STORRS - The last time the UConn football team had to replace its starting middle linebacker, the Huskies were coming off an appearance in a bowl game.
Yes, it’s been a while.
Junior Joseph patrolled the middle of the UConn defense for the last three seasons, and even occupied the position for a bit as a freshman, so needless to say the Huskies haven’t been faced with a decision like the one they face this month in quite some time.
Santana Sterling and Ryan Gilmartin are the most likely men to do the job in 2018, though head coach Randy Edsall has given some praise to Kevon Jones, a freshman from East Hartford. There’s also a chance Edsall and the Husky coaches opt for wild card.
Sterling has spent the majority of the team’s training camp with the starting unit, but that isn’t necessarily a sign that he’s locked the job up.
“The evaluation continues,” Edsall said wryly when asked this week about a final choice for the starting role.
Joseph made a team-high 91 tackles last season for the Huskies and finished with more than 300 in his career.
Whoever gets the starting nod, the man in the middle of the Huskies’ defense will have limited experience at this level.
A senior from Chandler, Arizona, Sterling in his second season with the Huskies after transferring from Mesa Community College. He made 15 tackles in 10 games last season for UConn, mostly as a bacukup and a special teamer.
A sophomore from Weddington, North Carolina, Gilmartin played in two games last season as a redshirt freshman and recorded eight tackles.
Sterling and Gilmartin are hardly at each other’s throats as they battle for playing time.
“It’s fun. I like the competition. It’s a good time,” Gilmartin said. “And it’s also great to learn from older guys, like Santana. He’s been playing football for a long time.
“He’s been helping me out with a bunch of stuff, even though it’s a competition between me and him,” Gilmartin added. “I feel like I’ve learned so much, I feel it’s going to make me and him better players.”
Sterling admits he’s being aided, too.
“We’re really helping each other out, especially with film and the different aspects of teaching each other,” Sterling said.
Both men were lucky enough to pick Joseph’s ear when he was around, and follow his lead on how the job is done.
“Junior, last year he helped me out a ton, reading keys, reading the guards, what foot to step with, reading the quarterback’s eyes on the pass,” Gilmartin said. “He was a great linebacker and we play really similar.”
Neither Gilmartin, who is listed at 5-foot-11, nor the 6-foot Sterling are particularly tall for the position. But Joseph was only an inch taller and neither man is overly worried about measurables.
“The theme of our defense I think is everyone has something to prove,” Gilmartin said. “You’re underrated or undersized or too slow. There’s a knock on a lot of our guys but we all have something to prove. I think a lot of people in this conference are going to be surprised.”
Not counting 6-foot-4, 350-pound true freshman defensive end Travis Jones, the Husky defense isn’t very big in any spot. Of course, many of his teammates are still marveling at Jones these days.
“Travis Jones, that dude is special. He’s damn near 350 or something and he benches probably 400 pounds for five reps. You don’t see that coming out of a freshman too much,” Gilmartin said.
The Wilbur Cross graduate’s impressive frame aside, UConn is banking on having more speed than its opponents rather than more brawn. With Marshe Terry moving down from safety to a hybrid linebacker position and other speedy players slated to play the other linebacker spots, the Huskies should be very fleet of foot as a group.
“Darrian (Beavers) and Eli (Thomas) are two of the fastest linebackers I’ve ever seen,” Gilmartin said. “I consider myself fast and those dudes are both converted safeties. I’m like ‘Good God, they can move!’ ”
As for who joins Beavers and Thomas in the starting lineup Aug. 30 against Central Florida, most of the Huskies insist it’s not a big deal.
“I know we’ll both end up playing a lot. I’m not too worried about it,” Gilmartin said.