Spring football opened last week for the UConn football program and the storylines surrounding the offseason and this spring are endless. There’s the offseason quarterback battle, eleven new arrivals that we get a first look at over these five weeks, the replacements that need to be made across the offensive line and oh yes, that independent schedule that is looming on the horizon.
While each of these areas are important, so is how the Huskies defense is able to come together between now and the start of the 2020 season. Led by 2nd year defensive coordinator Lou Spanos, who came to Storrs after a short stint in Tuscaloosa, that unit showed promise early on a season ago, before fading after injuries struck throughout the second half of the year. Looking back after year one with the Huskies, what does he need to improve upon?
“I’ve been fortunate to have been with a lot of good coaches,” Spanos said inside the Mark R Shenkman Training Center. “You always have to evolve with what the game is, at this moment. Keep on looking at things that we did well, the stuff I didn’t do well, if I misspoke, gave a tendency and it broke or just communication and teaching. With all of the digital stuff now, with the iPads, use it for our advantage and also the cut-ups. The players are also a different era, we’re not old school and notebook paper, back even when I played, it was a chalk board and chalk, but now it’s all digital. You evolve and have fun.”
For Spanos, this spring is an important time, one with no distractions and no games at the close of each week, which really allows him and the entire coaching staff to do what they do best.
“We love the spring because this is when you have the time to teach, coach and develop,” Spanos said. “This is our second year for the guys that have been here, so they know what the standard is, how we set the defense, the calls, how we can add more things to the playbook. But this time is also about building chemistry and communication. You really can’t get enough of this. It’s been great so far this spring.”
For Spanos, who has spent 21-of-his-26 years coaching in the National Football League, he’s more than happy with this opportunity with the Huskies.
“Love it, love it,” he said of his UConn experience. “It’s non-stop. Besides recruiting and coaching, there’s not much time for anything else. It’s fun [being entrenched in football].”
As he mentioned, one main difference from the NFL to college is the amount of time and effort spent recruiting, something which culminated last week with National Signing Day. Spanos not only serves as defensive coordinator, but also as linebacker coach, a position he worked closely with during his many years in Pittsburgh with the Steelers. While there, he helped mold and develop names like Lloyd, Greene, Kirkland, Gildon, Brown, Porter, Farrior and Harrison. So when he’s out on the recruiting trail looking for the next up-and-coming linebacker, he knows exactly what to look for.
“The productivity of the player,” Spanos said. “How fast they are. How athletic. How are they as a leader? Are they tacklers? Where are they making tackles? In the box, out in space? In this day and age, how do they cover? How are they in zone drops, man drops. How do they blitz? You encompass all that and in today’s game you also need to see how their grades are.”
Spanos does have one of those up-and-coming players here in Storrs in sophomore LB Jackson Mitchell, who finished third on the team in tackles (65) last year, despite playing in just ten games, starting the final six in his true freshman season.
“What stood out about him is he was a STUDENT athlete,” Spanos said. “He put the stress in academics, but he also put the time in the playbook, knowing assignments and being a selfless player where he spent countless amount of time to understand the scheme. He also grew and developed as the season progressed.”
“To his credit, he took care of his body, took care of school, took care of preparation, spent extra time in the weight-room and did extra cardio,” he continued. “You could see he got stronger throughout the season.”
And Mitchell has only continued to progress since the end of the year.
“So far, he’s showcased his talent because during the winter break, he spent the extra time,” Spanos added. “He’s really having a good camp.”
With the Huskies entering the 2nd season under Spanos’ leadership defensively, I posed the question if that will allow for more aggressiveness next season.
“Not necessarily aggressive, but have more consistency, better angles,” Spanos said. “It depends on what the opponent is doing in terms of what you can and can’t do. What we do is see what our players can do, try to put them in the best position. So aggressive, yes, but also all of the other intangibles, including knowing where your help is and how they defeat blocks.”
The Huskies did lose a number of players to graduation and transfer during the offseason, but the defensive unit will return 9-of-11 starters (Dillon Harris, Travis Jones, Lwal Uguak, Kevon Jones, D.J. Morgan, Omar Fortt, Jackson Mitchell, Keyshawn Paul and Diamond Harrell. They will also have several players who have seen significant time over the last few years including Rob King, Ian Swenson, Jeremy Lucien, Pierce DeVaughn, Caleb Thomas, Bebe Olaniyan, Eric Watts and Jonathan Pace. In total, 14-of-the-top-16 leading tacklers from last season, return.
“It’s good to have experience at all three levels because in today’s game, you need to make sure everything is sound, everyone has a gap,” Spanos said. “Not to get too extensive, but if you’re moving parts of the defense, the coverage needs to make sure it’s on the same side with the d-line and vice versa, the d-line needs to make sure that we have our edges and who does what. It’s really a work of art.”
For this spring, what will make Spanos look back once we it March and say, this was a productive five weeks of practice?
“I think communication,” he said. “Aggressive, as you said, all eleven (11) that are on the field are on the same page and playing as one. And also tackling. You can’t stress enough tackling. Tackling. Tackling. Tackling. And then swarming and moving the pile back.”
SPANOS ON BILL COWHER BEING ELECTED TO HALL OF FAME
Spanos got his coaching career started with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a place he spent fifteen seasons, twelve of which were under Bill Cowher. Earlier this month, Cowher was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It was a special moment,” Spanos said. “I was home with the wife and kids and Coach Cowher has been great to us, when our kids were little. To see at that moment, watching it all together, we were all smiling. He’s an amazing man; great coach, great person.”