The old saying goes, defense wins championships and for UConn Football, this side of the ball has been an area of major concern for several years. Last season was the best ranking in half a decade from a total defense standpoint and the stats show just how bad it’s been, finishing 116th nationally; [2017 (127), 2018 (130), 2019 (117), 2020 (DNP), 2021 (116)].
Defense, however, is something this program has historically taken pride in, ranking as high as 6th in the nation in 2008, 9th in 2012 and averaging 42nd from 2007-2016. There’s no doubt getting back to those levels is going to take a lot of work, but with the arrival of new head coach Jim Mora, defensive coordinator Lou Spanos is reunited with his former head coach from their days at UCLA (2012-13). It’s a major step in the right direction for the unit as they saw success together with the Bruins, finishing 35th in points allowed in Spanos’ final season in LA.
How much progress the Huskies make this season will depend on a number of variables, but players are at the top of the list. Through the transfer portal alone, UConn brought in eight newcomers on this side of the ball, including from programs like Texas Tech, Kentucky, Utah, Missouri and Memphis.
There are also a number of players returning that will play a major factor. One of these is Malik Dixon, a sophomore safety who recorded 58-tackles in his first season of game action in Storrs; including a career-high 11-tackles in the first start of his career at Army.
Dixon only got better as the season went on, finishing the year with a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown against Houston. He’s continued that trend under Mora, beginning in the spring and culminating with a strong performance thus far in training camp. He and fellow safety Durante Jones should be a solid duo on the back end of this defense, to go with transfer Chris Shearin. All three would be on the field any time the Huskies show formations with three safeties, whether that be certain dime packages or umbrella coverage.
Earlier this camp, Dixon met with the media and talked about a myriad of topics, including his improvement and the progress of the defense as a whole.
“Camp has been great, we are out here competing every day,” Dixon said. “We are getting better and even though we are young, the defense is coming along. What I like most about the unit is we want to get better. We take it day-by-day and know it’s not going to be easy. We all have a chip on our shoulder; we just go out there every day and compete.”
Having a strong receiving corps has not only helped Dixon, but the entire secondary make improvements throughout camp.
“Keelan [Marion] as an example, he goes out there and competes,” he said. “When he gets the energy up, everyone else gets theirs up. As you can see, he does bring a chip on his shoulder. That’s the type of guys we need in this program because they want to win and that’s what we want to do in this program. I thank him every day and our receivers for coming out here, bringing that edge.”
“I love all of our receivers,” he added. “You can see they make us better; they are very competitive and that’s what we want. Their play helps us get stronger and faster.”
Dixon switched his number during the offseason from 31-to-1. The reason is similar to what the entire team is hoping for.
“I feel like I’m a whole new person,” Dixon said. “I wanted to have a new identity, just like this team. With the new coaching staff, we all have a new identity.”
Conditioning has been a big focal point for the unit, as it’s a goal coaches have preached since their arrival.
“The biggest strides we’ve made are being the most competitive and best trained,” he said. “We want to be the most conditioned on the field so when we get out there on game day, we aren’t tired during the course of the game and can make it through the fourth quarter on way to victory.”
A quieter personality in year’s past, Dixon is now much more vocal, something he’s learned from fellow safety Durante Jones.
“He’s a great player,” Dixon said of Durante. “He gained a few pounds since last year, so that’s helpful for his game. He really communicates, brings the energy and makes me want to get better. He’s our vocal leader. Last year I was more timid, more quiet, but this year I’m trying to come out and be more vocal, be a leader on the team. He’s helped me with that; great guy and great teammate.”
Despite basically having an entirely new coaching staff, having Spanos back does bring a little consistency on that side of the ball. Dixon and any defensive player you talk with can do nothing, but smile when talking about their DC.
“I love him,” Dixon said. “Coach Spanos is a great guy, a great dude. He wants the best for us and it’s good to have him on your side since you know he’ll put you in position to make you better as a man and as a player. We added some more things [to the defense] and all we need is to execute them the way they should be.”