2013 Connecticut Preview - Defense

CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jul 14, 2013


CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Connecticut Husky Defense


Connecticut Huskies

Preview 2013 - Defense


- 2013 Connecticut Preview | 2013 Connecticut Offense
- 2013 Connecticut Defense | 2013 Connecticut Depth Chart

What You Need To Know: New coordinator, same mandate to get after the other guys in an attacking style. Hank Hughes replaces Don Brown, and inherits a depleted D that lost four of last season’s five All-Big East performers to graduation. The lone returner, LB Yawin Smallwood, is an elite talent, but his supporting cast certainly isn’t what it was a year ago. The Huskies are in the market for new playmakers, guys who can create turnovers, while helping offset the loss of sacks left by the departures of DE Trevardo Williams and LB Sio Moore. Looking to provide a lift up front is DE Jesse Joseph, who missed most of last season to an Achilles injury. Productive former S Byron Jones has moved to cornerback to bolster a position that’s going to miss Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz. Otherwise, Hughes is in charge of plenty of youth and try-hard types looking to carve out their own niche within the perennially underrated UConn defense.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Yawin Smallwood, 120
Sacks: Yawin Smallwood, 4
Interceptions: Byron Jones, 1

Star of the defense: Junior LB Yawin Smallwood
Player who has to step up and become a star: Senior DE Tim Willman
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S Andrew Adams
Best pro prospect: Smallwood
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Smallwood, 2) Senior DE Jesse Joseph, 3) Junior CB Byron Jones
Strength of the defense: Run defense, fundamentals, limiting big plays, third-down D
Weakness of the defense: Proven pass rushers, takeaways, proven depth

Defensive Line

The Huskies will move forward without their best linemen, DE Trevardo Williams, who is now a Houston Texan. There’s hope that the healthy return of 6-3, 262-pound senior Jesse Joseph will help to offset Williams’ graduation. Joseph has more starts than any returning player, 35, but is only back in 2013 because a torn Achilles ended his season after just three games. The recent CFL draft pick of the Montreal Alouettes hopes to regain his standing as one of UConn’s toughest all-around defenders. Joseph brings 118 career tackles and 13 sacks into his finale.

At the other end, senior Tim Willman has earned a shot to be a full-timer for the first time in his career. Coming off the bench, the scrappy 6-4, 267-pounder managed to quietly chip in 18 tackles, eight stops for loss and three sacks. Willman, like Joseph, is a high-motor guy who plays to the whistle.

The Huskies will rely on a pair of juniors, 6-3, 255-pound Reuben Frank and 6-5, 316-pound B.J. McBryde to provide depth at end. Frank has starting experience, though as a fullback. McBryde earned his first letter a year ago, and brings uncommon size and strength to the perimeter of the line.

Hopes run high that senior Shamar Stephen can anchor the interior of the line from his tackle position. The massive 6-5, 323-pounder is a veteran of 17 starts, nine a year ago and eight in 2011. In 2012, he rebounded after missing the first two games to make 26 tackles, two stops for loss and four pass breakups. Stephen is quicker than his size might indicate, portending a possible career on Sundays.

Lining up next to Stephen will be up-and-coming sophomore Julian Campenni, a letterwinner in his debut. The sophomore made 10 stops, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack in 2012, starting the first two games when Stephen was hurt. Campenni is just 6-0 and 283 pounds, but slides well and operates with good pad level.

The backup to Campenni is 6-3, 297-pound Angelo Pruitt, who’ll be shifting from end to his more natural tackle position this year. Pruitt moved outside last year after Joseph went down, starting the final eight games, and finishing the campaign with 26 tackles, four stops for loss and a sack.

Watch Out For … the health of Joseph. For this unit to reach its potential, it needs No. 91 to be at full strength. Joseph has shown what he can do when at full strength, but he hasn’t been at that point since 2010. Being drafted by the Alouettes was great, but the senior still wants to play his way into the thoughts of NFL types.
Strength: Jamming up running lanes. Yes, two starters are gone, but UConn always seems to do a terrific job of stuffing the run. Last year’s team ranked No. 7 in the country in run defense, while yielding just 2.7 yards per carry. This year’s edition will again be tough to navigate, especially with the trio of Stephen, Campenni and Pruitt patrolling the interior.
Weakness: Sure-fire edge rushers. There’s just no easy way to replace a player of Williams’ caliber. He commanded maximum attention, while racking up 11.5 sacks. Joseph and Willman are fine players, with very good motors, but neither is going to erupt off the edge and blow up passing attacks the way Williams did the past few years.
Outlook: This is one area of the roster that UConn always seems to retool without skipping a beat. The 2013 two-deep has size, talent and experience, the ingredients of one of the AAC’s better front walls. The Huskies will be tough and hard-working, but they still need someone to pick up the slack in the pass rush. Creating an environment for Joseph to recapture his old form will be a top priority this summer and fall.
Unit Rating: 7

Linebackers

The Huskies like their linebackers to be athletic, aggressive and versatile. They love 6-3, 244-pound junior Yawin Smallwood. The product of Massachusetts has authored two outstanding seasons at Connecticut, earning First Team All-Big East in 2012. He was tough for offenses to contain a season ago, tallying a team-high 120 tackles, 15 stops for loss, four sacks, four pass breakups and a couple of forced fumbles. Smallwood has always been a terrific athlete, but now he’s combining that athleticism with advanced instincts and grasp of the position. He attacks the run with determination, and will continue having a positive impact on run defense.

Two terrific starters, Sio Moore and Jory Johnson, must still be replaced. The leader on the inside is 6-0, 236-pound senior Ryan Donohue, a transfer from Maryland. The two-time letterwinner while with the Terrapins had one tackle in each of the five games he played with the Huskies in 2012. Donohue is a tough and smart linebacker who does his best work on running plays.

On the outside, there’s optimism that sophomore Jefferson Ashiru is ready to assume an expanded role on the defense. The 6-1, 233-pounder started the South Florida game, and wound up with eight stops in nine games. He has long arms and enough foot speed to be a factor in run defense and pass defense.

Pushing Ashiru for snaps is 6-1, 237-pound sophomore Graham Stewart, a local kid who began his career at Florida. The former four-star recruit earned a letter on special teams with the Gators, and becomes eligible at an ideal time for the Huskies. Junior Brandon Steg and sophomore Marquise Vann are returning letterwinners who’ll back up Donohue and Smallwood, respectively. Both of the reserves are expected to do more than just contribute on special teams this year.

Watch Out For … Stewart’s quest for playing time to be far from over. The Huskies didn’t land a former SEC recruit so that he could languish on the bench. Stewart is back home for more than just playing in front of friends and family. He’s looking the reps and notoriety that probably weren’t going to come in Gainesville.
Strength: Smallwood. The junior is so good and so disruptive that he makes the Huskies around him better. He’s the linchpin of this group, and the entire D, supporting the run, dropping into coverage and making the kinds of plays that change the momentum of a game.
Weakness: Overall depth. Losing Johnson and Moore, the third-round pick of the Oakland Raiders, has deprived UConn of two of last year’s most consistent playmakers. Smallwood will soon join Moore in the NFL, but he’s now surrounded by players who would probably be better served coming off the bench.
Outlook: How quickly will Ashiru and Stewart develop? The Huskies need to be more than just Smallwood, who’s capable of making national waves this season. Donohue will be a steady performer capable of collecting 50-plus tackles. But UConn needs its young linebackers to play like upperclassmen if the unit as a whole is going to recover from the graduations of two of last season’s best producers.
Unit Rating: 7

Secondary

Connecticut parted with both of its all-league cornerbacks, Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh Wilson. The holdovers will be asked to step up in a big way this fall. Junior Byron Jones returns for his third year in the lineup, coming off a breakout campaign at free safety highlighted by 88 tackles. However, the 6-1, 192-pounder is being shifted to corner to help fill the void and maximize his skill set. Jones has played the position before, and the staff is confident he has the length and foot speed to neutralize some of the AAC’s better receivers. How well he handles the new assignment will go a long way toward dictating this defense’s fate.

Sitting on the hot seat at the other cornerback spot will be 5-9, 173-pound Taylor Mack. The senior has played in 33 games during his career, but has started just a single game. He is coming off his most productive season with the program, registering 28 tackles and breaking up four passes. Mack knows the system, but needs to translate that knowledge into reliability in coverage.

Battling Mack for the starting corner job will be 5-10, 188-pound redshirt freshman Jhavon Williams. He’s clearly young and unproven, but has the size and the athleticism that the coaching staff likes at the position.

With Jones now playing a different position, 6-0, 197-pound junior Ty-Meer Brown is set to take over as the leader of the safeties. Brown has started 19 games over the past two seasons, including all 12 a year ago. The former option quarterback in high school needs to become far more active, though, after making just 49 tackles, a pick and four pass breakups.

The greenest member of the starting secondary will likely be sophomore Andrew Adams, whose eyeing a spot at the safety opening vacated by Jones. The 6-0, 190-pound Adams started a pair of games in his debut, and showed flashes of potential as he made 23 tackles, a couple of stops for loss and four pass breakups.

Sophomore Wilbert Lee and redshirt freshman Obi Melifonwu are two well-sized defenders positioned to provide depth and occasional reps off the bench at safety.

Watch Out For … Jones’ adjustment back to corner. While it’s not as if he hasn’t played the position before, there’ll still be a learning curve after being a safety the past few years. With the undersized Mack on the other side, UConn desperately needs Jones to perform at an All-AAC level in pass defense this season.
Strength: Experience at cornerback. Now that Jones’ job description has changed, the Huskies will feature a pair of seasoned upperclassmen at corner. While Mack has not been a regular with the program, he’s played enough football to convince the staff that he’s capable of making a smooth transition into the lineup.
Weakness: Thievery. After picking off just six passes in 2012, the Huskies need to get back to their opportunistic ways of recent years. The pass defense lacked a dynamic flair last fall, despite harboring more talent than the current defensive backfield. More support from the safeties would be a plus that didn’t exist last season.
Outlook: UConn was home to two All-Big East cornerbacks last season, yet the defensive backfield performed only slightly better than average. Now that those standouts, Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, are gone, it’s hard to imagine this unit elevating against the pass. Oh, and if the D-line generates less pressure, as expected, it’ll be even tougher for the Huskies to shut down opposing passers. place for the Huskies to be very feisty and opportunistic out of the secondary this fall.
Unit Rating: 6.5

Special Teams

The Huskies will begin the season in good shape on special, welcoming back battle-tested seniors at punter and placekicker. PK Chad Christen performed to mixed reviews in his first year on the job, connecting on just 14-of-21 field goal attempts. Beyond 40 yards was a shot in the dark, with only 2-of-7 splitting the uprights.

The staff has more confidence in Christen’s senior classmate, P Cole Wagner. No, the 6-2, 200-pound couldn’t follow up on his All-Big East sophomore year, but he did do a nice job of pinning opponents deep in their own territory, while averaging 40.5 yards.

A priority in the summer will be to find a replacement for all-star return man Nick Williams. Junior Shakim Phillips has the early edge on kick returns, while senior Taylor Mack is the probable punt returner.

Watch Out For … Christen to kick with a higher degree of reliability in 2013. He was noticeably uncomfortable and unsure of himself at times last season. But the senior is no longer a first-timer in the lineup, and he figures to kick with a lot more consistency now that he has a full year behind him.
Strength: Wagner. Now that Williams is gone, Wagner becomes this group’s most effective weapon. While the senior won’t drive his leg into the ball, he does a nice job of angling kicks and hanging the ball in the air. He’s an asset to the Huskies D, pinning opponents deep in their own territory.
Weakness: The long game. Big legs are not going to be the trademark of this unit. Wagner ranked just 67th in the country in punting average, and Christen yips from long range could entice the staff to employ another Husky on a situational basis.
Outlook: Now that the Huskies have parted with their best weapon, Williams, the special teams unit is only slightly better than average. The two specialists are experienced seniors, a good thing, but consistency has eluded both, and new return men must be anointed during the month of August.
Unit Rating: 6.5

- 2013 Connecticut Preview | 2013 Connecticut Offense
- 2013 Connecticut Defense | 2013 Connecticut Depth Chart