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UConn football 2023 position preview: Defensive Line

This group returns a fierce bunch that caused a lot of disruption in opposing backfields last year.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

After the departure of Travis Jones to the NFL in the 2022 offseason, UConn football’s defensive line had to adjust and adapt to the loss of its focal point, with solid results.

From 2021 to 2022, the Huskies improved in multiple categories associated with defensive line play: opponent rushing yards per play went from No. 97 in the nation (4.7) to No. 89 (4.4) and their sack rate went from a dismal last in FBS to a respectable 75th in 2022.

Like the counterparts in the trenches on offense, the defensive line will have loads of experience and look to harness it to improve on its breakout in 2022 with an even better 2023.

The D-line has just two players to replace in its two-deep from 2022 — Kayode Oladele, who played in all 12 games last year in a rotation role, and Marquez Bembry, who exhausted his eligibility last year, gathering one sack and six tackles in nine games played — everyone else is back.

Senior Eric Watts and redshirt sophomore Pryce Yates are the headliners at the defensive end positions, forming the core of the Huskies’ formidable pass rush last season. Watts in particular was adept at making quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket leading the team with seven sacks and 38 total QB pressures per Pro Football Focus, and the senior was rewarded for his efforts by being named to the 2023 East-West Shrine Bowl and the Senior Bowl watchlist.

Yates also performed well. He led the team in quarterback hurries and hits while posting 9 TFL and 4.5 sacks.

When healthy, junior Colin McCarthy played as well as any defensive lineman on the roster, winning the highest percentage of his battles out of any of his peers on the line. Entering 2023, McCarthy is up 20 lbs. from last season and could impress as a rotation factor on the edge.

UConn also brings back plenty of experience in the middle, starting with nose tackle Dal’Mont Gourdine. The redshirt junior has two full starting seasons under his belt, playing over 1,000 snaps since 2021. He’s a solid run-stopper with 48 combined tackles through his two seasons in Storrs and does a good job filling the A-gap.

Redshirt senior Sokoya McDuffie is listed first on the depth chart at three-technique alongside Gourdine but is projected to rotate with Jelani Stafford. McDuffie had 11 tackles in 2022 and was a 12-game starter for Old Dominion in 2021.

Stafford returns with 15 tackles and 10 assisted tackles to his name as a starter in 2022. Stafford is a tremendous athlete despite standing just six feet, and during the Huskies’ running back shortage last year, got some serious consideration to line up in the backfield according to head coach Jim Mora.

True freshman Timothy Passmore will also vie for rotation reps on the interior line after impressive showings during spring and fall camp. Redshirt sophomore Carter Hooper, a 2022 graduate of the IMG Academy, will also factor in for snaps across the line.

UConn’s defensive line, much like the offensive line, is the beneficiary of good depth and experience across the board. Yates and Watts are a significant combination on the edges, while the Huskies have the depth inside to mix and match when needed, an important part of building the defense for a long college season, and the N.C. State game on Thursday will be their first big test.