After disastrous 2018, UConn football counting on new leadership, approach to turn defense around

Published on Wednesday, 28 August 2019 17:57
Written by NEILL OSTROUT

JOURNAL INQUIRER

STORRS - If you are a fan of the UConn football team and thought the 2018 season was painful to watch, just think what it was like to be in the middle of it.

As you can imagine, it was about as unpleasant experience as you can have.

“It was definitely hard to live it,” safety Tyler Coyle said. “No one likes losing, and especially being 1-11.”

Yes, UConn lost all 10 of its games against FBS foes in 2018, most in extremely lopsided fashion.

The fact that Coyle, a Windsor High product who has quickly become one of UConn’s leaders, led the team in tackles last season gives him little joy.

There wasn’t much to like for anyone associated with the Huskies in 2018. But college football historians took a bit of mischievous joy in it nonetheless.

UConn had, by nearly all measurable statistics, the worst defense in major college football history.

The Huskies believe they have the solution this year in new defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, a few key roster additions, and a few tweaks to their scheme, but let’s quickly look back at the problem:

• UConn allowed 605 points, an average of 50.41 per game, breaking the all-time record set in 1997 when Louisiana-Lafayette gave up 50.27.

• UConn allowed 7,409 yards, an average of 617.4 per game, smashing the all-time record set in 2015 when Kansas gave up 560.8.

Based on a number of factors, including the way the game is played and officiated these days, offenses are almost certainly more potent than at nearly any other point in the game’s history. But UConn was head and shoulders ahead of - or behind, depending on your view - everyone else in 2018.

Oregon State was next-to-last in both major categories last season, but allowed five fewer points (45.7) and some 80 fewer yards (536.8) than the Huskies per game.

Need a few more stunning stats?

• Opponents converted 50 percent of their third downs against UConn and 68 percent of their fourth downs.

• Opponents scored on 93 percent of their trips into the red zone.

• UConn allowed 204 points in the second quarter alone. There were four teams nationally that didn’t allow that many over the entire season (Clemson, Mississippi State, Fresno State, Appalachian State).

The numbers are difficult to fathom. And, in fairness, it’s difficult to fathom it happening again if for no other reason than some of those same players have returned a year older, wiser and stronger to the team.

“Number one, we were playing with infants last year, guys that were just coming out of the womb,” UConn coach Randy Edsall said, explaining his decision to field an extremely young defensive side. “They had no idea what college football was all about. And we got taken to the woodshed a few times. It wasn’t any fault of those young men. They were forced into a situation that they shouldn’t be held accountable for. It was something we had to do.”

A handful of assistant coaches on the UConn staff were held accountable, it seems – including two-year defensive coordinator Billy Crocker, who was fired. The offseason addition of Spanos, a veteran of both the NFL and college ranks, is just the shot of adrenaline the Huskies believe they needed.

For his part, though, Spanos doesn’t want to talk about 2018.

“We’re talking about this season, when I addressed the team from the very first day, and moving on,” Spanos said. “Those numbers are history, like all the other stats from previous seasons.”

Edsall, too, would like to forget the numbers.

“Some of these guys weren’t here, but you never look back,” Edsall said. “They’ve already used those experiences; they learned from that when the season was over.”

The Husky players, too, aren’t overly excited to relive their 2018 lowlights. They are, however, properly motivated to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“Last year we were, I don’t even know where we were statistically wise. We have to come out and we definitely have to make a statement,” Coyle said. “It’s definitely motivation. We cannot come out and have the same year we had last year, definitely cannot.”

Spanos didn’t even review the 2018 season in its entirety, not that fans or players who went through it could really blame him.

“I watched tape to see how the players played, see the angles they took and get a feel for the athletes we have,” Spanos said. “I didn’t see all the games, but a fair share.”

The 48-year-old Spanos spent 14 seasons as an assistant with his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, was UCLA’s defensive coordinator in 2012-13, coached with the Tennessee Titans from 2014-17 and most recently was an analyst on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.

He is a high-energy coach with a boisterous approach to nearly every drill and every practice.

“He’s that hoo-rah kind of guy and we just carry off that,” Coyle said.

“He’s a different kind of guy. And we appreciate him for that,” Coyle said.

Spanos isn’t afraid to chew out a player if need be, but also spent a good minute loudly chastising himself in front of the team for making the wrong call in a red zone drill.

As UConn linebacker Omar Fortt puts it, Spanos has just enough “juice” for the Huskies’ taste.

“Of course we bring the juice, but he brings that extra juice to make that good Kool-Aid,” Fortt says with a smile. “To have a fiery coach, it motivates us to do better on the field.”

In what will be their final season of play in the American Athletic Conference - a move to independence for the football program next season will coincide with UConn’s move back to the Big East in most other sports - the Huskies are hoping to put up more of a fight than they did in 2018. It appears, perhaps, that they have the tools for that job.

Things truly have changed, Coyle and others insist.

“Definitely strength and speed. You could say approach, too,” Coyle said of the difference in the defense in 2019. “Because we definitely have bought in this year. Coach Spanos is doing a great job leading. He’s setting the standard and we’re just following him.”

Some have seen changes even in the last month of practice.

“It’s different. It’s definitely faster. People get to their spots quicker, they recognize things quicker, especially defensively,” quarterback Mike Beaudry said. “I mean, I think TC (Coyle) has broken up a good number of my balls in practice so far. I’m like ‘Man, where did he even come from?’”

Spanos guided the Huskies through spring practice, too, so he’s had a good idea of what he’s working with for some time now. He expects the improvements to be significant from the time he arrived.

“All around. The D-line’s doing a good job of knowing their assignments,” Spanos said. “And the second-level players, they’re understanding motion adjustments and what reads they have to do during calls. And the back end of doing a good job of where to go and more importantly playing the ball at the point.”

Spanos obviously won’t go into detail about his changes to the Huskies but his overall philosophy is rather simple he admits.

“First and foremost, it’s attention to details,” Spanos said. “Rebuilding is also getting 11 to the ball. We’re always emphasizing that. If you have a sense of urgency and you’re in attack mode, everything else will take care of itself.

“We have coverages and different stuff to adjust to what the offense is doing, but it has to be that you’re committed for your teammates and committed to this program,” Spanos added. “Then we can go from there.”

Coyle will clearly remain an important cog in the UConn machine, and although his role, like many on that side of the ball, will change slightly this season under Spanos, it seems UConn is completely scrapping the approach it had under Crocker last season.

“I think it was about tweaking things a little bit here and there,” Coyle said. “It was about, I’d say, simplifying the defense, making it easier for the younger guys, though they’re not that young anymore.”

And those younger guys aren’t so small anymore, either.

Nose tackle Travis Jones has shed some weight, which will only increase his ability to clog the middle, but most of the other Husky defenders have put on some much needed weight in the offseason. Virtually all, thanks in large part to new strength and conditioning coordinator Matt King, are much stronger. That alone is giving the Huskies hope that things will change drastically on that side of the ball this season.

“Definitely. From a physical standpoint and from a technical standpoint. Just knowing the game, understanding things. We still need to work on it but we’ve definitely made huge strides from last season,” defensive tackle Caleb Thomas said.

UConn has switched a few positions, too, this season. East Hartford native Kevon Jones, a middle linebacker last season as a freshman, has moved to defensive end. Fortt, who played a hybrid safety/linebacker role last season, is now almost exclusively a linebacker.

“They’re communicating well. I feel like we’ve got guys in the right position to take advantage of their talents,” Edsall said of his defenders. “They want to be good. They want to work. They want to do the right things.”

If August is any indication, though, there’s no guarantee that it is, the Huskies will be much improved in 2019. Edsall said his team’s training camp practices were better than the previous ones in his second stint of coaching in Storrs.

“I’ve been pleased with how we practiced. We didn’t have to back down or back away,” Edsall said. “That’s the first time in three years we’ve been able to do that. Where that leads us, we’ll find out. But at least I think they understand how we have to practice and what we have to do in order to give ourselves a chance to be good.”

And those fans who stick with the Huskies, Edsall insists, will be rewarded.

“You don’t put your money in the stock market and pull it out after one day when it goes up $200,” Edsall said. “You want to make it grow. That’s what we are. We are stock that was there, and it’s gone down. Now it’s going to go back up. And then you’re going to reap the benefits.”

At a minimum, fans and players aren’t likely to experience anything like the 2018 season ever again.



Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Wednesday, 28 August 2019 17:57. Updated: Wednesday, 28 August 2019 18:00.