Sunday, March 01, 2015

UConn spring preview: Defensive line/linebackers

A bulked up Kenton Adeyemi is one of top returning
defesnsive linemen for UConn in 2015 season
Time to continue my position by position preview as we approach the start of spring practice.

I went back and forth on how to breakdown the linebackers and defensive linemen and really didn't know where to put the group of talented youngsters who could see time as a standup outside linebacker or as a defensive end in a three-point stance in the same defensive possession. In the end, I decided to cheat and opted to combine them so consider this a preview of the defensive front seven.
The first thing of interest about the returning defensive linemen is how - at least by looking at their listed weights on the spring roster - they have transformed their bodies.

Kenton Adeyemi is listed as being 287 pounds, an increase of 19 pounds, and Mikal Myers went from 312 to 326. Perhaps even more noteworthy is that Folorunso Fatukasi, who I think could have the most potential of all the defensive linemen, dropped nine pounds and is now listed at 298.
I understand that there is much more to playing football than looking at a players' weight but with the emphasis head coach Bob Diaco has placed on what he called the sports performance aspect of things led by Matt Balis, this is a sign that these players are doing everything they can to be successful.
The list of returning defensive linemen features veterans like Adeyemi and Julian Campenni and some promising youngsters led by Fatukasi and Cole Ormsby.

Luke Carrezola, Cameron Stapleton and Ormsby are three of the aforementioned group that are listed on the roster as linebackers but figure to see time at defensive end as well. They certainly have to be included in the group of players diving in head first into the offseason conditioning program as Stapleton added 20 pounds, Carrezola put on 18 pounds and Ormsby added nine.

The hope is that the progress this group has made in the weight room will translate into standing up better at the point of attack. There were simply too many times a season ago when the line got pushed back a few yards. I think having the entire defensive staff returning should make a huge difference in the familiarity department. Heading into spring practice the players should have a better idea of what is expected of them and the hope it is it translates to playing stronger and faster as a group.

"Foley Fatukasi, he got down in weight to get back up, Julian Campenni and all of those guys they attacked it and will continue to do that," defensive line coach Kevin Wolthausen said. "We are expecting them to have great results.

"It is a group that we added the two redshirt freshmen (James Atkins and Sheriden Lawley) and now we have to take a look at them in the spring and it is a group that just by the nature of understanding what we are doing, you expect (improvement) and what they expect out of each other how can you not be excited about the next level of development."

I'm also curious to see if former Xavier High star Sean Marinan, who is now closing in on 290 pounds, can push for more time in the defensive line rotation after the walk-on saw plenty of time on special teams during his redshirt freshman season.

While plenty of players in the rotation a season ago are back, B.J. McBryde and Reuben Frank have graduated. Frank showed some flashes of providing a pass rush off the edge while McBryde did his work in the interior of the line. While Diaco has been adamant about not pursuing splash plays on defense at the expense of playing undisciplined football and won't send extra players just to say they have 'x' number of sacks, pressures or tackles for loss, a lack of a pass rush was a serious problem a season ago. With all the  talented quarterbacks and receivers in the American Athletic Conference, getting more of a push from the front four is an absolute must moving forward.

The linebacker group has to start with seniors Marquise Vann and Graham Stewart.

Luke Carrezola, Mikal Myers and Cole Ormsby among
top returning defensive players for UConn
A few eyes may have been opened when Vann, a player with 21 tackles in 20 career games, was named as one of the team captains for the 2014 season. However, Vann provided plenty of leadership as well as production with a team-high 105 tackles. Vann had at least nine tackles in eight of the first nine games including a 14-tackle effort against South Florida. If the defensive line can make the strides the coaches are looking for, the next step for Vann will not only be piling up tackles but recording more stops closer to the line of scrimmage. His running mate will be Stewart who brings plenty of physicality to the position. Stewart had a bit of an up and down 2014 season. When he is at the top of his game, he is impossible to miss on the field but he had too many stretches when he wasn't making an impact. It's easy to forget how little football Stewart has played. He saw plenty of time on special teams as a freshman as Florida but had to sit out the 2012 season after transferring and spent the season rehabilitating after injuring himself while lifting.

Junior Joseph showed tremendous growth as the season wore on, eventually beating out Jefferson Ashiru. Jon Hicks, redshirt freshman Chris Britton and converted fullback Matt Walsh could all push for time. Omaine Stephens is a player I remember noticing during preseason camp a couple years back and he is trying to work his way into a more substantial role.

Carrezola, Stapleton. Ormsby and Vontae Diggs received valuable experience a season ago while on the outside and will push each other for playing time. Jalen Stevens could also fight for time on the outside this season.
"They will be 10 times better, they are stronger, their understanding of how to play the position and techniques will be so much better," UConn linebackers coach Vincent Brown said. "With those guys, they are eager to learn so they are growing every day. I am really excited to watch them grow.

"It is a nice blend, you have some veteran leadership with Marquise and Graham because they bring an element of strength and toughness, they have been here, they have been through some really tough times here. I am hoping the younger guys like Junior Joseph, Stapleton, Vontae, Luke and they are all embracing their roles within the defense. We are excited to come out and watch these kids come out and play."


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