Preview 2007 - Defense
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need to know:
The bend-but-don’t-break Huskies snapped like a toothpick in
2006. The main culprit was a run defense that couldn’t slow
down anyone not named Rhode Island. Things don’t get any easier
this year, as the unit will be looking for ways to replace both
of last year’s starting tackles. Uh-oh. Led by senior
linebacker Danny Lansanah and junior corner Darius Butler, the
back seven will be picking up a lot of the slack on Saturdays.
Expect the pass rush that produced only 11 sacks in the final
eight games to get a spark from the returns of junior Cody Brown
and sophomore Lindsey Witten, disruptive ends that’ll be on the
line together for the first time in September.
Tackles: Danny Lansanah,
Cody Brown, 4.5
Interceptions: Darius Butler, Danny Lansanah, 4
Star of the
Senor LB Danny Lansanah
Player that has to step up and become a star:
Senior DT Dan Davis
Unsung star on the rise: Junior CB Darius Brown
Best pro prospect: Lansanah
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Lansanah 2)
Butler 3) Senior LB Ryan Henegan
Strength of the defense: The back seven
Weakness of the defense: The interior of the line,
Projected Starters: In order to address a gaping hole in
the middle of the defensive line caused by the graduations of Rhema
Fuller and Ray Blagman, the Huskies will turn to within, moving senior
end Dan Davis inside. Although he certainly lacks ideal two-gap
size at 6-1 and 285 pounds, he’s a tenacious veteran of 22 starts who
knows how to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Davis has 18
career tackles for loss and will be one of UConn’s emotional and vocal
leaders in 2007.
Joining Davis in the interior will be junior Rob Lunn, a
journeyman who saw limited action last year as backup to Fuller and as a
long-snapper. With the dearth of tackles facing the Huskies, he’ll be
asked to play a much larger role on the defense this season.
UConn’s relative strength at the ends is what allowed Davis to change
positions in the off-season. After starting six games apiece in 2006,
junior Cody Brown and sophomore Lindsey Witten will be
counted on to double that total this year. Brown was off to a terrific
start, recording 24 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, before
breaking his arm on Oct. 14. He’s returned bigger, stronger and
determined to make this the best season of his college career.
Witten filled in when Brown was on the shelf, collecting 39 tackles, six
tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks as a true freshman. Still too rangy to
dominate, he’ll eventually add weight to his 6-4 frame and blossom into
the program’s best edge rusher.
Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Brandon Dillon arrived
in Storrs as a 250-pound end, but has grown into a 285-pound tackle that
has his sights set on cutting into Lunn’s playing time and bolstering
UConn’s dicey situation inside.
Senior Gary Mack, the Huskies’ elder statesman at end, is
vulnerable to redshirt freshman Mike Cox and junior Julius
Williams. Williams, in particular, has an explosive first step
which prompted the staff to move him from outside linebacker once last
Watch Out For…Witten. Playing purely on physical ability
and adrenaline, Witten performed like a future star throughout the
second half of his true freshman season. He plays very fast and very
intense, needing only to commit himself to the weight room to become one
of the Big East’s better pass-rushers.
Strength: The budding ends. Brown and Witten are going to
be a weekly handful for opposing tackles in 2007. The pair is young,
aggressive and real quick off the snap which should give a lift to a
Husky pass rush that produced only 22 sacks a year ago.
Weakness: The interior. There’s an awful lot to like
about Davis as a football player, however, if he’s supposed to be the
answer for the middle of the line, it could be a rough year for the
UConn defense. The tackles are undersized, unproven and likely to get
bullied by some of the league’s better and more physical offensive
Outlook: It’s a good news, bad news situation for the
defensive line. The good news is that the pass rush should be
noticeably better with Witten and Brown applying pressure from the
outside and Davis using his quickness to shoot right up the middle. The
bad news is that UConn was 105th nationally against the run
in 2006 when it had a pair of quality space-eaters in Fuller and Blagman.
The defense might suffer through a ton of 13-play drives this year with
most of the gains coming on the ground.
Projected Starters: The linebackers represent the strength
of the defense, a unit that could have been even better had Donta Moore
not been suspended. The headliner in the middle of the group is senior
Danny Lansanah, last year’s leading tackler and a wrecking ball
at 6-0 and 248 pounds. An All-Big East caliber player with great range
and quickness, he’s also the unit’s best pass defender, picking off six
passes over the last two seasons.
Fellow senior Ryan Henegan went from career backup to one of the
defense’s top performers in 2006. Despite sitting out the first two
games with a hamstring injury, he finished second on the team with 92
tackles and third with nine tackles for loss. Henegan is not the team’s
most dynamic linebacker, yet he has a knack for finding the ball and
playing faster than his 40 time.
Replacing Moore at strongside will be redshirt freshman Scott Lutrus,
a 6-2, 227-pound former star running back in high school and the
Defensive Scout Team Player of the Week for last year’s Syracuse game.
Projected Top Reserves: Lutrus is going to get challenged
all year for playing time by fellow redshirt freshman, Greg Robinson.
Undersized at 6-1 and 216 pounds, he relies on his quickness and lateral
speed to make plays. Ditto Lawrence Wilson, the top reserve on
the weakside who has the agility and athleticism of a safety, but needs
to spend more time in the Shenkman Training Center.
Watch Out For…Incoming freshman Jarrell Miller.
Arguably the most heralded defensive player to ever choose UConn, Miller
is going to be impossible to keep on the sidelines in 2007. Although he
plays the same spot as Lansanah, he’s bigger, faster and more intense
than any other Husky linebacker, making it the staff’s responsibility to
manufacture ways to get him on the field.
Strength: Middle linebacker. If Miller is as good as
advertised right out of the gate, UConn is going to have an underrated
pair of middle backers. Even if he’s slow on the uptake or freelances
elsewhere, Lansanah gives the defense a genuine presence that can make
momentum-building plays stopping the run or defending the pass.
Weakness: Proven depth. The starters will be fine if
Lutrus or Robinson hold up at strongside, however, the second and third
units are inexperienced and, Miller aside, not ready to make
considerable contributions in 2007. It’s imperative that a couple of
the underclassmen step up and play like this is not their first season
on a two-deep.
Outlook: The Huskies have a nice blend of veterans and
rookies that’ll combine to form one of the program’s best units in
2007. While Lansanah and Henegan will be the pillars, the two seniors
must get unexpected support from the kids if UConn is going to improve
on last season’s dismal performance against the run.
Projected Starters: A defensive staple for the past few
seasons, the UConn secondary should once again be strong. It all starts
with returning starting cornerbacks, senior Tyvon Branch and
junior Darius Butler, two of the team’s fastest and most
experienced players. Branch is a burner, but at 6-0 and 200 pounds,
he’s also not afraid to come up and support in run defense, racking up
79 tackles and four tackles for loss in last year’s first full season as
Butler is the Huskies’ premier cover corner, combining good wheels with
outstanding ball-hawking skills. In just two seasons in Storrs, he’s
started 22 games, breaking up 15 passes and picking off four despite
getting ignored my most opposing quarterbacks.
After Branch and Butler, the drop-off at safety is steep. Last year’s
starters, M.J. Estep and Dahna Deleston graduated and flunked out,
respectively, leaving a cast of unproven players in their wake. The
brightest future belongs to Robert Vaughn who was forced to take
off his redshirt last year, unexpectedly getting seven games of
experience as a true freshman. He’ll be better for it in 2007. Now the
starter at free safety, Vaughn has a great burst and closing speed which
explains why he was almost lured to the Big Ten.
Rounding out the secondary is Donnell Ford, one of just two
seniors in the defensive backfield and a veteran of 21 games. After
spending most of his career as a special team ace and reserve defensive
back, he’s being asked to raise the level of his game and perform like a
starting strong safety in his final year on campus.
Projected Top Reserves: When the Huskies insert a fifth
defensive back, corner Terry Baltimore is likely to get the
call. The fluid sophomore logged valuable minutes as a freshman on
special teams and in the secondary, preparing him for a bigger role in
Sophomore Glen Mourning is well-positioned to be the top reserve
at safety for UConn. At 6-0 and 208 pounds, he’s one of the biggest
members of the secondary, and as a former prep quarterback in a Wing-T
offense, a pretty agile all-around athlete.
Watch Out For…incoming freshman Corey Stringer.
Jarrell Miller isn’t the only mid-year transfer from Fork Union (Va.)
Military Academy that’s going to leave an imprint on the Husky defense
this fall. Stringer was cleared to practice this spring after tearing
his ACL last winter. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, the free safety is a beast
by UConn standards and the kind of athlete that’s capable of scaling the
depth chart very quickly.
Strength: The corners. Butler and Branch are, well, the
cornerstones of a secondary that’s quietly been very stingy over the
past few seasons. Both are fast, skilled when the ball is in the air
and not afraid to sneak up and pop a back looking to get around the
corner. Their primary backup, Baltimore, isn’t very big, but he’s a
quality cover man with a solid season of action already in the vault.
Weakness: The safeties. Vaughn was a true freshman a year
ago, and he’s already the best of the lot, a testament to how thin UConn
is at safety this season. If Ford was supposed to be starting at this
level, he would have done so at some point before his senior year. This
is going to be a sore spot for the Huskies all year unless someone like
Mourning or Stringer quickly evolves into a dependable player.
Outlook: As long as the corners remain healthy and the
depth of this team isn’t tested, UConn will continue to be one of the
nation’s better pass defenses that absolutely no one discusses. If
Butler can build on his first two seasons and continue growing into his
role as a defensive leader, he could close his junior year with
Projected Starters: Randy Edsall better hope junior kicker
Tony Ciaravino and sophomore punter Desi Cullen are
self-motivated because neither will have any competition pushing them
until the summer. Ciaravino replaced Matt Nuzie midway through the 2006
season, connecting on both of his short field goals and 12-of-13 extra
points. Edsall showed no confidence him in field goals beyond 40 yards,
which is something that’ll have to be addressed early this season.
Cullen takes over for Chris Pavasaris, one of the busiest Huskies of the
2006 season. He has a very strong leg, but the extent of his experience
last year was handling kickoffs, a job he performed better than a couple
of other teammates. Cullen is considered a triple-threat that can punt,
boot kickoffs and challenge Ciaravino as the team’s field goal kicker.
Projected Top Reserves: Unless Cullen can push Ciaravino
this year and handle double duties, both kickers could run unopposed in
2007. In the summer, freshman Dave Teggart arrives with an opportunity
to impress the coaches and quickly vie for playing time.
Watch Out For…Teggart. Ciaravino wouldn’t be such a lock
to be the Husky placekicker if he actually had a little competition,
something Teggart would like to provide. During his high school career,
he nailed 18-of-24 field goals and 50-of-51 extra points while showing
off considerable leg strength.
Strength: Larry Taylor. The shifty receiver is also one
of the most dangerous returners in school history. He’s taken three
returns back for scores in his career and routinely improves the field
position for an offense that needs all the assistance it can get.
Weakness: Field-goal kicking. The Huskies suffered
through three kickers in 2006 that were only able to convert 7-of-16
field goals and muffed three extra points. Ciaravino added a dose of
stability late in the year, but UConn fans will still hold their breath
when he trots on to the field in September.
Outlook: Cullen has the leg to do just fine as the new
punter, but the kicking woes that plagued UConn throughout 2006 are here
to stay for another year. Ciaravino lacks consistency which is a major
concern for an offense that often breaks down when it reaches the
opposition’s red zone.