For the fourth consecutive week, defensive problems were a focus of the weekly Randy Edsall press conference. The numbers a quarter of the way through the season haven’t improved much on the surface. The Huskies defensive unit is last in the following categories: Total Defense, Scoring Defense, 1st Downs Allowed and Team Pass Efficiency Defense.
Over the first four weeks, youth, player turnover, lack of communication, a new system, talented opponents, strong opposing quarterbacks and opponents pace of play have been pointed to as reasons for the early struggles. They are all valid and all contribute to the results that have taken place with the 5th toughest schedule in the nation to date. The defensive group is young and it’s not an excuse, it’s the current situation. While all are talented players individually in their own right, no one player can walk into a new situation and immediately produce at the highest level possible against some of the most difficult opponents in all of college football. The odds of that occurring across an entire 11-man defense? It’s near impossible.
Developing a defensive UNIT, a true group that plays as one, takes time. It takes more than a few weeks of practice with each other and more than a handful of games; it takes repetition, repetition and even more repetition. This year, the staff is not plugging in one player here or there to replace a graduating senior, which would make for a smooth transition. The entire defensive line is new. The entire linebacking corps is new. The majority of the secondary is also new. Take away the two starting safeties from 2017 and every other position, all nine players, are new starters. And one of the starting safeties is being challenged heavily by a true freshman.
When it comes to that amount of turnover, it is like starting over from scratch. Looking more closely at the defensive front, or in this case, front six, that’s important. Why? For starters, no one individual or player, at any level, sets the edge the same way, which ultimately impacts how the guy next to him plays the C-gap and how the guy next to him plays the B and the same with the A. How the backers scrape over, how they tempo the ball, it all just doesn’t happen immediately. It will eventually come together, but it happens over time.
When there’s a lot of turnover and new guys coming in and out, that’s hard because the players are trying to build a relationship with one another, not just communication wise, but with their playing styles. Each player relies on the guy next to him and they rely on the guy next to them. It works down the line. When players have been together for awhile, it’s a chain, it’s a unit It just takes time and experience with each other, something the players will only get used to as the group moves forward.
Talking about this with defensive coordinator Billy Crocker earlier this week, he concurred with that assessment.
“That’s very important, that’s understated,” he said. “Guys not just knowing their position, that’s always the first step in all of this, you need to know what you’re doing, but the next step in all of this is understanding what everyone else does, so you know where your help is, especially in the open field. Are you forcing the ball back in, are you spilling it back out to somebody else? Once we’re at the point where they are a little more consistent at their job, then they need to start understanding the bigger picture of things to see how everyone else fits in.”
Yes, this is year two of Crocker and ultimately Randy Edsall’s second stint here at UConn, but with the amount of turnover, new players, personnel changes and a shift to a four-man front, this is really like the first-year defensively. Looking closely at how the staff has maneuvered personnel especially, has shown improvement.
“We decided to make some moves and do some things that helps us to play the people that I feel and we as a defensive staff feel, gives us the best opportunity to be where we want to be in terms of speed, athletic ability and quickness up front with those eight guys that we played [at Syracuse across the defensive line],” Edsall said earlier this week. “That’s the way I see us continuing to go, continuing to get those guys better. With these offenses that we’re facing, those kids are as green as can be, but the only way they are going to get better is by getting repetitions and seeing all these things. Lwal [Uguak] might not be the most perfect defensive tackle, but there are some things we can do as a coaching staff to help him. It gets our best people, in our opinion, on the field.”
That has translated into better production on third downs over the last two week’s, holding opponents to 4-of-17 on the important conversion down against both URI and Syracuse.
“I think the personnel thing has been better, we’ve gotten a little bit of a pass rush on third down by doing what we did,” Edsall added. “Against Syracuse, we did a better job than the week before, but we still didn’t do a good enough job of getting them in as many third downs as we’d like to. I do think that what we did in terms of changing personnel has helped us in that area.”
After the first quarter a week ago, a 15-minute period where the Huskies surrendered 24-points, the UConn defense only surrendered 17-points which they were ultimately responsible for. Perhaps the most promising aspect of that was following redshirt freshman QB Marvin Washington’s fumble in the fourth quarter that set up Syracuse with 1st and 10 from the Huskies 14-yard line. The result? A three-and-out, as the unit forced an Orange field goal. It’s that type of stand that had been lacking until this past week.
As the Huskies return to conference play this afternoon, against an offense that is much more of a traditional unit, look for the defense to take some further steps in the right direction, building off their performance over the last two week’s. If they do, it will ultimately take some of the heat from fans and media alike away from the Huskies defensive staff, including Crocker.
“It’s not about me,” Crocker said. “It’s about these kids. It’s about getting them better, seeing them grow as football players and honestly, as young men. Football is great, that’s why they are here, but that’s a small part of what the big thing is going to be for these guys.”
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