good job."

McCombs had 670 yards with five touchdowns last season. DeLorenzo ran for 349 yards on 99 carries and five touchdowns. DeLorenzo, who ran 119 yards on 36 carries in 2012, including a 20-yard gain, does have some foot speed to the outside. He doesn't have a lot of juke.

"I do consider myself a versatile back," said DeLorenzo, listed at 5-11, 210. "I can run spread, which I did a little last year. I can run pro style offense inside to set the tone early."

It'll be fascinating to watch how redshirt freshman Josh Marriner (5-9, 193) and freshmen Ron Johnson (6-0, 215) and Arkeel Newsome of Ansonia (5-7, 170) fit into the tailback picture.

"Ron is a bigger type guy and has speed, too," DeLorenzo said. "Josh has a combo of speed and people might think he's not powerful because he's shorter, but he's one of the strongest guys pound for pound in the weight room. Arkeel brings that speed and elusiveness. I haven't seen one defender yet get a clean hit on him. He's slippery."

DeLorenzo clearly has the edge in pass protection over the others. And with so much focus on the offensive line, giving Casey Cochran time to operate is of paramount importance right now. Nobody wants to see Cochran flattened with one of the freshman running backs standing there watching helplessly.

"They're not as good [at pass protection] obviously as Max," Diaco said. "They don't have the aptitude he has at this point. They're all willing though. I've been around backs that really aren't willing to put a face on a guy rushing. It's a matter of being a little unsure of what their assignment is on every single change and nuance happening very quickly in a play."

"It was something I struggled with early in my career," DeLorenzo said. "We all know how to run the ball, but it's the other little things you have to know how to do. You're standing still and here's a linebacker bull-rushing you. It's hard. You've got to man up. Other times there are multiple reads and things happen in a hurry."

Friday night, home opener, ESPN, friends and family packing the Rent to the point where he jokingly asks, got extras?" DeLorenzo is excited.

"It has been cool to see my progression. As a junior to know some of the guys look up to me is awesome, it's an honor.

"Every day. Hard work. Here to get better," Jones said. "The guys admire Max."

It's also not fair to call him the Berlin Wall.

"People see him as a big strong power back," Jones said, "but he can get outside on you."

It's funny to hear the Connecticut boys talk high school. DeLorenzo remembers starting as a freshman at Berlin as cornerback, getting "abused," and knowing he had to get on the other side of the ball. Jones raves about how DeLorenzo ran for 266 yards and four TDs in a 64-50 victory over St. Paul in 2008.

"He kicked our butt," said Jones, the Huskies' outstanding cornerback. "It was nice to get him back like we did in basketball."

DeLorenzo dismissed Jones' individual basketball superiority: "I'm better in a five-on-five game."

"That's ridiculous," Jones said. "I played him one-on-one and showed him who is boss."

Before Jones was able to secure an apartment, DeLorenzo and his roommates let him sleep in the living room of their place on an air mattress.

"I was homeless," Jones said. "He took me in."

That's what complete backs and leaders do.

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