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UConn football season preview: Defensive backs

It’s definitely not going to get worse!

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

We don’t necessarily need to beat a very dead horse about just how bad UConn’s defense was last season, but we can take one last thwack.

Before leaving for ESPN, Bill Connelly once again put together a fantastic preview on the Huskies over at SB Nation. It features a chart that perfectly sums up the ineptitude UConn had on this side of the ball. Connelly himself called it “the worst radar you will see in this entire 2019 preview series.”

Bill Connelly/SB Nation

Yikes.

There isn’t much action in the top left-hand corner, and that’s part of the reason why Billy Crocker is out and former Alabama analyst Lou Spanos is in. While there definitely was not one unit to blame over another for the worst defense in FBS football this millennium, the secondary certainly did their part, surrendering over 282 passing yards per game and ranking dead last in Passing Yards S&P+.

If there was one legitimate excuse about last year’s unit, it was that they were young. Like much of the defense, the starting secondary was filled with underclassmen as head coach Randy Edsall and Crocker tried to cycle through players from the Bob Diaco era. While this group certainly took their lumps last year, the experience could jumpstart the defense’s improvement under Darrell Perkins, who returns after coaching this unit from 2010-13.

Overall, Perkins seems to have the right mindset to keep this group on the right track.

“I’m a glass half-full kind of guy,” Perkins told the Hartford Courant’s Alex Putterman. “I tell [the players], No. 1: There’s nowhere to go but up. And No. 2: Let’s not look at what’s happened in the past because your best days are ahead of you. We’re always looking forward to the future.”

Cornerbacks

Based on Putterman’s report from training camp, Tahj Herring-Wilson, Keyshawn Paul, Jeremy Lucien and Kyle Williams will likely be on the two-deep heading into the opener against Wagner, with Herring-Wilson and Paul as starters.

Herring-Wilson, now a junior, appeared in 10 games last season and led the team with five pass breakups. Paul had an inconsistent freshman season, appearing in 11 games but registering only 1.5 tackles. He seems to be one of the standouts from training camp and might have started to put it all together in time to make an impact this season.

“He is communicating so much better and talking and just feels really comfortable,” Edsall said of Paul. “If he can keep progressing, he has a chance to be a really good football player.”

Lucien (nine games, nine tackles in 2018) and Williams, a senior who didn’t appear in a game last year, look to be the backups. Highly-regarded freshman Myles Bell has gotten some reps in practice, but seems to be on the outside looking in alongside sophomore Messiah Turner and redshirt freshmen Jalon Ferrell and Shamel Lazarus.

Safeties

Captain Tyler Coyle will be one of the starters at safety for the Huskies, looking to build on a solid sophomore season in which he led the team with 107 tackles. His counterpart on the first unit, Diamond Harrell, is a JUCO product who committed to Edsall and the Huskies less than two months ago. Despite the late notice, Harrell has impressed enough to land a starting gig and has the experience and size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) to be an imposing force in the middle of the field.

Oneil Robinson, who had 51.5 tackles and two interceptions in 11 games last season, will likely battle Harrell all season for the second starting safety spot, but joins Messiah Turner, who played sparingly in nine games, as the second-string safeties. Freshman Malik Dixon and redshirt freshman Malik Banks may also have some opportunities to contribute this season.

Regardless of the talent level at hand, the amount of underclassmen with legitimate in-game experience could make a huge difference, and will likely be the key to taking this unit from one of the worst ever to just bad, or maybe even average by the end of the season. While upperclassmen Coyle, Harrell and Herring-Wilson, they too are racking up more experience and should remain the core of what could be a potentially decent defense in 2020.