STORRS - Travis Jones has been a force for the UConn football team since he arrived on campus some 12 months ago.
The nose guard from New Haven made 55 tackles last year as a true freshman, seventh-best on the team, including 5.5 for a loss. He played in all 12 games, making 10 starts, and proved to be among the best hole-clogging defensive linemen in the American Conference.
But the scary thing for the Huskies’ opponents is that the now-sophomore defensive tackle admits he was more or less just winging it in 2018.
“Last year I didn’t really have a technique. I was just trying to get off the ball as quick as I could,” Jones said Sunday. “This year I’ve developed some stuff. So hopefully I can be better.”
UConn’s new defensive coordinator seems to think Jones will be even better. Of course, Lou Spanos points out, the Huskies’ foes will try to be better at preparing to face Jones this season.
“I give Travis a lot of credit. From the first day, he bought in and he’s working hard,” Spanos said. “He’s bigger and stronger but he’s not a secret any more. People know who he is.”
His teammates certainly know who Jones is, and to a man they seem to like him.
“I don’t know if we have a more personable guy on this team than Travis,” head coach Randy Edsall said.
UConn plays its opener Aug. 29 against Wagner at Pratt & Whitney Stadium.
The Huskies held their fifth practice of the preseason Sunday, their first in full pads. Jones says it’s been a successful start.
“The first couple days have been intense,” Jones said. “Everybody’s out there playing fast, getting their assignments. And it’s more physical than last year.”
Last year, all agree, was a disaster for the Huskies defensively. They surrendered more yards and more points than any other team in college football history.
Jones was one of the few bright spots on that side of the ball in 2018, and he plans on being even brighter in his second season.
The 6-foot-4 Jones has shed some 20 pounds in the offseason and now weighs roughly 335 pounds. He’ll still be able to clog the middle, but should be more agile when needed and is likely to be on the field for more plays.
“I feel like I’m in better shape than last year,” Jones said. “And I feel a little quicker because I’ve dropped a couple pounds.”
His work ethic this summer and this past week have apparently become infectious. Jones’ teammates are starting to follow his lead when it comes to preparing for the upcoming season.
“The best thing about Travis is how he works,” defensive line coach Dennis Dottin-Carter said. “He has set a tone, not just for the defensive line, but probably for the whole team. Everyone sees the changes he’s made, not just in his body. If you look at his numbers from the time he came here - and he was already strong - he got progressively stronger.”
Perhaps the most critical position to the Huskies this season is linebacker.
Notre Dame transfer D.J. Morgan was working with the starters on Sunday, with Omar Fortt many times slotted next to him. Fortt has played in 23 games already for the Huskies, most at safety, but is just about fully transitioned to playing linebacker.
“Most packages, except nickel, I am the linebacker. So I’m getting used to it. I’m in the linebacker room,” Fortt said.
A few of the Huskies’ linebackers may be switching positions, as well. Dillon Harris, a junior from Bloomfield, and T.J. Gardner, a sophomore from Windsor, both spent most of the practice working at defensive end.
Linebacker Jackson Mitchell, a freshman from Ridgefield, made a big play late in the practice with an interception during a short-yardage drill. Mitchell was later stripped of the ball on the play by wide receiver Donovan Williams, however, and the offense recovered to keep possession.
Mike Beaudry, the Huskies’ graduate transfer from West Florida, is working with the first team offense and appears to be in line to be the starter this season.
“There’s still some kinks to be worked out, but he’ll work hard to get that done,” Edsall said of Beaudry’s transition from Division II to FBS.
Redshirt freshman Steve Krajewski was the quarterback for the second team Sunday. Krajewski connected with receiver Ardell Brown, a grad transfer from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, on a long touchdown pass late in the practice.