If you think about where UConn’s overall areas of strength have been over the past five years, I think most would agree that the team has consistently fielded strong running backs on offense, effective linebackers and defensive backs on defense and a quality special teams unit.
Last year was no different, and now the Huskies come into the year knowing that both of last year’s starting cornerbacks, one of the team’s best linebackers and the team’s top kick returner are all trying to make an NFL roster, and others are going to have to step up to replace them.
The good news is that despite losing a chunk of talent to graduation and the NFL, the cupboard isn’t bare, and there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about UConn’s defense and special teams going forward. Lets start with the linebackers.
Yawin Smallwood: Smallwood has been an impact player for UConn ever since he first set foot on the field two years ago, and in all likelihood he will be the team’s best player this season. The redshirt junior is getting plenty of national recognition, as he’s been named to virtually every preseason defensive player watch list, most notably the Walter Camp Football Foundation’s National Player of the Year award, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award, which are both awarded to the best defensive player in the country, and the Butkus Award, which honors the nation’s top linebacker.
Last season Smallwood led the Huskies in tackles with 120 and was second on the team in tackles for a loss with 15. He also had four sacks, two forced fumbles, and was tied for 20th in the country with 10 tackles per game. He has played in all 24 games over the course of his two-year career and has tallied 214 career tackles during that time, and most importantly, he has gained the respect of his teammates. Smallwood was just voted team captain by his teammates, despite his being only a junior.
Even without Sio Moore and Jory Johnson by his side, Smallwood should be the rock the Huskies rely on when the going gets tough this season, and barring an injury, 2013 will likely be his most productive year yet.
Graham Stewart: Now, as good as Smallwood figures to be, the rest of the linebacker corps is very inexperienced and one of the big stories early on will be how well the newcomers play. The most fascinating newcomer is Stewart, a redshirt sophomore from Durham, Conn. who originally played at Florida before transferring back to his home state last year.
The 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker boasts a lot of talent, and prior to his transfer, he saw action in all 12 of Florida’s games as a freshman, with the highlight coming in the Gator Bowl when he returned a blocked punt 14 yards for a touchdown against Ohio State.
He was also was a key player in Xavier High School’s 2010 Class LL State Championship, and after the season he was named Defensive Player of the Year by the Hartford Courant.
Ryan Donohue: The other new starter will be Donohue, a 6-foot, 236-pound redshirt senior who is now in his second season at UConn after transferring from Maryland. Donohue played in five games for UConn last year, recording a tackle in each game, and prior to transferring from Maryland, he saw time in all 13 of the Terps games as a reserve linebacker.
The primary backups at linebacker are expected to be redshirt sophomore Jefferson Ashiru, redshirt junior Brandon Steg and redshirt sophomore Marquise Vann.
Byron Jones: Previously one of UConn’s starting safeties, Jones has been moved to cornerback to help fill the void left by Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz. Despite the position change, the redshirt junior still brings a wealth of experience in the secondary, having started all 12 games for UConn at safety last year and eight the year before that. He was also third on the team with 88 tackles in 2012 and has three career interceptions to his name.
Taylor Mack: The big key to the secondary will likely be how well Mack performs as the full-time starter. The senior has seen regular game action as a kick and punt returner since his freshman year in 2010, and over the past few years he has gotten plenty of playing time as a reserve in the secondary, but this will be the first time in his career where he will undisputedly be "the guy" at any position.
If Mack can step up and become a lockdown corner for this team, it could make the difference between the Huskies being a solid defensive team and an elite one.
Ty-Meer Brown: Like Jones, Brown is an experienced defensive back who started all 12 games at safety for UConn last year and seven the year before. The redshirt junior recorded 49 tackles in 2012, has four career interceptions to his name and is expected to build on those totals this year as one of the anchors of the UConn defense.
Obi Melifonwu: The big question mark of the UConn secondary figures to be Melifonwu, the 6-foot-4, 208-pound redshirt freshman from South Grafton, Mass. who was recently named starter by Coach Paul Pasqualoni.
There isn’t really a lot to go off of at this point with Melifonwu, but he has impressive size, and as a former high school running back and long jumper, one would imagine impressive speed as well.
The back-up cornerbacks will be redshirt freshman Jhavon Williams and redshirt sophomore David Stevenson, and at safety the two-deeps will be redshirt freshman Ellis Marder and redshirt sophomore Wilbert Lee. Williams will also reportedly wear No. 6 this year in honor of former Husky cornerback Jasper Howard.
Chad Christen: Christen returns as UConn’s starting kicker, and he comes into the year having made seven straight field goal attempts dating back to UConn’s Oct. 19 game at Syracuse, including three in the Huskies’ upset win over Louisville. He is also healthy again after missing the season finale against Cincinnati with a leg injury, but should he go down again at some point this year, sophomore Bobby Puyol will once again be the guy to fill his shoes.
Overall, Christen has made 14 of 21 field goals in his career, and he is a perfect 24 for 24 on PATs. He did get off to a rough start last year, so hopefully Christen will continue where he left off last year and not revert back to his early season form.
Cole Wagner: Though he isn’t quite the personality that his predecessor Desi Cullen was, Wagner has turned out to be a highly productive punter in his own right and has become one of the most productive punters in UConn history. Now entering his third season as UConn’s starting punter, Wagner’s 41-yard punting average ranks second in UConn history (just behind Cullen, whose average was 41.1), and he is also second in career punts (237) and career yardage (9,710) as well.
Shakim Phillips: In addition to serving as one of the team’s top wideouts, the former Boston College transfer will also take over kick returning duties from Nick Williams. Punt returns will be handled by freshman Brian Lemelle, who hails from Harrisburg, Pa. and was listed atop the team’s most recent depth chart.
Wide receiver Deshon Foxx will back up Phillips on kick returns, and Mack is listed as the primary backup for Lemelle on punt returns. Redshirt junior Adam Mueller will be the team’s long snapper.