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Meet the UConn defense, which returns experience and star power

NCAA Football: Liberty at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday I took a glance at UConn’s offense, which figures to struggle again in 2023 and has questionable upside. Today I’m turning to the defense, which is comparatively in much better shape, and has some real star power.

The leader without question is middle linebacker Jackson Mitchell—he’s landed on multiple watch lists this preseason, and rightfully so after finishing each of the last two seasons with well over 100 tackles. He racked up 140 in 2022 (nine against State), including 9.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks. He recovered four fumbles—one for a touchdown against Liberty—and picked off a pass. He’s a playmaker and he’ll be everywhere.

Nine of UConn’s defensive starters contributed to some degree last season, and the unit is set to start a lot of upperclassmen to begin 2023. Playing alongside Mitchell at linebacker is one of two transfers who earned a starting job on the defense—ex-Delaware standout Noah Plack, who had 93 tackles last year, will start on the weak side. On the strong side is junior Tui Faumuina-Brown—a veteran, but one without a lot of experience to this point.

The Huskies’ defensive line is anchored by senior defensive end Eric Watts, who led the team in TFLs (10) and sacks (seven). Sophomore Pryce Yates will start in the other end spot and is coming off a productive freshman season (45 tackles, 4.5 sacks).

Junior Dal’Mont Gourdine (34 tackles, 4.0 TFL in ‘22) will handle one tackle spot, while the other will be occupied by Sokoya McDuffie or Jelani Stafford. They had five TFLs between them in 2022.

UConn has adequate size up front, as both ends run 270+ pounds and the large lads in the middle are indeed large (300-pound) lads.

UConn’s secondary has a pair of good safeties in Durante Jones and Malik Dixon-Williams, both of whom finished last season with 90+ tackles. The corner positions are a bit iffier, with a transfer who played sparingly at Washington State (Armauni Archie) starting on one side.

This looks like a defense that will be better than it was in 2022, what with the disruptive potential of its front seven, and Watts’ potential for a zillion tackles. The Huskies allowed 5.5 yards per play last season, good for 61st nationally, but over six yards per play against their four power-conference opponents. They played Syracuse, Michigan, and NC State in a row and allowed at least 41 points to each. (But did hold BC to just one field goal!)

Stopping the run was a big problem, as opponents averaged 4.4 yards per carry and scored 24 rushing touchdowns. UConn ended the year by allowing 200+ rushing yards in three straight. They gave up an average of about 217 rushing yards in their seven losses.

So right off the bat we’ve got a team aiming to be much better stopping the run (UConn) up against a team aiming to be much better at establishing it (NC State). I don’t think this particular battle determines the outcome of the game, but certainly it’ll up the degree of difficulty one way or the other.