For Jarren Horton and his family, football is a way of life. It’s that life experience within the game that ultimately landed him in Storrs, which we’ll get to a little later. He was born to a football father and he hasn’t left the game ever since.
The elder Horton, Ray, burst onto the football scene in the 1980’s and it was then he arrived in the NFL after a standout college career at the University of Washington. He spent a total of 10-years playing in the National Football League; six with the Cincinnati Bengals and his final four with the Dallas Cowboys.
Since that time, Ray has been a coach in the league for the better part of the last twenty-five (25) years and naturally, once Jarren arrived, he would tag along.
“When I was growing up, I worked with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a ball boy,” Jarren said on Tuesday after practice in Storrs. “I’ve been around the game ever since I was a baby. My dad was playing, then he was coaching while I was growing up, so I was always around the game, really soaking up knowledge. Growing up around the game and just being around the game has given me a pretty good opportunity to now impart what I have learned to the current guys here at UConn.”
The Horton’s time with the Steelers overlapped with longtime Steelers assistant and now Huskies defensive coordinator Lou Spanos.
“Coach Spanos was there for quite some time,” Jarren said. “Him and my dad crossed paths there and that’s when I met Coach Spanos, probably when I was 8, 9, 10 years old. I spent about five-or-six years there and created a good relationship with him. Here at UConn is my first time working with him in a full-time role. I did that a little bit with the [Tennessee] Titans when he was the linebackers coach there, so I worked with him a little bit and that’s when he really got to see how I work. It’s been nice to get back with him and reconvene.”
The elder Horton left coaching after 2016, having served as a defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans. He returned to the Washington Redskins last season as a secondary coach and quickly earned the praise of star cornerback Josh Norman.
“Quite contrary to popular belief, I actually do want to be coached,” Norman said during training camp last year. “[Ray Horton] is exactly the type of coach I yearn to learn from. I’m at the top of the game in my position, but I don’t know everything. To see a guy like that with all that knowledge and experience, why the heck would I not want to soak that up like a sponge. I may have all the ability in the world, but how is that useful if I don’t understand the proper technique that is supposed to be used on a certain play? I’m all sold on Ray Horton, I really am.”
That is the type of respect that comes with the Horton name and Jarren has brought that to the practice field and locker room here at UConn. With the Huskies, he is coaching a position group many may not be familiar with, the Star position. Inside Spanos’ scheme, what exactly is that position responsible for?
“We do a little bit of everything,” Horton said. “We’ll be in the box, play on the run, cover people in the pass game, do a little bit of everything, it’s kind of like the new era of defense. Not many teams are running 21-personnel where they have a bunch of guys in the box, it’s a lot of spread out stuff, so we’re just trying to get some good athletes on the field that are big enough to play inside the box and athletic enough to play outside the box. That’s what we are looking for in that Star position, a guy that can do a little bit of everything. We have four guys in that room right now that we feel really good about.”
One of those is redshirt junior Ian Swenson, who’s played in every game each of the last two seasons. He’s been consistent, recording forty-one (41) tackles as a redshirt freshman and another forty (40) last year. Horton talked about Swenson on Tuesday, highlighting several traits that he brings to the field.
“Ian is a very explosive athlete,” he praised. “If you see all of his weight room times, he’s really fast, has a really good high jump; he’s just a very explosive, dynamic athlete. That translates onto the football field. He can run sideline-to-sideline and is also strong enough to fit inside the box and take on offesnive lineman. That’s what we are looking for, that guy that can do a little bit of everything. He does a really good job with that.”
And Swenson has only improved, clearly putting in the necessary work since the season ended in November. It’s been noticeable through seven practices thus far in the spring. How much so?
“Tremendously,” Horton said. “Last year he got a lot of snaps, he played in every game for us. This year, what I’ve kind of challenged him to do is take more of that leadership role. Now that he’s had a lot of plays under his belt, he needs to communicate better, needs to see how the offense is trying to attack us, so he can play faster. That’s how I’ve challenged him, to play faster and see what the big picture is. He’s done a good job with that.”
This spring has been a major focus on technique and fundamentals and for Horton, it’s no different with his position group.
“We are trying to just get those down, get as good as we can so it can translate out on the field,” he said. “If we are technique and fundamentally sound, that will give us the best opportunity to succeed. At the same time, we are really trying to get these guys to play with a lot of toughness and tenacity. You want to be a tough defense, run around all over the field, that’s what the game is about now. Offenses are spread out where they run around, you want to have athletic guys on defense that can get to the ball and make plays in space. So that’s what we’re trying to do, be tough and be technique and fundamentally sound.”
One thing that will help? Consistency. This is especially so as a staff, as the group remains intact from a season ago. With that consistency, comes better communication, which is paramount between not just coaches and players, but amongst the players themselves. The Star position is an extension of the linebackers at the second level, so having a good relationship among those two position groups is paramount for the Huskies to have a successful defense.
“Us and the inside backers, we have a lot of communication,” Horton verified. “Sometimes we do some individual drills together because they need to have a good rapport. They need to have the relationship where they can communicate both on and off the field. When we meet as a defense, they sit together so they all see the same picture. What we see from an offense is exactly what the linebackers see. What Coach Spanos is telling the LBs are the same things I’m telling the Stars. We all need to be on the same page.”