UConn football’s defensive improvement is one of the main reasons the Huskies are looking forward to the Myrtle Beach Bowl after a six-win regular season. The Huskies are currently in the top 70 in defensive SP+, a huge jump from their triple-digit rank in 2021.
They were solid in run defense despite losing two of their three starters on the defensive line, and their pass defense (although not perfect) was like night and day compared to the 2021 unit. Despite a tough start to the season in blowout losses to Syracuse, Michigan, and North Carolina State, UConn held opposing offenses to under 400 yards per game for the first time since 2015.
Many different components contributed to this year’s defensive success. Here’s a breakdown:
Taking over defensive playcalling duties after the departure of Lou Spanos from the program, Jim Mora slid right back into that role with almost no sweat. UConn played zone coverage about 80% of the time and a lot of cover 2, forcing teams to run plays in front them, following the ‘bend but don’t break’ philosophy. This served the team well in wins against Liberty and Boston College, where the Huskies had a talent disadvantage, but handicapped them in games against Army and Ball State, two arguably inferior opponents that wore the Huskies down with the run game and consistently found the end zone in the second half. Overall, Mora’s defensive game plans were sound, and he got a lot out of a much-maligned group in the past.
Defensive Line: B
The defensive line wasn’t the star of the UConn defense, but the unit performed greater than the sum of its parts after the departure of some key guys. Travis Jones and Llwal Uguak left for the NFL draft and TCU, respectively, while Kevon Jones also left in the spring for personal reasons.
Out of the remaining group, no one player stood out as a star, but they put in solid work. The unit was mediocre against the run, but improved from 2021, allowing 174 yards per game after giving up over 200 yards per game last year.
UConn also generated far more pressure on the quarterback, nearly tripling its sack total from 2021 with 24.
Nose tackle Dal’mont Gourdine led the position group with 21 tackles and Eric Watts finally lived up to his reputation as a pass rusher, leading the team with eight sacks and 39 QB pressures (per PFF). Pryce Yates, the redshirt freshman, came on strong to end the year, forcing his way into the starting lineup with 19 QB pressures and 7 tackles for loss in the final five weeks of the season.
There’s not much more that can be said about Jackson Mitchell. The beating heart of the UConn defense for three seasons, Mitchell once again played the role of leader both on and off the field. He lead the Huskies in tackles with 133, good for 4th in the nation, and added six sacks and five fumble recoveries. He also made game-clinching plays against Boston College and Liberty. Alongside Mitchell, Ian Swenson added 84 tackles, three of them for a loss, playing a key piece of the linebacking corps alongside Mitchell.
JACKSON MITCHELL IS HIM pic.twitter.com/E2kV7WlbGu— Colonel Calhoun (@CalhounColonel) October 2, 2022
New addition Brandon Bouyer-Randle provided some veteran presence as a transfer from Texas Tech. He was one of the strongest run defenders on the team with 88 tackles while tying Mitchell for the lead in TFL with eight, playing from the hybrid defensive line/edge rusher position.
Defensive Backs: B+
UConn’s secondary looked shaky at times, but even a mediocre season compared to the rest of the nation marked a vast improvement for this group. The secondary gave up a 64% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, which isn’t tremendous, but they successfully shut down the deep passing attack, giving up just 11.2 yards per completion, the 35th-best mark in the country.
Possibly the most impressive part of the secondary’s turnaround was that it happened without changing up the roster too much — four out of the five regular starters on the unit were returnees from the No. 125 passing defense in the country in 2021.
Tre Wortham’s performance in the secondary grabbed the most headlines, with his team-leading four interceptions, including two in the first half in a win over Florida International, but the biggest beneficiary of Mora’s new system may have been Malik Dixon-Williams. The safety was targeted 33 times and allowed just 18 receptions. Durante Jones was solid at safety as well, especially in run defense, where he had the second-most tackles on the team with 89.
The Huskies’ secondary wasn’t perfect but definitely improved as the season went on, while also benefitting from a less challenging stretch of schedule. UConn allowed 297 yards per game in its first four FBS contests but buckled down to allow just 185 yards per game through the air in the months of October and November, turning a dire weakness of the team into a strength.