STORRS - The sample size is quite small, as was the university whose football team it just defeated, but the UConn football team appears to have made significant strides on defense from a year ago.
Far from picking up where they left off last season, a campaign in which the Huskies were historically inept, UConn’s defenders were, to use the coaching parlance, flying around in a 24-21 win over Wagner. UConn’s defense gave up only 185 yards, 14 points, and just one big play.
Coming against an average FCS opponent, those numbers don’t speak volumes, but it’s quiet confirmation that new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos and his charges have straightened things out to a large extent.
How much the Huskies have improved could be revealed Saturday when they step up in class and host Illinois of the Big Ten.
UConn’s defensive scheme hasn’t exactly been overhauled from last year, when the Huskies gave up national all-time worsts of 50 points and 619 yards a game. But there have been enough changes to seemingly make a big difference, including a few that gets more speed on the field.
The moving of Kevon Jones, a sophomore from East Hartford who started for UConn a year ago, and Dillon Harris, a junior from Bloomfield who just joined the Huskies in July, from middle linebackers to hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker roles, already makes the defense more versatile.
“Especially with the multiplicity that you’re seeing from offenses nowadays,” UConn coach Randy Edsall, mentioning the trend of three- and four-wide receiver packages. “When you can have guys that have that versatility and athletic ability to play them in those roles, it just helps your defense to be better.”
It’s not only about finding the best players, but discovering where they best fit, the coach explains.
“It’s a personnel game, figuring out your own personnel,” Edsall said.
Harris was credited with four tackles in the opener and Jones two, but both seemed comfortable in their new shoes.
“KK (Kevon Jones), we recruited him as a linebacker, but in our opinion it wasn’t a situation where he could be as productive as an inside linebacker as he could as a defensive end,” Edsall said. “The same thing with Dillon.”
The shifts are nothing new for Edsall-coached teams at UConn, he points out. One of the program’s best-ever rush ends was a similar player.
“We’ve kind of always done that. You can go back to Trevardo Williams, who was an undersized defensive end,” Edsall said of the Bridgeport product who is UConn’s all-time sack leader (30.5). “We’ve always tried to get, put our best athletes on the field someway, somehow.”
Not all of UConn’s modest success so far this season has to do with players switching positions, of course. It has players who are simply performing well, too.
For example sophomore Travis Jones, though he has slimmed down considerably from the 350-pound freshman he was a year ago, will never be confused for anything other than a nose tackle.
Travis Jones had just one tackle against Wagner but has already established himself as one of the premier pile-movers in the American Athletic Conference.
“I think Travis has come a long way since he’s been here in all phases of his student-athlete experience,” Edsall said. “As a football player, he’s really just starting to scratch the surface in how good he can be.”
The 6-foot-4, 336-pound Wilbur Cross High product is developing into a major force with pro potential. Shedding some weight has made Jones quicker and allowed him to be on the field longer.
Jones said he played 42 of the Huskies’ 48 defensive snaps against Wagner.
“He’s a really hard worker, it’s important to him and he wants to do well,” Edsall said. “Now, for him, it’s about taking it to another level.”
After making 46 tackles as a freshman, including 5.5 for losses, he says his approach hasn’t changed much but Jones admits he understands the game and the Huskies’ approach better this season.
“I think I have the same mindset but this year I understand things better,” Travis Jones said. “And I’m bigger and stronger.”
And though he is a nuisance to many opposing running backs, Jones is a pleasure to have as a teammate, his coaches say.
“The thing that’s neat about Travis is he does everything with a smile on his face. He’s one of the nicest guys, one of the happiest guys, one of the most pleasant guys but yet he can be a tough guy too,” Edsall said.
It’s not tough to see that Travis Jones, Kevon Jones and company have helped create a much more formidable defense at UConn this year. How far they’ve come, however, is soon to be determined.