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August 22, 2013

Preview: Defensive Backs

A team's overall success often depends on the play of individual units. In a series of articles as a new season approaches, UConnReport staff writer Pete Sonski evaluates each unit on the Huskies' 2013 team and ranks it among other teams in the American Athletic Conference.

The secondary is the last line of defense between opponents and the end zone. Its members have to be reliable playmakers against both the run and pass. Safeties and cornerbacks are often required to make solo and open field tackles. This is not a unit in which teams can risk being thin on talent or experience.

Projected starters
CB - Taylor Mack (Sr)
CB - Byron Jones (Jr)
S - Ty-Meer Brown (Jr)
S - Andrew Adams (So)

Key Reserves
CB - David Stevenson (So)
CB - Jhavon Williams (Fr)
CB - Tyree Clark (So)
CB - Ellis Marder (Fr)
CB - Javon Hadley (Fr)
S - Obi Melifonwu (Fr)
S - Wilbert Lee (Fr)
S - Jordan Floyd (Fr)
S- Jeremy Claflin (So)

Darrell Perkins - cornerbacks (4th year)
Shane Fogarty - safeties (1st year)


UConn sent both its 2012 starting cornerbacks to the NFL: Dwayne Gratz (64th pick, Jacksonville) and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (70th pick, Tennessee). Both players were two-time Second Team All-Big East honorees. It can't be understated that, particularly for a team of UConn's caliber, have two starting cornerbacks - and five players overall - drafted into the pros is both a huge honor and a huge blow to its roster.

The plan to begin the 2013 campaign is to move last year's starting safety Byron Jones to cornerback and promote Taylor Mack (on last year's two-deep) at the other corner spot. Ty-Meer Jones started last year and Andrew Adams was right behind him on the depth chart. Jones was third on the ream with 80 tackles last season and has experience at cornerback. He is a gifted player and should transition well. In fact, college football guru Phil Steele named Jones to his preseason first team for the American Athletic Conference. Athlon has him on its preseason second team.

Adams left Saturday's (Aug. 17) practice with a shoulder injury, but whether it will keep him on the sidelines is unknown. Until he is ready to return, Obi Melifonwu will take reps with the first team.
On the same day, Taylor Mack delivered a strong hit on Sean McQuillan during 11-on-11 scrimmage that sent the tight end to the hospital in an ambulance with a concussion. Head coach Paul Pasqualoni chided Mack for the unnecessary force of the tackle against a teammate, but had to be pleased with the cornerback's intensity.

There is arguably a slip in the level of experience in the Huskies' secondary, but the talent is there. Like other UConn position units covered previously, this unit has some proving to do, but there should be little doubt that it can perform well.

Ranking defensive back units in the American

1. Louisville - There's some real talent in the defensive backfields of the American Athletic Conference and, not surprisingly, it begins with the Cardinals. Their safety tandem of Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor are universally recognized as the best in the league - and cornerback Terell Floyd made three interceptions last season.
2. Cincinnati - The Bearcats lost some talent but have two seniors anchoring their secondary - cornerback Devon Drane (49 tackles/three interceptions in 2012) and safety Arryn Chenault (43/2) - along with some JUCO transfers.
3. SMU - Cornerback Kenneth Acker notched three interceptions last year and is regarded as one of the league's best defenders. The other players in the unit are lesser known but all have starting experience.
4. Rutgers - Safety Lorenzo Waters (68 tackles and two interceptions last season) headlines the Scarlet Knights' secondary, which will see a lot of transition. The talent is there though, notably in cornerbacks Tejay Johnson and Ian Thomas.
5. Houston - Cornerback Zach McMillian (five interceptions in 2012) and safety Trevon Stewart are high on everyone's list of talent. Texas A&M transfer Colton Valencia played well at safety in 10 games (six starts) last season.
6. UCF - Cornerback Clayton Geathers (117 tackles last year) and safety Brandon Alexander (62 tackles/one interception) anchor this unit. The Knights have some talented young players who add talent and depth if not experience.
7. UConn - This ranking may be a bit harsh, but it's difficult to overlook the loss of talent the Huskies' suffered. At least to begin the season, this unit does not have much reputation despite its talent.
8. USF - Safeties JaQuez Jenkins and Mark Joyce return as starters, but the Bulls' defensive talent is mainly in their front seven.
9. Memphis - The Tigers lost some talented players in the backfield from last year's squad. Players to watch include cornerback Bobby McCain and safety Lonnie Ballentine. Missouri transfer Tavon Bolden may make the lineup too.
10. Temple - Cornerbacks Zamel Johnson and Anthony Robey return as starters, but the Owls' overall talent level of defensive backs does not equal most other conference teams.

There appears little reason for worry about the Huskies' secondary at this point, even if the injury to Andrew Adams proves serious. UConn has depth and talent in the unit. Jones and Brown are solid defenders, and Mack wants to prove himself already. Stevenson stood out as early as last spring as a quality cornerback and Melifonwu has impressed with his athleticism.

A solid linebacking corps will benefit the UConn backfield too, providing reliable support in both run and pass defense. If any question remains it is whether the Huskies will retain the aggressive, pressure-style pass defense it played the past two years under coordinator Don Brown or revert back to a more cautious style as was familiar under former head coach Randy Edsall and Hank Hughes, who, with Brown's departure, regained coordinator status.

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