When UConn Football was good, it was because of a strong defense. Randy Edsall provided the framework, and some (but obviously not all) of the early defensive success carried over to the Paul Pasqualoni and Bob Diaco eras.
The consistent factor among UConn’s first fifteen years in FBS football was the stalwart secondary, which often shut down opposing passing attacks and helped create turnovers for an offense that required steady efficiency. While listing all of the quality defensive backs that have come through Storrs would be a days-long read, here’s a look back at the ten best that have put on the Huskies uniform.
Justin Perkins was the first standout cornerback in Edsall’s program, nabbing six interceptions in his junior year of 2003, when UConn went 9-3, and five in his senior season, including a pick six in an upset win over Pittsburgh and another against Toledo in the Motor City Bowl that helped clinch UConn’s first ever bowl win.
His interception total led the team in both years. Perkins later played for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe (remember that?) and was once honored with the Special Teams Player of the Week.
Butler is well-known to UConn fans as one of the Huskies’ first graduates to find success in the NFL, carving out a nine-year role as a rotational defensive back for the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.
At UConn, he picked off four passes in both his freshman and sophomore seasons and opposing quarterbacks just stopped throwing in his direction as an upperclassman. As a senior, Butler was a first-team All-Big East selection.
Among his finest moments were a three-interception game (including one he returned for a touchdown) against Army in 2005, and a standout, ballhawking performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Wake Forest in 2007, where he forced a fumble and recorded seven tackles in a UConn loss.
Another of UConn’s early NFL successes, Tyvon Branch has played ten NFL seasons to date, including four years as a member of the Oakland Raiders’ starting lineup, and an important role with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2015 that saw him starting a playoff game.
In college, the safety only intercepted three passes, but was constantly around the ball, forcing four fumbles in three years as a starter, and recording as many as 13 tackles in a game. Branch’s stats might not have been eye-popping, but as the one of first Huskies to reach two bowl games, his play was vital to the early success of the team.
Robert Vaughn was part of UConn’s first class to play in three bowl games, and his nose for the ball was a big part of the reason why as he holds the team record for most career interceptions (14) in the FBS era.
He began with seven picks in his sophomore season of 2007, and finishing his career two years later with five more. Vaughn recorded a takeaway in two of those bowl games, against Wake Forest and in the 2009 PapaJohns.com Bowl win over Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina.
Robert McClain was the rare UConn cornerback who finished his career with more forced fumbles than interceptions; in fact, he never grabbed an interception during his time with the Huskies, although he’s had seven in the NFL in the years since.
[EDIT: The above paragraph was wrong. McClain had multiple interceptions in college. I’ll blame an extremely unusual error from my normally reliable stats website, but I know in my heart it’s really my fault. -TW]
McClain had a major part in the 2009 bowl win over South Carolina, deflecting three Stephen Garcia passes away from his talented receivers (you might have heard of Alshon Jeffery, who was Garcia’s top target that day) and recording two tackles for loss.
UConn fans know the tragic way Jasper Howard’s life ended, as he was killed in the middle of his junior season in 2009 at just 20 years old, and the team still honors him with a monument at Rentschler Field and an annual award named for him.
Howard, along with his reputation for being a great teammate, was also one of UConn’s best players, starting 13 games as a sophomore and standing out as perhaps an NFL-caliber player in his junior year. Howard was a talented punt returner and became a ballhawk as a cornerback, and in his final game, he forced a fumble and tallied a career-high 11 tackles.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz
Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz had incredibly similar careers, which is why I’m combining them for this entry. Both were regular contributors, starting in their freshman year in 2009 and graduated after the 2012 season as elite members of UConn’s defensive backs corps, leading to their selection in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
Each recorded eight interceptions in college, with two apiece returned for touchdowns. And, of course, both were important parts of four straight talented UConn defenses, helping ensure the 2010 Fiesta Bowl bid.
Given the way he’s currently playing in the NFL, Byron Jones would make any college’s list of greatest defensive backs. In college, Jones’ athleticism was off the charts even as a freshman, and he worked hard to become a well-rounded shutdown cornerback in his junior and senior years.
He finished his UConn career with eight interceptions (it would have been more, but quarterbacks were understandably wary of throwing the ball anywhere near him) and 21 breakups.
Obi Melifonwu’s UConn career started shaky as he was thrust into a role he wasn’t ready for, but showed enough potential to make UConn fans hopeful for his future.
By the time his senior year was over, he had impressed everyone, including NFL scouts—he was taken in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Melifonwu wrapped up his UConn tenure with eight interceptions, including two in a game against Temple in 2016 where he had to try to shut down the Owls offense singlehandedly.
Who do you think are the best defensive backs in UConn football’s history? Let us know in the comment section below!