He opened the place with three touchdown passes in a rout of Indiana on Aug. 30, 2003. So it’s altogether appropriate that exactly 15 years later Dan Orlovsky will broadcast his first college football game Thursday night at Rentschler Field alongside Clay Matvick and Paul Carcaterra on ESPNU.
Is the kid from Shelton nervous for the 2018 UConn opener against Central Florida?
“No, no, no, I’m excited,” Orlovsky said. “Will that change at 6:55? Probably, but I hope so. That means it matters to me. I’m very excited. It’s going to be a ton of fun, back in a live, football environment. Obviously doing it at UConn is very special to me.”
Orlovsky, the seminal star in UConn’s ascension as a legit major college football program, was not an NFL star. He was a career backup quarterback. Yet as he sifted through offers from CBS, Fox and NFL Network before settling on ESPN in July, this much became apparent. Orlovsky will be a star again.
What began a lark — analytical tweets in his first year of retirement — became a social media sensation. One minute Orlovsky was dissecting Cam Newton on twitter, the next he was doing some work for NFL Network and then, boom, here he was this week on NFL Live in Bristol. He understands the complexities of modern-day football and can explain them clearly, concisely.
His secret as a media wunderkind? There isn’t one.
“I trust my eyes and my mind,” Orlovsky, 35, said.
So let’s get to work, Danny. What do you like about UConn quarterback David Pindell?
“Obviously the weapon that he is athletically,” Orlovsky said. “With the situation UConn is in, he closes the gap athletically against (superior) opponents, because he’s such a good run-around athlete. I’d like to see him utilized more in that capacity.
“Does that mean more designed quarterback runs and zone reads and RPO (run-pass option) parts as your game plan? Absolutely. Now I don’t know if they’re going to do that. That’s just how I’d like to see it.”
First-year coordinator John Dunn came from the Bears over the winter. This is his first time in charge of an offense and, without visual data, Orlovsky said it’s difficult to know exactly what he’ll do in the opener.
“Pindell is very comfortable and accurate throwing on the run,” Orlovsky said. “Really good to his right. So that would be something I’d want to see more of as a coaching staff, putting him in constant situations where he’s confident throwing the football and accurate. That’s also a challenge for coaches, because it cuts the field in half when you have players essentially declaring this is what I’m good at.”
And a defense that allowed the nation’s most passing yards last year?
“Where do you begin?” Orlovsky said. “Last year was such a head scratching year for Randy Edsall, notorious for big-time solid defense and a more controlled attack offensively. The defense obviously was not good. How do you change it? How do you fix it? Do you even pay attention to film? Are you going to find anything good in it? It’s more of wiping the slate clean.”
UConn will start two freshmen on offense and as many as six on defense. Orlovsky has experience on that front. Edsall was in the midst of an early 9-24 building period when Keron Henry was injured in October 2001 and Orlovsky took over as a freshman. He would go on to set a slew of school passing records and lead the Huskies, 21-7 in his final 28 games, into their first bowl game.
The physical difference from football players 18 to 22 is massive, Orlovsky said. So are the mental aspects of playing in front of 10 times as many people as in high school, living away from home for the first time and college courses.
“But the freshman coming into UConn right now is a little different experience than say Central Florida,” Orlovsky said. “With the success UCF has had, five 10-win seasons over a decade, coming off a 13-0 season, there are expectations laid down. As a freshman, there’s some pressure on you. At UConn, if you’re a true freshman you say listen this is a place in rebuild mode, hasn’t had success in recent years. You can’t perform worse, right? There’s not as much pressure. It’s somewhat freeing.
“When I was a freshman we were trying to build something, too. I was the local kid and there were expectations, so it was a little bit different. But I remember some teammates going, ‘Let’s just go play. It’s not going to get any worse.’ There was that freeing aspect for me which I think some freshmen at UConn will experience. Let’s just go and be part of this change.”
When Orlovsky hit 26 of 42 passes for 307 yards in the Rent opener, there were 38,109 fans watching. After seven consecutive losing seasons, there could be half that Thursday night. Wow. Glory days? Did they pass UConn by?
“To say, ‘Get it back to what it was,’ is almost unfair,” Orlovsky said. “It was a totally different timeframe, totally different recruiting tactics, totally different conference, all that stuff. But can you get it back to being a proud football program? Absolutely. No one thought it could happen 15 years ago and it happened. I’m not naive to the fact that coach Edsall is not the same coach he was 15-20 years ago. He’s still a really good football coach. He knows what it takes.
“UConn is not like a lot of colleges. It’s almost like Nebraska. There’s no pro sports in the state, so UConn is revered and its baby. Geno Auriemma, Jim Calhoun, Connecticut is one of those places where certain coaches fit and want to stay. Coach Edsall is one of those guys. It’s a perfect marriage in a way. It’s the right connection. I’m encouraged and excited. I know the man leading this. Am I’m sitting here guaranteeing it? No. I didn’t do that 15 years ago. But I’d bet my money on it.”
So he starts a new career at Rentschler Field. He’ll do college games on Friday and Saturday. Will be in Bristol on Sunday doing NFL radio. On Monday morning he’ll be in New York for “Get Up!” There will be NFL Live appearances. His stature will grow.
“Tony Romo is fantastic at what he does,” Orlovsky said. “Kirk Herbstreit and Brian Griese are fantastic. When I listen to them, I say I want to sound like that. To be honest, though, I’m going to be me. It would be silly to turn away from the things I learned on my career path. I needed the excitement. I’m going to have fun no matter if it’s 100-0 or 7-7 and I hope I help people understand the game a little more.”
And he will trust his eyes, mind and Randy Edsall.