UConn football freshman Zion Turner returning home to Miami as starting QB: 'Going to feel great'

STORRS — There are few players at the Football Bowl Subdivision level who have been tasked with a more difficult challenge than UConn true freshman quarterback Zion Turner.

Forced into the starting role after the first quarter of the season opener, the teenager took over the rebuild of the UConn football program just months after leaving St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Turner endured more losses in the first half of his collegiate rookie campaign than he had experienced in all of his high school years. Overwhelming losses against three of the better teams in the nation  —  No. 22 Syracuse, No. 14 NC State, and No. 4 Michigan  —  handed Turner a new personal experience.

A losing streak. 

"They certainly could have broke him, if he was not as mentally tough as he is," UConn coach Jim Mora said. "That was some tough sledding right there. Even at the start of (the Fresno State) game it wasn't great. But for some reason, and I don't know what it is, as the game went on I just felt like our offensive unit's confidence was growing. He seems more certain now in what he is supposed to do."

As Turner heads home this weekend, his losing streak is behind him. UConn is coming off an upset victory over Fresno State and will play at Florida International Saturday night, taking the field not far from where Turner grew up in Miami.

As a high school starter in football-rich Florida, Turner won 37 of 39 games with three state titles. That's why Mora continually describes him as a "winner" when mentions Turner. 

That trait was on display in the closing minutes against Fresno State. Trailing by two minutes in the fourth quarter, Turner led UConn down the field for an 11-play, 94-yard drive that ended with a go-ahead touchdown to win the program's first FBS game since October 2019.

Turner completed passes of 40 yards and 10 yards, and had an 11-yard run during the drive that spanned 6:06.

UConn finished the first half of the season with a 2-4 record. Turner has completed 62 passes on 113 attempts for 559 yards and five touchdowns while rushing for 93 yards on 41 carries.

It has not always been pretty, but his first game after three straight losses against top 25 teams was encouraging. 

"(Those games) helped a lot because they gave me a real glimpse at what big college football is early in my college career," Turner said. "I know what to expect."

Turner was given a longer leash passing down field against Fresno State, a trend that is expected to continue as the Huskies travel to his home state.

With the Huskies kicking off the second half of a top-heavy schedule coinciding with the confidence inspired by Turner's late game poise, there is a realistic optimism around the UConn program that has been absent for years. 

"We are definitely capable of doing what we did on Saturday again and again and again," Turner said. "We would never go into a week thinking that we are going to lose, there are people in this building that work way too many hours and way too hard for us to ever think like that. As a team, we are really focused on doing our job and coming out with the win."

Pressure is an afterthought for Turner, as his high school experience has prepared him well for his freshman season at UConn. 

"Me being from Miami, South Florida, football is really important there," Turner said. "St. Thomas being as dominant as they were and them producing so many players, it was a big deal going there."

Turner became interested in St. Thomas Aquinas when he played youth football, even though he did not live close to the school. He joined the prestigious program and by his sophomore season he was named the starting quarterback. 

"It is definitely very important once you become the starter there," Turner said. "I wouldn't say it is a lot of pressure, but it kind of was. That is something I am used to, all my life playing quarterback. Once you become the starting quarterback at St. Thomas, you are expected to win."

Turner lived up to the expectations. 

"People doubted me when I went to St. Thomas saying 'Oh, St. Thomas will never start you' and stuff like that," Turner said. "You always overcome those things and you come out better from it."

From being named the starting quarterback as an underclassmen to being doubted publicly, Turner's high school and collegiate paths have significant overlap. 

When Turner announced that he would be attending UConn, a struggling independent FBS program coming off a 1-11 season and with fresh coaching staff, he was once again questioned. 

"I would say many people questioned it," Turner said. "What a quarterback like me was doing at a place like UConn had been in the past, but I definitely did not look at it like that. I took the visit here, met with all the coaches, and I knew what we were planning to do. I don't really pay attention to all the outside noise, I don't care what people think. I am a football player, I do my job."

While the questions during his time at UConn are far from over, Turner forced the doubters to take notice last weekend. UConn's victory over Fresno State was a surprise, but it was a return to a familiar thing for Turner. Winning. 

Midway through his freshman season, Turner is impressing his coaches.

"He has got a long way to go, we all do," Mora said. "But I just know he is a mentally tough, very competitive kid. It is going to be hard to get him down, after losses he is emotional but he bounces back. That is what we saw in him when we recruited him."

UConn has not won back-to-back games and has not had at least three wins in a season since 2017.

Both could be accomplished against FIU, which is coming off a win over New Mexico State. FIU is 2-2, but the schedule includes a 73-0 loss to Western Kentucky.

As UConn travels to Florida, the Huskies are a favorite. And their quarterback will be home in front of familiar faces.

"There might be a whole section (of family and friends) that is there for me," Turner said. "It is going to feel great."