UConn football coach Jim Mora giving CT native Victor Rosa an opportunity: 'True competitor'

STORRS — As the UConn football team travels to No. 12 NC State on Saturday, the team's best offensive player has joined the growing injury list.

Running back Nate Carter separated his shoulder in a loss to Michigan last week. He's out this week and possibly longer, joining UConn's No. 1 quarterback and top two receivers on the sideline.

The rash of injuries over a difficult stretch of schedule is forcing coach Jim Mora to move his least-experienced players up the depth chart. So with Carter out, true freshman Victor Rosa of Bristol will "get a heavy load" against NC State, Mora said this week.

Coming off a 14-carry game at Michigan, Rosa is seeing more playing time than expected. A year ago, he was starring for Bristol Central in a season in which he won the Connecticut Gatorade Player of the year as a quarterback.

He also played basketball for the Division II state champion — teaming with close friend Donovan Clingan, also a UConn freshman — and he was the Class L track and field 200 meter champion in the spring of 2021.

With UConn (1-3) depleted, Rosa will get an opportunity. Rosa was first recruited by former coach Randy Edsall, but he kept his commitment after Mora took over the program in November 2021.

Mora has been impressed.

“He is explosive and he is fast,” Jim Mora said. “He is compact and muscular. ... He is right about 6-foot, right about 200 pounds. He’s got good lateral movement and he can burst, and then when he gets to the open field, he’s got that speed.

On Rosa’s second career collegiate carry he scored an 11-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of UConn’s 28-3 victory over Central Connecticut State. 

Against No. 4 Michigan, he gained 24 yards. 

“I like his mindset, he’s got that warrior's mindset,” Mora said. “He's just tough, he's physical. He doesn’t care how many snaps he takes, every one of them he's going to go full speed. He doesn’t get tired. He's not going let fatigue hold him back.”

There has been no ‘easing-in’ phase for Rosa. He will split the backfield with sophomore Devontae Houston, who missed last week with a shoulder injury, as UConn faces an NC State defense that has allowed just 68.7 rushing yards per game. 

Using a true freshman against a nationally-ranked defenses is not ideal, but Mora said UConn and Rosa have an opportunity to grow

"He is going to get better and better and better," Mora said. "These reps are valuable for him. I don’t think any of us expected him to take the snaps he did versus Michigan, plus return punts. We didn't return any kickoffs, but he was back there. That's a heavy load for a true freshman, to go on the road against a team like that and have that load.

"He didn't even flinch. I just think he's a true competitor."

Throwing freshmen into the fire has become a theme of the UConn season so far.

Besides Rosa is quarterback Zion Turner, who was forced on to the front line on the second drive of the season after starter Ta'Quan Roberson incurred a season-ending ACL injury. Roberson, a Penn State transfer, was UConn's most experienced quarterback.

UConn has also lost receivers Cam Ross and Keelan Marion to injuries. And word came this week that receiver Nigel Fitzgerald, a grad transfer from Old Dominion, is also out with an ACL injury.

So the Huskies are left with little depth at skilled positions.The inexperience of Turner and Rosa showed as they fumbled a handoff against Michigan, but Mora hopes these desperation reps will bring positives with them. 

"(Michigan) was not the kind of situation you would like to put young guys in, you’d like it flipped," Mora said. "But it was what it was, an opportunity to get snaps for players that we are going to count on this year and in the future against a good opponent."

Seven players on defense recorded their first tackles of the season against Michigan on Saturday, four of whom were true freshman.

Freshman linebackers Nate Voorhis and Donovan Branch, who both recorded their first tackles against Michigan, garnered praise from Mora this week and will be expected to fill in more. 

The first quarter of the season has been “disappointing, but not discouraging” for Mora,, who is prioritizing this gauntlet of games as a learning experience above all else. 

"It gives young guys a chance to play, thrown into the fire sometimes before they are either physically or emotionally ready," Mora said. "And it helps them grow up. It can be really ugly, but when you look down the road you say 'OK, this is going to help us.' "

Injuries have been accumulating to a near breaking point on offense while the defense struggles to find its identity after losing coordinator Lou Spanos, who took a leave of absence in the final week of fall camp. 

"We haven’t found our identity necessarily, or the consistency that we need to have to play well," Mora said. "Sometimes people say that, and people interpret that as taking a shot at the players, it is not. It always starts with the coach putting the player in the position to have success and making sure they get the repetitions to do it effectively. We have been inconsistent and we’re finding our way."

Hence, a defensive shake up. 

"On Saturday we were playing four down linemen, a true 4-3 at times, to get bigger guys on the field," Mora said. "We will continue to work that way, we will still work some three-down stuff as Donovan Branch and Nate Voorhees come along, and when we get Colin (McCarthy) back, but we are still putting it together right now."

Saturday will likely be another ugly result as UConn is a 39-point underdog. NC State (3-0) presents plenty of defensive challenges for the Huskies, with pre-season ACC player of the year Devin Leary at quarterback. 

NC State has averaged more than twice as many points as UConn (34.3 against 15.5) and allowed half as many points (12.3 for NC State against 32.3 for UConn

“NC State is a fantastic football team,” Mora said. “You watch them play and they don’t have holes. They have the pre-season ACC player of the year at quarterback, and they have two running backs who are as good as you will find in the country.”

This will be the sixth time in the FBS era that UConn will face top 25 opponents in back-to-back weeks and the Huskies have only won one of those 12 games (20-17 over No. 13 Houston in 2015).

But Saturday will also mark the end a challenging stretch, as UConn returns home face Fresno State (1-2) to begin October, followed by games at FIU (1-1) and Ball State (1-2).