As awful, frustrating, and as historically just plain bad as UConn’s defense was last year, this offseason brings reason for optimism. Even as massive beatdowns tested the limits of the belief that “all experience is good experience,” plenty of young Huskies were exposed to high-level football and showed potential.
The young talent in the front seven is particularly enticing. Sophomore defensive tackle Travis Jones stood out last year as a true freshman. He amassed 5.5 tackles for loss and over 5% all team tackles last year as an interior lineman. His 46 overall tackles is the most for any UConn freshman since the move to FBS. Jones was one of the best run defenders in the entire American Athletic Conference in 2019, stopping 8.6 of all inside running plays UConn faced (per Pro Football Focus.)
Now, the scary part: If you hear Jones tell it, 2018 was pretty much him just leaping out of his stance with no real plan to speak of after that.
“Last year I didn’t really have a technique,” Jones said. “It was just trying to get off the ball as quick as I could, but this year I developed some stuff, so this year I can be better.”
If that wasn’t enough, Jones has also been one of this offseason’s weight room warriors, dropping from 350 lbs. to a mean, clean 336. Between that, his new technique and his natural skill, Jones could be a major factor not just in the middle of UConn’s line, but one of the best interior linemen in the AAC as a whole.
Jones’ linemates, sophomores Caleb Thomas and Lwal Uguak, combined with him to start 29 games as true freshmen, developing good chemistry during the offseason after facing formidable rushing attacks side by side.
“It’s fun every day to come out here with Lwal and Caleb because we created a bond last year,” Jones said.
Thomas performed second best out of the trio last year. On run plays his way in 2018, Thomas allowed just 1.61 yards per play, the best on the team, with 4.5 solo run stuffs to his name. Also in the mix for a starting spot on the defensive line is Jonathan Pace, who notched 12 appearances under his belt last year, with a hand in 20 tackles. Junior AJ Garson and three-star freshman Justin Moore will bring depth to the position.
Eddie Hahn and Omar Fortt are the major returning linebackers, the latter making the move from safety last year, ready to compete with DJ Morgan, a grad transfer from Notre Dame. A near-four star recruit in the class of 2016, Morgan never got footing in South Bend, often hindered by injuries. Morgan wasn’t able to attend spring practice, but he’s picking up the schemes as they continue to install them, head coach Randy Edsall said.
“[Morgan]’s picked things up, doing a good job communicating and knowing how we do things,” Edsall said.
Diamond Harrell, a junior college transfer from Los Angeles, has been active in preseason camp and also has a chance to contribute on defense as well given how thin the team was there last year. Redshirt freshman Jordan Morrison and junior Ryan Gilmartin also bring experience to the position, both getting time on the field at that position last year, while freshman Jackson Mitchell has also shown flashes in camp.
Kevon Jones, who started nine games as a freshman last year and led all returners in sacks, will play at the “rover” position, a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position common in 3-4 defenses. Kevon was second on the team in tackles for loss. Eric Watts, a freshman who enrolled in the spring, also has taken snaps with the first team this summer after getting the hard part of adjusting to the team out of the way.
“He’s a guy who has done well since he’s been here. He flashed in the spring, he’s gotten bigger and stronger,” Edsall said on Watts. “He’ll end up being a guy who will contribute for us in some way, shape or form this fall.”
With this mix of youth and experience, UConn’s front seven is the key for their defense to bounce back from the worst defensive season in school history.