NEWPORT, R.I.—Don’t expect the UConn Huskies to sit back this year and react to opposing offenses—new defensive coordinator Billy Crocker will have none of that.
Crocker comes to Storrs after a successful 12-year coaching stint at Villanova, leading the Wildcats to the No. 1-ranked defense in the country in 2016 as its defensive coordinator. Coaching in the same role at Connecticut, he brings along with him his attacking 3-3-5 defense, molded by the coach’s own energy and aggression.
“When I was putting my staff together I was looking for guys who could fit into what we wanted to do and what philosophy we wanted to have,” said head coach Randy Edsall. “As I researched some people he was a guy, as I looked at him, who stood out in terms of the success he had at Villanova and running the 3-3-5 defense he runs.
“(The 3-3-5) is one that I think fits us a little bit better from an athletic standpoint and also with what we have to face in our conference it allows us to bring that aggressiveness and unpredictability where we might be able to dictate to the offense rather than them dictate them to us.”
Edsall spoke to the media on Tuesday morning at the Gurney’s Resort and Marina as a part of the AAC media day. While there are plenty of question marks surrounding the Huskies and Edsall’s second go-around, the addition of Crocker certainly seems to have jolted the Husky defenders.
“If you ever met coach Crocker you can tell that’s the type of guy he is—he is an aggressive guy,” UConn senior linebacker Junior Joseph said. “He is the type of guy who is a blitzer. If you go back to his Villanova days and watch the film you have guys who have flourished in that system, all the guys in the system have made plays. We are very confident that if we execute, we will make plays like those Villanova guys did.”
The Huskies predominantly employed a 3-4 front last season under former coach Bob Diaco. And while the 3-3-5 (one less linebacker and one more defensive back) isn’t a drastic change, it does present unique challenges for opposing offenses.
“If you’re playing a three [four] defense it is a lot of the same things,” said Edsall. “But where different guys are lining [up], you put some different pressure on the offense in terms of you don’t have guards covered, you’re on the inside of eyes of the tackle and that causes some adjustments that offense have to make to do the things they want to do.... But just because of where you align some guys it does cause some different issues they don’t see on a weekly basis.”
A confused offense should be a welcomed sight for Connecticut fans after watching the Huskies surrender 28.1 points per game last season. UConn was second-to-last in the AAC a year ago in pass defense, allowing 264.7 yards per game through the air and a passing efficiency rating of 141.0. On the playmaking and disruption front, the Huskies totaled just 17 sacks and seven interceptions in 2016, both second-to-last in the conference.
Those failings are in stark contrast to what Crocker accomplished at Villanova. The Wildcats allowed 15.0 points per game, tops in the FCS, allowing just 259.8 yards per game of total defense in 2016. Crocker’s unit led the CAA in sacks (32), red-zone defense (66.7 percent), and grabbed 17 interceptions.
“I think it is more of an attacking, downhill type of defense that should produce more explosive plays,” UConn senior defensive lineman Luke Carrezola said.
UConn certainly has the returning talent in its front-seven to be disruptive. Carrezola, Foley Fatukasi and Cole Ormsby are all seniors playing along the defensive line while Jospeh, Vontae Diggs, Cameron Stapleton and E.J. Levenberry (when he returns from injury) man the linebacking core.
“Foley is a guy who can’t be blocked,” Joseph said. “A lot of linebacker success is because of those guys up front.”
The Huskies have two established corners on the back end in Jamar Summers and Tre Bell (Vanderbilt transfer) but after that question marks at safety remain.
“We have a lot difference makers. We have Tre Bell…his football IQ is off the roof,” Joseph added. “He is the type a guy who I can’t wait to play for because is going to do nothing but make our defense better and smarter. Jamar Summers has made the most plays the last three years. He single-handedly won us games so you have those two guys at corner leading the secondary. We have a couple young guys in the secondary that are going to be looking up to those guys.”
Training camp battles will likely decide who starts the season at safety for the Huskies but Edsall was very clear on Tuesday about what he needs to see to hand out that starting badge.
“We have to sure some things up there on the back end, get some guys to be a little more consistent in doing the things we need to do,” said the coach. “I think we have some guys who can be disruptive in terms of what we are going to do schematically in those first and second levels. I think we do have some ability in the backend but again it has to be more consistent.”
If UConn can get just that across the board, then the feeling in Crocker’s system could take the defense to new heights.
“When you have this many seniors you have no choice but to be great we just have to put in the work. It is going to be a process starting in camp, but I have ultimate confidence we can be a top-15 defense,” Joseph said.