STORRS — The biggest battle Bryan Coney faced when he arrived on the UConn campus and put on a football uniform wasn’t learning the offense or improving his hands or being precise in his route running.
The biggest challenge for Coney, a former star receiver at Naugatuck High, was convincing himself he belonged.
“I just had to make sure when I came here that I belonged here,” Coney said last Wednesday morning after the Huskies finished their penultimate practice of the spring. “I don’t have a scholarship, so I had to convince myself that I wasn’t just here to fill up a spot. The coaches wanted me here and they want me to get better.
“I had to understand that.”
The realization came rather quickly for the preferred walk-on.
Coney, who redshirted last year as a freshman, was a standout on the scout team almost from the beginning. By the time the season ended, Coney was spending most of his time with the second-team offense, though head coach Bob Diaco had no intention of playing him in a game unless that became necessary.
Come the fall, it might be necessary to put Coney on the field because he can help the Huskies. Plenty of players have taken leaps during spring drills. Coney is high on that list.
“All I saw of him last year was a little bit of film,” first-year wide receivers coach Erik Campbell said. “What I’ve seen from the start of the spring until now is a guy who has improved greatly. There’s not one area he’s improved in; he’s improved in all of them.
“We only have seven receivers right now so he gets plenty of opportunities to get reps. What he does best is take advantage of those opportunities. You can tell by how hard he works that he wants to get better and help this team.”
At 6-foot-1, 201 pounds, Coney is another in a line of big receivers on the roster. He has large hands, which certainly helps at his position. What helps more than anything is a willingness to put in the work.
Once he moved beyond knowing he belonged, Coney went to work. It has shown in the rave reviews he received last fall and into this spring.
“Ever since coach Campbell came, I’ve seen a big improvement this spring,” Coney said. “He’s been helping with my technique, with my hands, with staying focused.
“I was working real hard in the offseason. When spring came, I knew this was the time I had to step up everything to try to get on the field.”
Diaco said Coney will see the field in the fall, a bold pronouncement nearly five months from the start of the regular season, but Diaco said much the same thing last fall. Coney was that impressive as a scout team player.
The annual Blue-White game Saturday at Rentschler Field, Coney wasn’t necessarily out to prove he belongs. To him, it was just practice No. 15 of the spring.
Coney had five catches for 40 yards at the Blue-White game.
“Bryan is a good player,” Diaco said of Coney. “He has good hands. He’s tough, big, physical and really works hard at the position. … Bryan can go in the games and play wide receiver and special teams. Tough guy, diligent, cares, good hands and a strong football intelligence.”
The proving part, Coney’s been doing that since he arrived. It comes with being an invited walk-on trying to earn a scholarship.
“Every time I’m on the field, I have to prove myself,” Coney said. “Every day I’m trying to get better and trying to do something so that the coaches see me making plays. I want to get them to know they can trust me.
“I’m just trying to make enough things happen so that they can trust me when the season comes. If I keep working like I am right now, hopefully I can get in that spot.”
Roger Cleaveland contributed to this article.