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UConn Football Roster Review: Defense

The Husky defense returns a lot of production from last year. In 2020,

Continuing along in our forward-looking evaluation of UConn football’s roster, today we’re covering the defense.

Still by far the worst unit on the team last year, the Huskies were marginally better with new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos at the helm. Instead of giving up a historically bad 8.7 yards per play, like they did in 2018, the Huskies allowed a merely terrible 7.1 in 2019, good for 128th (not last!) in the country.

In terms of overall efficiency, best approximated by Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings, the defense improved from dead last to 125th out of 130 FBS teams.

So, what does Spanos have to build on that improvement? More than you might think.

Defensive line

Starters: Kevon Jones, Travis Jones, Caleb Thomas, Llwal Uguak

Backups: Pierce DeVaughn, Dillon Harris, Eric Watts, Jonathan Pace, Andrew Migliacco, Justin Moore, Quay Evans

The Huskies return nearly everyone from what was possibly the best position unit on the entire team in 2019. Stalwarts on the line across 2019, Llwal Uguak, Travis Jones and Kevon Jones will all return for their junior seasons, bringing with them a combined 10.5 of UConn’s 18 sacks and over 35% of the Huskies’ tackles for loss on the year.

Uguak was the Huskies’ most prolific pass-rusher in 2019, leading the team with four sacks, including one in the closing seconds of their game against Wagner that allowed them to capture their first win of the season. Kevon Jones started all but two games on the other side of the line, a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker position that takes center stage in Spanos’ defense.

On the inside, Travis Jones and Caleb Thomas return after successful 2019 seasons, each starting all but one game at their respective conditions. Both are effective inside linemen who excel at making life hard for opposing centers and guards — Travis Jones had six tackles for loss, the second-best mark on the team.

Pushing the defensive line for playing time will be Dillon Harris and Pierce DeVaughn, both of whom registered at least one start in 2019. Dillon Harris, a linebacker-turned defensive end from Bloomfield High School, had one of the sole highlights of the Huskies’ 38-3 loss to Indiana, a nifty one-handed interception of Michael Penix. Pierce DeVaughn was shut down after one game in 2018, but featured in nine of 12 games last year for UConn, racking up 15 tackles (11 of them solo).

Other x-factors on the line are Eric Watts, who would back up Kevon Jones in the hybrid outside linebacker-defensive end position, and defensive tackle Quay Evans from South Carolina, the Huskies highest-rated recruit in the class of 2020. Rising junior Jonathan Pace and rising sophomore Justin Moore will add to the depth, making the defensive line UConn’s deepest area going into 2020.

Linebackers

Starters: DJ Morgan, Omar Fortt, Jackson Mitchell

Backups: Ian Swenson, Hunter Webb, Jordan Morrison, Desmond Fogle

If UConn’s defensive line will mostly escape attrition heading into 2020, their linebacker corps has already headed in the exact opposite direction. Upperclassmen AJ Garson, Eddie Hahn and Ryan Gilmartin all put their names into the transfer portal after the 2019 season. All three were Bob Diaco recruits, and all three were in the process of being phased out after 2018. Hahn played in 11 games and recorded 59 tackles in 2018, but only played in two games last season, both as a backup. Gilmartin had a larger role in 2019, but fell behind in the depth chart to some of the players I’ll mention later.

By the end of the season, UConn had a solid back three at the linebacker position: junior Ian Swenson, freshman Jackson Mitchell and transfer DJ Morgan, acting as a mentor for the young linebackers.

Morgan returns as the best player on UConn’s defense, with 49 tackles and a team-leading seven tackles for loss. Morgan is a solid pass-defender as well as a talented run-blocker, breaking up three pass attempts on the year. Omar Fortt will likely start alongside the veteran; the junior was the second-leading tackler for the Huskies, racking up 69 tackles in 2019, 35 of them solo. Mitchell, from Ridgefield, CT, had 65 tackles in 2019, second on the team. He came on late in the season as an underclassman and was a positive contributor, making several key plays down the stretch.

UConn will be thin at linebacker, however, with those transfers wiping out most of their experienced depth. Ian Swenson will be the first man off the bench as a backup. He supplanted Fortt as a starter halfway through the season due to a nagging injury, but didn’t seem to gain enough confidence in Edsall to be named a permanent starter. Still, Hunter Webb and Jordan Morrison, both to be redshirt sophomores in 2020, got valuable experience in 2019.

Should any of UConn’s three linebackers go down, they might be relied on to fill the void. If not, class of 2020 Desmond Fogle will be called upon — but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

Defensive Backs

Starters: Myles Bell, Keyshawn Paul, Diamond Harrell, Robert King III

Backups: Malik Dixon, Jeremy Lucien, Abiola Olanyian, Jalon Ferrell, Alfred Chea

If the linebackers got slapped in the face by exits via the transfer portal, the defensive backs got hit in the head with a shovel. Safety Tyler Coyle, the best player in the position group — and arguably on the team — left for greener pastures with eligibility still remaining. With him, he brought a big chunk of the Huskies overall defensive production: 10 pass break-ups (no other player had more than three) and 54 solo tackles (19 more than the next-highest on the list).

To fill those gaps, Spanos will have to rely on defensive back quantity, and let the quality figure itself out. The Huskies have a lot of interesting pieces in this position group, but not a ton in the way of proven, battle-hardened talent.

The starting cornerback spots will most likely go to rising junior Keyshawn Paul and rising sophomore Myles Bell, two underclassmen who garnered plenty of starting experience in 2019. Bell supplanted outgoing transfer Tahj Herring-Wilson in the starting lineup about halfway through the season with similar results, tallying 15 tackles and a pass breakup. Paul started all but two games on the other side, a tenacious run defender in addition to his skill defending the pass. He racked up 36 tackles, first among cornerbacks, and registered the first interception of his career against East Carolina.

Jeremy Lucien, a junior in 2020, will feature as the third-choice cornerback, joining three-star class of 2020 recruit Alfred Chea and sophomore Jalon Ferrell as backups.

At safety, Harrell will be first in line to fill Tyler Coyle’s big shoes. He was as close to a ball hawk as UConn’s defense had in 2019, nabbing two interceptions in nine starts, one against South Florida and one in the last game of the year against Temple.

If Harrell will attempt to replicate Coyle’s production in pass defense, Robert King III should have no trouble helping the Huskies defend the run. The redshirt sophomore started just two games in 2019, but was able to rack up 59 tackles when he was brought in as the nickel safety, a position he’ll likely slot into more often in 2020 with the graduation of Kyle Williams. When the Huskies move into that formation, expect backups Malik Dixon and Messiah Turner to see plenty of time on the field.

***

Overall, we should expect to see an improved defensive unit in 2020, but the lack of experience in the secondary may keep the Huskies from making a very big leap forward next season. There is still time to add depth and experience through the transfer portal, which saw another rise in entrants with the start of the spring semester and will see another wave after the end of the school year.