Sunday, August 03, 2014

Versatility will be hallmark of UConn defense

Reuben Frank, with UConn coach Bob Diaco at Saturday's practice, is one
of players who could be asked to play either defensive end or linebacker
Let's make no mistake, it was the creative defensive mind of Bob Diaco that earned him national recognition as one of the nation's top assistant coaches and rising stars. Diaco walked away from a successful situation as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame to try to reinvigorate a program at UConn coming off three straight losing seasons.

The feeling was that after years playing a 4-3 defense that Diaco's Huskies would play primarily a 3-4. Those thoughts were seemingly confirmed when UConn posted a roster with 18 linebackers and nine defensive linemen. Then at American Athletic Conference football media day Diaco stated that he was planning to use four down linemen about 50 percent of the time and would go with a 3-4 alignment the rest of the time. Most of the teams I have covered have played either a 3-4 or 4-3 so I was very intrigued by how this was going to work so after yesterday's practice I asked Diaco if the same players who line up in a three-point stance as a 4-3 defensive end and shift to a stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker in the same series or would he need to change personnel to make the move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 or vice versa.

"That facilitates one of those players being that guy who can do both jobs that is why we don't have to sub to get in and out of defenses that look like sub defenses," Diaco said. "Graham (Stewart) will afford even more opportunity because for us, (he is not) the prototypical outside backer, he plays longer and bigger because he is strong, powerful, tough and rugged but he moves as quick and changes direction like a safety."

I asked Diaco if it was a fair assessment that players like Stewart and Reuben Frank will be required to learn more one position. At first he hesitated before responding with "I an going to say yes. For me to minimize the fact that you need to be able to see, move and fundamentally do your work from the two-point (stance) and also the three-point (stance) and that is like nothing, no that is definitely something."

One thing of note is that I count 18 players who have either gained or lost at least six pounds since the end of last season (based on weights on the UConn roster in the 2013 season finale against Memphis and the one currently on the UConn site) and nine of those are either defensive linemen or linebackers. The top guy is redshirt freshman linebacker Junior Joseph who dropped 20 pounds to get down to 242. Offensive guard Zach Rugg and defensive lineman B.J. McBryde are next up having lost 16 and 14 pounds. The top guys in the weight game department are linebacker Cameron Stapleton and receiver Blake Feagles. Stewart is also in that select group as he was listed at 236 pounds last season to his current weight of 227.

Alignment was a major issue for Diaco on the first day of practice. During the spring he was none too pleased watching players line up offsides, not lining up properly and not knowing where they should be lining up. While it wasn't perfect in the first day of preseason camp, he saw tremendous progress.

"I don't mind saying that the program was a long way away, we are closer now," Diaco said. "Practice one fall camp was in sharp contrast to practice one in spring football so it shows the amount of investment made during the spring and specifically post-spring to come back to the summer conditioning program and be able to move forward. I remember saying let's not worry about fall camp, let's see how they come back after three weeks away. Have we made a dent culturally to see how they live. They came back and they were ready to move forward from a training standpoint.

"Everybody participated today, everybody was ready. Twelve men on the field, 10 men on the field, ball security errors, penalties, offsides, things that lack discipline, lining up offsides, not getting aligned, not being in your stance before the ball is snapped, those are all things that we did not want to see at practice today. It wasn't necessarily what we want to see, we have things that we don't want to see so we are still at the point but they have made a lot of ground up in that area."

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