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2009 Connecticut Preview - Defense
Connecticut LB Scott Lutrus
Connecticut LB Scott Lutrus
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jun 5, 2009


CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Connecticut Husky Defense

Connecticut Huskies

Preview 2009 - Defense

- 2009 CFN Connecticut Preview | 2009 UConn Offense
- 2009 UConn Defense | 2009 UConn Depth Chart
- 2008 UConn Preview | 2007 UConn Preview | 2006 UConn Preview

What you need to know: If you only look at high school rankings, it defies all logic that Connecticut is perennially one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. The Huskies neither bend nor break most weekends, relying on a slew of disciplined, athletic players, who get better the longer they remain in Storrs. Credit Todd Orlando, the architect of this unit, for doing more with less than just about any defensive coordinator in America. The Huskies will face challenges this fall related to the loss of five starters, specifically all-stars and first-day draft choices Cody Brown and Darius Butler. If you’re thinking the bottom is about to fall out, think again. There’s enough talent for the program to endure, even if it can’t match last year’s numbers. Scott Lutrus and the linebackers are fantastic, the secondary will be just fine, and DE Lindsey Witten should blossom now that he’s finally getting a starting gig.    

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Scott Lutrus, 106
Sacks: Lindsey Witten, 5
Interceptions: Jasper Howard, 4

Star of the defense: Junior LB Scott Lutrus
Player that has to step up and become a star
: Senior CB Robert McClain
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Twyon Martin
Best pro prospect: Lutrus
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Lutrus, 2) Senior FS Robert Vaughn, 3) Senior DE Lindsey Witten
Strength of the defense: Overall athleticism, pass defense, the linebackers, creating turnovers, red zone D
Weakness of the defense
: Options at defensive end, size, proven depth

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: It’s a good thing the Huskies have depth at defensive end because it’s going to be tested this fall. The departures of Cody Brown and Julius Williams are stiff blows to the entire defensive unit. After mostly playing a secondary role throughout his tenure, 6-4, 248-pound senior Lindsey Witten is ready for his first full-time gig. Despite starting just eight career games, he’s compiled 16.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and seven pass breakups, finishing third on the team in sacks a year ago. A good athlete coming around the corner, he moves with the ease of an outside linebacker.

Serving as Witten’s bookend will be 6-2, 228-pound junior Marcus Campbell, an infrequently used reserve in his first two years. Purely a speed rusher, who could get exposed on running plays, he chipped in 10 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a couple of sacks last season.

At defensive tackle, 6-2, 272-pound sophomore Kendall Reyes returns intent to build upon last year’s outstanding debut. A reserve when 2008 began, he crept up the depth chart, eventually starting four games and making 20 tackles, three tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. A three-tech tackle, he has the speed and agility to beat his man and create problems in the backfield.

Rounding out the defensive front will be tackle Twyon Martin, who’s made in the same mold as Reyes. While only 6-1 and 272 pounds, he, too, has the explosive burst and quick feet to frustrate opposing linemen. In a foundation-building first season, he earned eight starts, collecting 22 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks.

Projected Top Reserves: The third man in the tackle rotation will be 6-5, 272-pound junior Alex Polito, a part-time starter a year ago, who’s having a hard time leapfrogging Reyes or Martin. He had a quiet season in 2008, making just 13 stops, and still tends to play a little high. If he can add more muscle to that long frame, he’d have a better base as a run-stopper.

The veteran off the bench at defensive end will be 6-2, 245-pound junior Mike Cox, who sat out all of last season following knee surgery. When last seen in 2007, he was flashing potential as an edge rusher, making 21 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss, while appearing in all 13 games.

Watch Out For… true freshman Jesse Joseph. He already has a spring session in the rear view mirror and is already steadily climbing up the depth chart. Within shouting distance of the No. 2 spot behind Campbell, he showed good explosion for a 6-4, 238-pounder.
Strength: Athleticism. Inside and out, the Huskies are going to feature one of the quickest and most disruptive defensive lines in the Big East. You’ve come to expect pressure from this program’s defensive ends, but it’s at tackle, where these guys will be tough to handle. Reyes and Martin have excellent get-off for big men and a valuable year of experience behind them.
Weakness: Girth. Where’s the two-gap tackle, who can control spaces and eat up blockers? With a line that averages just 6-3 and 255 pounds, the Huskies will struggle to hold the line of scrimmage against big, physical offensive lines that commit to running directly at them.
Outlook: Much like the offensive line, which is also without its two best players, it’ll take a while before this unit finds solid footing. Yes, there’s plenty of potential, especially with the young tackles, but Brown and Williams had 27.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks in 2008, a level of production that’ll be impossible to replace.
Rating: 7

Linebackers

Projected Starters: In two seasons, junior Scott Lutrus has proven to be one of the league’s most versatile and talented defenders. A Freshman All-America as a middle linebacker, he moved to strongside in 2008 and promptly made All-Big East second team, racking up 106 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and five pass breakups. He’s got sharp instincts, but that’s not code for limited athleticism. On the contrary, he’s got good speed and the pass coverage skills of a safety. He also calls plays for the defense, always knows down and distance, and is a self-described student of the game. 

Flanking Lutrus at weakside for a third straight season is 6-1, 226-pound junior Lawrence Wilson, another top-flight athlete roaming around the Husky D. A year after debuting with 113 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss, he rung up another 73, six behind the line, and three interceptions. A speedy playmaker, with outstanding range, he reads and reacts like a skill position player.

Back in the middle is 6-1, 241-pound junior Greg Lloyd, who started nine of the first 11 games before missing two games for personal reasons. The biggest of the linebackers, he moves and does a good job of sifting through traffic to make plays. In his first full season of action, he hung up 56 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and a sack.

Projected Top Reserves: The most experienced member of the B team will be 6-1, 242-pound junior Greg Robinson, a veteran of 15 contests and Lloyd’s backup on the inside. While he only played in six games and had four tackles, he has the size and lateral quickness to slide into the lineup if an emergency arises.

Although it might take a couple of years before he cracks this lineup, 6-1, 221-pound redshirt freshman Sio Moore is the unquestioned future star at this position. An explosive athlete in every sense of the term, he’s the prototype at the position for the Huskies. After making 16 tackles in the spring game, the staff might be forced to increase his reps in the fall.

Watch Out For… the picks to continue. Yeah, this is a collection of linebackers, but they’ve got the coverage and ball skills of most safeties. That’s a good thing, particularly in a league that likes to use the tight end and rarely ventures beyond the intermediate routes.
Strength: Range. All of the linebackers, including the backups, move extremely well from sideline-to-sideline and have the hips to avoid getting burned in pass defense. Lutrus, Wilson, and Lloyd have outstanding  speed, which makes them dangerous on the blitz, and the green light to attack from all points on the field.     
Weakness: Size. Yes, it’s by design that is still a smallish bunch that can get beat over the top by taller receivers and get move around when guards and tackles drift into the second line of defense. The Huskies prefer quickness over power, but against certain opponents, it can backfire on them.
Outlook: Arguably the most talented unit on the roster, the linebackers are deep, experienced, and very productive. Not only are the starters good, but they’re growing up together, all juniors and all used to the other’s tendencies. Lutrus, Wilson, and Lloyd have the range and instincts to keep the ball in front of them and limit extra yardage.
Rating: 8

Secondary

Projected Starters: The glass is half-filled for a Husky secondary, which welcomes back three players with starting experience, but loses all-star CB Darius Butler, who’s now a New England Patriot. It’s a good thing that 5-9, 196-pound senior Robert McClain and 5-9, 171-pound junior Jasper Howard saw the field plenty last season. McClain has seen the starting lineup in each of the last two years, making 30 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, three picks, and five breakups in 2008. While not tall, the converted running back is plenty feisty, jamming receivers and providing support in run defense.

Howard started all 13 games as a sophomore, holding up well despite being the target of opposing quarterbacks, who were looking to avoid Butler. Third on the team with 40 solo tackles, he added three tackles for loss, four interceptions, and a team-high nine pass breakups. A terrific all-around athlete, he’s got the hips and catch-up speed to be the unit’s best cover guy.

Now in his third season as a starter, 6-0, 202-pound FS Robert Vaughn is the new headliner of the defensive backfield. While tough in run defense, he also has excellent ball skills, picking off nine passes over the last two years. In his 2008 All-Big East campaign, he posted a career-high 67 tackles, intercepted a pair of passes and redirected three others.

The newest member of the starting lineup will be 5-11, 203-pound sophomore SS Jonathan Jean-Louis, who spent most of his first season making plays on special teams. A fast and physical defensive back, he’s added muscle since matriculating and can really pack a wallop. His coverage skills remain a question mark that’ll require support from his teammates.

Projected Top Reserves: After redshirting in his first season, the blueprint for 5-11, 189-pound rookie Dwayne Gratz calls for him to letter in 2009 and replace McClain at cornerback in 2010. One of the program’s key recruit from a year ago, he has the instincts and closing speed that solicit offers from a bunch of FCS schools.

The closest thing Connecticut has to a veteran safety is 6-1, 190-pound sophomore Aaron Bagsby, who’s having to break a sweat to earn the No. 2 job behind Vaughn. A fluid athlete, who can really climb the tree to bat balls away, he played in 10 games in 2008, making a pair of starts and 27 tackles. He could be the heir apparent at free safety if he continues to develop and stays healthy.

Watch Out For… the development of McClain. He’ll be the key, as opponents search for the weak link in the defensive backfield. Howard may be a wise target, based on last year’s play, leaving McClain, a former running back, to prove he belongs in the every-day lineup.
Strength: Defending the pass. Sure, it’s going to get tougher without Butler, but year after year, these Huskies do a sensational job of limiting big plays, picking off passes, and generally frustrating opposing receivers. Last year’s edition was ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense, yielding just nine touchdown passes in 13 games and less than six yards an attempt.
Weakness: Shutting down taller receivers. If there’s a way to beat this group, it’s over the top with long receivers. McClain and Howard are generously listed at 5-9, which means they’ll be at a serious disadvantage against the likes of Pitt’s Jonathan Baldwin and Syracuse’s Mike Williams.
Outlook: A microcosm for the entire program, the secondary doesn’t have a lot of sex appeal, but it always seems to get the job done. They’ve got the experience and athleticism to completely shut down most opposing passing attacks. It’s the out of conference games with the likes of Baylor and Notre Dame, however, that the departure of Butler will be most noticeable.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Sophomore Dave Teggart took over placekicking duties midway through last year, solidifying the position. He set a school-record by nailing his first 11 field goal attempts, finishing a crisp 13-of-15, while showing above average leg strength.

Back for another season at punter will be senior Desi Cullen, who’ll also be one of the team captains for the upcoming season. While he doesn’t possess a booming leg, averaging just under 40 yards a punt, he’s a good directional kicker and an asset as a downfield tackler. One priority this season will be to decrease the time it takes to get the ball off.

With Darius Butler gone, sophomores Robbie Frey and Jordan Todman will be competing to become the new kickoff returner. Both got chances in this area a year ago. The punt returner will again be junior Jasper Howard, whose 11-yard average last fall was No. 2 in the Big East and 28th nationally.

Watch Out For… the development of Teggart. Was he just riding the wave of being the starter last year, or is he really this good? The Huskies, naturally, are praying for no sophomore slump because this is an offense that needs its field goal kicker to be on target.
Strength: Stability in the kicking game. Just about everyone in the country is replacing either a kicker or a punter. The Huskies are an exception, bringing back a third-year starting punter and a placekicker, who appears capable of following the same career path.
Weakness: Blocks. How ugly did things get last year? Connecticut allowed a ridiculous six punts to be blocked, highlighted by a fiasco against North Carolina. More than anything else, correcting this flaw has been an offseason priority for assistant Lyndon Johnson.
Outlook: On the surface, things look stable with the returns of Teggart and Cullen, but the Huskies still need to do the little things better, like long snapping, covering punts and kicks, and preventing blocks. This is one of those programs that needs to do the little things well in order to reach all of its goals.
Rating: 7