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UConn 'D' hoping to live up to its reputation as season begins

By Ned Griffen

Publication: The Day

Published August 03. 2013 4:00AM
Jessica Hill/AP Photo
UConn cornerback Byron Jones runs a drill Friday in Storrs during the Huskies' first day of football practice. UConn opens the season at home on Aug. 29 against Towson.
UConn football was 19th in the nation in scoring defense

Storrs - Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be a high NFL draft pick someday, and he knows a good defense when he sees one. He saw one of the best in the nation last season when he and the Cardinals stunned Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

Earlier this week, Bridgewater told a local television affiliate at American Athletic Conference media day that UConn's defense was the most physical he played against last season.

"That's definitely something that we want every single quarterback to say," said Huskies' linebacker Yawin Smallwood after UConn's first practice of the season Friday.

"We want to put fear in every single offensive player and every single offensive coordinator. That's what we want to do and we take pride in that."

The Huskies' offensive woes received much of the attention from fans and media last season and for good reason. They averaged 17.8 points, ranking 118th out of 120 FBS programs. They were among the 10 worst in total offense. And the running game averaged an abysmal 2.5 yards per carry.

UConn's defense was as good as the offense was bad, though, and prevented a losing season from turning into a catastrophe. It was 19th in scoring defense (19.8), and only seven teams allowed fewer yards per play (4.6).

The best example of the discrepancy between the offense and defense: UConn lost three games even after the defense held its opponent to 17 or fewer points.

The defense also broke Bridgewater's non-throwing wrist in a 23-20 triple-overtime win at Louisville, which was probably a big reason he lauded it.

"Wow," senior cornerback and co-captain Byron Jones said about Bridgewater's comment. "Hey, we definitely appreciate his comment, but we have to prove ourselves this year."

Six starters graduated from that defense. Not only were they quality starters, they were NFL-level talents. Linebacker Sio Moore (Oakland), Trevardo Williams (Houston) and cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz (Jacksonville) and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (Tennessee) were all drafted last April. To put that in perspective, that was as many players as USC had drafted and more than those taken from Nebraska or Texas.

"We did lose our key players from last year," Jones said, "so guys have to step up. We can't look at last year and use it for this year. We have to do our own stuff this year."

Angelo Pruitt (end), Shamar Stephen (tackle), Ty-Meer Brown (safety), Jones and Smallwood are the Huskies' returning starters. Reuben Frank, who played fullback, was switched to defensive end.

"I like the guys that we have that are going to replace the guys that we lost," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "I think that Graham (Stewart) and Jefferson Ashiru and Ryan Donohue will do a good job of replacing those linebackers that we lost. I think that Byron Jones will really help us replace one of the corners and between Taylor Mack and Jhavon Williams, I think that we'll be pretty solid at the other corner. Those are big areas.

"The guys up front, we've got to replace (defensive tackle) Ryan Wirth, who I keep saying was one of our silent leaders on our team (last season). But I think (defensive end) Julian Campenni came back in great shape and stronger than he's ever been. And (lineman) Andreas (Knappe) has come back in great shape for a 6-9, 300-pound guy. He's come a long way in a year. So he may be able to help us in there."

News and notes

UConn tried out a new receiver Friday: quarterback Scott McCummings. "Scottie is a very good athlete," Pasqualoni said. "We want to do something to try to utilize him more. I want to see him out there for a good solid period of time to see, just to see, if there's any chance that he can help us out there. ... Scott is still in the thoughts of playing the quarterback position, so nothing has really changed there." ... There are two locals on the UConn roster in offensive lineman Jake Basilica (Montville) and Rick Harrison (Old Lyme). ... Hang in there, football fans. There's just 25 more days to go before the season-opener at home against Towson.

n.griffen@theday.com

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