Don’t mess with the center. Rotate guards. Sub for tackles. Leave the first-team ball-handler and offensive line leader on the field. That prevalent coaches’ perspective runs from high school football to the NFL.
Redshirt junior Clayton McConnell, a 6-foot-4 290-pounder, came to the University of Richmond from Foley, Ala., having played tackle and guard in high school.
“I was recruited here to be center. I was one of the smaller [offensive linemen] recruited in, so I really found my spot there as a freshman,” said McConnell. “It took me, I’d say, two years to really fit that mold as a center because you have to know not just how to snap the ball, but you have to tell everybody else up front what they’re doing along the line.”
McConnell, who started in 2019 and most of 2018, didn’t play the entirety of Richmond’s 38-14 win at Elon last Saturday. Though healthy, he didn’t participate in much more than a half. McConnell was on the sideline early in the second quarter, when the outcome was still in doubt.
The limited use at Elon of McConnell, an extensively trained player and experienced hand, establishes that UR coach Russ Huesman wasn’t fooling when he said before this spring-semester season that he intended to play many young Spiders to take a load of his veterans, while still aiming to win games.
In for McConnell at Elon went Tom Elia, a 6-3, 296-pound redshirt freshman. He showed well, in Huesman’s estimation, and Elia limited McConnell’s participation.
“Seventeen games in a short amount of time,” said Huesman, referring to six scheduled spring games followed by 11 in the fall. “For us to put 60, 70 snaps [per game] on people in the spring, and then come back and go 60 or 70 in the fall, I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”
William & Mary coach Mike London pointed out that the number of young, inexperienced players essentially doubled on the rosters of FCS programs because those teams did not play in 2020. Few freshmen from the 2019 season played, and they blend with freshmen from 2020.
“That’s a large chunk of the team that had never played in a competitive college game,” said London. “So what you try to do with the spring season is mix in some of your veterans … with the opportunity for young players to get reps, to get meaningful reps in games against competitive teams.
“They provide the depth. They provide special-teams opportunities that normally might go to a third- or fourth-year guy on your team ... That’s going to be kind of what we do to bring along their development.”
Richmond beat William & Mary 21-14 in week one of the spring-semester season on March 6. The Tribe’s game the following Saturday at No. 1 James Madison (3-0) was postponed because of COVID issues in the Dukes’ program. For the same reason, UR (2-0) will not play as scheduled at JMU on Saturday.
The Spiders are scheduled to play next on Sept. 27, against visiting Elon. McConnell, Richmond’s center, probably will get about as many snaps as he did in the first meeting. Backup quarterback Beau English seems likely to enter in the first half, as he has in each of UR’s first two games, to give starter Joe Mancuso a break.
Across the board, that’s how the Spiders proceed this spring.
“We came into the season saying we were going to play a lot of people, and we have. We’ve played many players, multiple snaps, in meaningful situations,” said Huesman. “We made that decision. We stuck with it. And we’re going to stick with it.”