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2008 Connecticut Preview - Defense
Connecticut CB Darius Butler
Connecticut CB Darius Butler
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Apr 21, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Connecticut Husky Defense

Connecticut Huskies

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Connecticut Preview | 2008 UConn Offense
- 2008 UConn Defense | 2008 UConn Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Connecticut Preview | 2006 CFN Connecticut Preview 

What you need to know: As stingy as Connecticut was in 2007, it might be even better this fall.  Eight starters are back, and some of the neophytes, such as sophomore linebackers Lawrence Wilson and Scott Lutrus, are quickly becoming reliable veterans. Lutrus is replacing All-Star Danny Lansanah in the middle, a more natural fit for his skill set. At end, Julius Williams and Cody Brown give the Huskies a formidable bookend that combined for 28.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks a year ago. Keep an eye on DT Alex Polito, who erupted against Wake Forest in the bowl game and continues to perform like a budding star.     

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Scott Lutrus, 107
Sacks: Julius Williams, 8.5
Interceptions: Robert Vaughn, 7

Star of the defense: Senior DE Cody Brown
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior CB Robert McClain or Terry Baltimore
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Alex Polito
Best pro prospect: Senior CB Darius Butler
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Brown 2) Sophomore LB Scott Lutrus 3) Butler
Strength of the defense: The front seven, limiting big plays
Weakness of the defense: Overall depth

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The catalysts once again for the Husky defensive line will be senior ends Cody Brown and Julius Williams, a disruptive pair that’s difficult to contain off the edge. Brown has evolved into one of the Big East’s most underrated players, a relentless pass rusher with the strength and tenacity to also contribute in run defense. While only 6-3 and 246 pounds, he’s had 29 tackles for loss and 13 sacks over the last three years, leading all linemen with 50 tackles a year ago. Named a team captain in the spring, Brown is type of end that often requires multiple blockers to keep him out of the backfield.

Williams’ transition from linebacker was a smooth one in 2007, making 35 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and a team-high 8.5 sacks. Quick off the snap and even quicker around the corner, he’s an explosive 6-2, 258-pound package with keen instincts for getting after the quarterbacks. With a full season to learn the position and add weight, Williams will be even more ornery this fall.

Senior Rob Lunn really came into his own last year, and returns as the veteran at tackle. More of a no-nonsense workaholic than a playmaker at 6-4 and 279 pounds, he had 39 tackles, five tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks in the first meaningful minutes of his career.

The hope around Storrs is that the play of sophomore Alex Polito in the Meineke Car Care Bowl was a sneak peek of the next three years. Then just a rookie, he tore through Wake Forest for three tackles for loss and sack, easily the best game of his season.  Still a little rangy at 6-6 and 271 pounds, Polito has a bright future after carrying over December’s effort into the spring.

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Lindsey Witten is almost like having a third starter at defensive end. He has played extensively over the last two seasons, filling in for an injured Brown in 2006 and coming off the bench in 2007. Well-sized at 6-5 and 244 pounds, Witten had 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and three pass breakups a year ago.

There’s a scrum at defensive tackle involving four eager redshirt freshmen seeking a role in the rotation.  Exiting spring, Twyon Martin and Scott Schultz had slight edges in the quest for backup jobs. Martin is only 6-2 and 267 pounds, relying on his quickness and leverage to knife through opposing blockers.

Schultz has better size at 6-3 and 274 pounds, and has the athletic ability of a former high school tight end.  Neither player is locked in on the two-deep, but played well enough in their maiden spring session to gain a narrow advantage. 

Watch Out For… redshirt freshman Jarrell Miller.  Remember him?  Miller is the former blue-chip recruit who selected Connecticut over SEC and ACC schools a couple of years ago.  Although he’s too talented at 6-2 and 268 pounds to keep off the field much longer, he’s also adapting slowly to an offseason move from linebacker to defensive tackle.  Miller is currently running with the third team, which he’ll try to change in the summer.
Strength: The ends. Brown and Williams are difference-makers off the edge, speed guys who combined for 28.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks last season.  One is as quick and feisty as the other, creating nightmares for opponents with lumbering offensive tackles.
Weakness: Interior depth. Yeah, the Huskies will survive with hard-working Lunn and fast-rising Polito on the inside, but after the starters, the picture is hazy. There’s a quartet of freshmen tackles trying to fill the void, most of whom were not heavily recruited coming out of high school.
Outlook: Very few people outside Connecticut have paid much attention to Brown and Williams.  That’s about to change. After failing to earn All-Big East recognition last year, both might land on the team if, as expected, they continue living in opposing backfields.
Rating: 8

Linebackers

Projected Starters: The big news at linebacker is that Freshman All-American Scott Lutrus has relocated from strongside to the middle in order to make the most of his extensive athletic ability.  In his debut, the 6-3, 228-pound sophomore had 107 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and four interceptions, laying the ground floor for what’s going to be a prolific career. He can do a little bit of everything, blending outstanding speed and instincts with the leaping ability of the Husky corners.

Like Lutrus, Lawrence Wilson played to Freshman All-American reviews, moving into the lineup after Ryan Henegan was injured and finishing with 113 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. Still somewhat undersized at 6-1 and 217 pounds, he’s an extremely hard worker on and off the field and one of the fastest players on the Husky D.

Connecticut’s new “husky” or strongside linebacker will be its former strong safety, senior Dahna Deleston. Another example of the defense’s desire to get the fastest players on the field at one time, he’s a speedy 6-0, 211-pounder with two years of starting experience already in the back.  In the secondary last year, Deleston delivered a career-high 103 tackles and represents an upgrade in pass defense.

Projected Top Reserves: Once Deleston graduates, it’s expected that sophomore Greg Robinson is expected to take over at strongside. After earning his first letter with the program, he beefed up to 6-2 and 228 pounds without losing any of the burst or lateral quickness that could help make him special in the future.

Lutrus’ understudy on the inside is expected to be 6-1, 229-pound redshirt freshman C.J. Marck.  A solid all-around athlete who’s physically ready for the Big East, he’s coming off a solid spring that propelled him into the two-deep.

Rounding out the backups is sophomore Greg Lloyd, who played in five games as a freshman and is expected to backup Wilson. The biggest of the weakside linebackers at 6-2 and 239 pounds, he’s also the son of the former Pittsburgh Steeler All-Pro by the same name.

Watch Out For… Lutrus to author a monster second season with the Huskies. A perfect fit to play the middle on defense, he’s poised to put up the kind of numbers that produce All-Big East recognition and considerable attention outside the conference.
Strength: Range. All of the linebackers, and particularly the starters, move well from sideline-to-sideline with the hips to avoid getting burned in pass defense. Lutrus, Wilson, and Deleston have safety speed, which makes them very dangerous on the blitz.
Weakness: Proven depth. The starters are set, but now that Henegan is gone, the second unit no longer has dependable upperclassmen to keep everyone focused.  In fact, of the 11 linebackers on the roster, only three are juniors or seniors.
Outlook: The overnight maturation of Wilson and Lutrus along with the move of Deleston gives Connecticut an underrated set of linebackers that should be even more effective than last year.  With Lutrus manning the middle, expect coordinator Todd Orlando to do plenty of freelancing with Wilson and Deleston on the outside.
Rating: 8

Secondary

Projected Starters: While 5-11, 181-pound senior Darius Butler is expected to play some receiver this year, his primary role remains as the Huskies’ most dependable cover corner.  Entering his fourth season as the starter, he has lockdown potential to go along with sure-tackling in the open field. As a 13-game starter, Butler had 54 tackles, seven pass breakups, and a career-low two picks, largely because quarterbacks try to avoid his side of the field.

Fighting it out at the other cornerbacks spot will be juniors Robert McClain and Terry Baltimore.  McClain got a crash course in the position after switching from running back, making 30 tackles and picking off three passes, primarily as the nickel back. At 5-9 and 197 pounds, McClain is plenty tough, but also vulnerable over the top.

Baltimore closed the gap on McClain in the spring, using his 15 practices to impress the coaching staff with his track speed and improving cover skills. Just 5-10 and 171 pounds, one of his main objectives is to add a little more mass in order to be a factor in run defense and at the line of scrimmage.

Even after finishing No. 4 nationally with seven interceptions, junior FS Robert Vaughn isn’t being handed the starting job, a favorable sign about the talent level in Storrs. The 6-0, 192-pounder also chipped in 56 tackles and four pass breakups, showing good speed and an even better break on balls in the air. 

The situation is even less certain at strong safety, where sophomore Kijuan Dabney and redshirt freshman Jonathan Jean-Louis are waging a tight battle that’ll continue deep into the summer.  For now, the edge belongs to Dabney, a 6-1, 204-pound athlete who lettered as a freshman and can really deliver the payload. His development since the end of the season allowed the Huskies to move last year’s starter Dahna Deleston to linebacker.

Although the 6-0, 200-pound Jean-Louis is a year behind in experience, he’s hard working hard on and away from the field in order to narrow the gap. Fast and physical in the secondary, he’ll earn his first letter no matter who wins the job, playing on special teams and contributing as the extra defensive back in nickel packages.      

Projected Top Reserves: Settling in behind Butler at cornerback is sophomore Jasper Howard.  A dynamite athlete with great quickness, he’s only 5-9 and 168 pounds, a major concern if he gets caught trying to cover a big, physical receiver.

The challenge being felt by Vaughn at free safety is coming from Aaron Bagsby, a 6-1, 185-pound redshirt freshman who isn’t playing like a rookie. One of the program’s top recruits from a couple of years ago, he’s a fluid athlete and explosive leaper who’s making up for lost time after sitting out last season with a shoulder injury.      

Watch Out For… Dabney to make the relocation of Deleston to linebacker look like a shrewd move. Naturally, he lacks Deleston’s experience, but based on the early returns, he’s going to be a playmaker out of the secondary who’ll support the run and created turnovers with punishing licks.
Strength: Keeping the ball in front of them.  While not a collection of stars with NFL futures, the Huskies are well coached at preventing the big play. In fact, last year’s pass defense, which returns almost completely intact, allowed just 9.8 yards a completion, No. 3 nationally behind Ohio State and Kansas.
Weakness: The other cornerback spot. Butler is a sure thing who quarterbacks will want to avoid, but the opposite cornerback, McClain or Baltimore, is not nearly as stable. Both are going to get picked on a lot, and will get exposed if they’re not up to the challenge.
Outlook: Although Butler is the only defensive back with a degree of star power, it doesn’t seem to hurt the pass defense, one of the most overlooked in the country over the past few years. The Huskies will continue to frustrate opposing passing games that’ll find the long ball cut off and the passing lanes congested.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Senior Tony Ciaravino set a school record with 22 field goals on 27 attempts, yet is still not a certainty to be the Husky kicker on opening day. An ace from inside 50 yards, going 23-of-25 for his career, he’s being challenged redshirt freshman David Teggart, who has the stronger leg of the two and has the mechanics to offset a lack of experience at this level.  An all-around good athlete, he can also punt or handle kickoffs if the need arises.

For now, the punter will be Desi Cullen, a junior who averaged 40.7 yards and showed excellent leg strength on kickoffs in his first season on the job. Also the holder on field goals, he’s rapidly becoming one of the most valuable and versatile players on special teams.

In Tyvon Branch and Larry Taylor, the Huskies lose two of the most dangerous return men in the country, neither of whom will be easy to replace. Senior Darius Butler and sophomore Jasper Howard are two candidates being considered as replacements.

Watch Out For… a placekicking platoon. Ciaravino may not be a missile launcher, but he’s been too consistent on mid-range field goals to bench in favor of a freshman. The more likely scenario has the incumbent handling the majority of the kicks and Teggart gaining live experience when attempts beyond 50 yards are needed.
Strength: The kicking game. Ciaravino has injected a dose of stability into a Husky kicking game that was a mess before he arrived. The combination of his intermediate accuracy and Teggart’s length bodes well for the Connecticut special teams this fall.
Weakness: Kick coverage. The Huskies have spent extra time this offseason addressing the Big East’s worst coverage team, a unit that allowed almost 24 yards a return in 2007.
Outlook: With the kickers and punter in good shape, Connecticut will spend the summer tightening up its coverage teams and trying to find a few returners that can offset the departures of Taylor and Branch. The latter is a process that might not have a suitable resolution at any point this season. 
Rating: 6.5