Just like the UConn's running back position and secondary over the last decade, UConn linebackers have been imposing their will and making a name for themselves across the country. From Alfred Fincher in 2004, to Danny Lansanah in 2007, to Scott Lutrus and Lawrence Wilson in 2010, to Sio Moore in 2012 and finally Yawin Smallwood last season there is a rich tradition of excellence and leadership.
In this year's linebacker class, I only expect for this tradition to continue and grow. The unit from last season loses current Atlanta Falcon and former leading tackler Yawin Smallwood as well as Penn State transfer Ryan Donohue, but is still returning a wealth of experience as well as gaining some incoming talent. Each starter was at least a 3 star recruit and are all redshirt juniors, while a slew of promising freshmen and sophomores to back them up. UConn has had a future NFL linebacker on its roster every season since 2001, so the question is who is next?
Graham Stewart, (R) Junior, 6'1, 227
The former Connecticut high school football star from Xavier-Middletown is back in his home state's spotlight. After a year at Florida, highlighted by a blocked punt returned for a touchdown against Ohio State in the Gator Bowl, he transferred to UConn. After sitting out in 2012 due to transfer rules, the Durham native struggled to stay on the field battling an array of injuries in 2013. Stewart is finally fully healthy, and is the only four-star recruit on UConn's roster. Whenever he was on the field last season, you could immediately feel his presence as he was a true ball-hawk.
Stewart is a smart, athletic football player who is poised for a true break out season in a Husky uniform, and possesses the most potential to be the next NFL linebacker representing UConn.
Jefferson Ashiru, (R) Junior, 6'2, 233
Ashiru, playing in the middle for the Huskies this season, returns after starting the final 10 games last season. He was fifth on the team in tackles and third in tackles for loss. Ashiru specializes as a run stopper and has good size for a middle linebacker. UConn defenses have been very solid against the run for a long time now, and Ashiru will be a major piece to continue the dominance against the opposition's run game.
Marquise Vann, (R) Junior, 6'0, 226
The only junior among the four captains, Vann has proven to be an aggressive and lead-by-example type of player. Coach Bob Diaco said it best:
"He's not necessarily a rah-rah cheerleader type guy but he is vocal. He's more demonstrative than the other two. He's a good person, kind. He can also flip on the switch on the field. He can live in the two worlds. As an inside linebacker, it's critical that the switch gets flipped. He can be an enforcer. He's not afraid to impose his will."
With 3 juniors starting at linebacker for the first time since the all-star class of Scott Lutrus, Greg Lloyd, and Lawrence Wilson in 2009, the huskies have both experience on their side and the promise of a dominating linebacking core in 2015.
Jon Hicks, (R) Sophomore, 6'2, 236
In his freshman season, Hicks only saw time on the kickoff coverage team. He earned a spot on the depth chart for BYU this week behind Vann, but should see some time playing in the middle of Diaco's hybrid 3-4 scheme. After leading the team in the Blue-White Spring game with 8 tackles, he was able to build on that momentum and will most definitely get his shot to contribute on the field.
Cameron Stapleton, (R) Freshman, 6'4, 226
The 3-star Staten Island native has immense potential. One of a few solid linebacker recruits brought in from the Pasquloni era, Stapleton is an athletic and rangy linebacker who can have an immediate impact in his first year eligible to play college football.
Jalen Stevens, (R) Freshman,
Stevens, like Stapleton, is a 3-star recruit that will most likely start the year on special teams but could eventually play himself into a 2nd string role with his potential.
Junior Joseph, (R) Freshman, 6'1, 242
Joseph, a first team all-state Pennsylvania product sits behind MLB Jefferson Ashiru on the depth chart, will also see action in his first year eligible.
Vontae Diggs, Freshman, 6'4, 207
He may end up receiving a redshirt this season, but at least Vontae Diggs is sporting one of the sweetest names on the team. The former high jumper is an athlete waiting in the wings and will be a major piece of the next generation of UConn linebackers. He also holds the distinction of being Diaco's first 3-star recruit.
If there is one thing I would like to see out of this unit that was missing in recent years, it is getting some pressure on the quarterback. We know they are capable of defending the run and have the potential to be a very cohesive group. But after UConn was 118th in adjusted sack rate in the FBS, there's no question that one way to improve on last season is to get to the QB.
I am very optimistic that this group of linebackers can bring this UConn defense back to its winning ways if they can stay healthy.