Monday, September 17, 2012

No sophomore jinx for Yawin Smallwood

When UConn football coach Paul Pasqualoni fielded questions on the weekly Big East conference call there was only one topic he was asked to address - sophomore linebacker Yawin Smallwood.

Smallwood is coming off a brilliant game as he had 14 tackles (matching his season high) including 3.5 behind the line of scrimmage, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble which led to Chad Christen's 34-yard field goal in the third quarter.

Pasqualoni, who spent much of his coaching career working with linebackers, had high praise for the sophomore from Worcester, Mass. even if he deflected any comparisons to some of the NFL linebackers he  has coached and twice basically ignored questions about Smallwood's pro potential.

"Yawin is still very young he is only a sophomore," Pasqualoni said. "I really like his approach to football. He is a very steady, very dependable guy in everything he does. He is very dependable academically, he is very dependable off the field, in the weight room so he is a very good work ethic guy, football is very important to him and he prepares hard. He works hard in the offseason so he is going to have a chance if he can continue to develop and learn this position he will have the chance I think to develop into a really good player. It is very, very had to tell at this point because he is still so young."

Pasqualoni recalls pretty much having little choice but throwing Smallwood into the fire as a redshirt freshman during the 2011 season. All Smallwood did was finish second on the team with 94 tackles.

As good as he was last season, Smallwood has erupted into a player opposing offensive coordinators need to account for on every play. Smallwood leads UConn with 35 tackles and has more solo hits (20) than any of his teammates have total tackles. He is tied for the national lead with an average of three tackles for losses per game.

"Last year coming into preseason camp we lost our middle linebacker over the summer and of the group we didn't have anybody who ever played there," Pasqualoni said. "We sat down and had a discussion about each of the players and we just felt like Yawin of the group with his measurables and his ability might have a chance to help us at that linebacker position of the group that we had to choose from so we just put him in there. It was almost like this is our best guess. Let's put this guy in there and let's see how he does. It was a rough start for him but little by little he has gotten better."

Smallwood is aided by having senior linebackers on either side of him. Smallwood and fellow linebacker Sio Moore have been given more freedom to get into the backfield and make plays. Smallwood loves the fact that he is being asked to rush the quarterback on some plays and other times will drop in coverage. He is not being utilized as the old-fashioned middle linebacker who merely patrols the middle of the field and is expected to  focus his attention on stuffing the run.

"Most teams think about the middle linebacker usually stays there but we are different because of our coach (Don Brown, UConn's defensive coordinator). He is going to make sure we are coming off the edge and coming up the middle so I feel like it is a great situation."

Smallwood, who is on pace for 140 tackles, 36 tackles for losses and 16 sacks, has started to draw national attention. He was the first player listed in the weekly draft risers and sliders segment on

Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit was brief and to the point when he was asked what role last year's 38-31 win over UConn has on Saturday's rematch.

"Zero," Cubit said on the MAC weekly teleconference. "It is a new year. It is the second year under Coach Paul (Pasqualoni) and he has done a nice job there. They are physical, they are big and is a good all-around football team."

Western Michigan returns quarterback Alex Carder, who torched the Huskies for 479 passing yards and five touchdowns but the players who caught the five touchdowns and accounted for 433 of those yards are gone.

"They (UConn) are better and we are not as good," Cubit said. "We don't have the kids, unfortunately we've had some injuries at the wideout position and right now the two kids we are counting on the most are true freshmen. We've had four injuries at the wide receiver spot going back to the spring. It is a work in progress and we have to do it a different way."

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