Thursday, March 05, 2015

UConn spring preview: Defensive backs/special teams

While losing a player as talented as Byron Jones in the middle of the season is never a good thing, if there is a silver lining it is that the returning defensive backs found themselves thrust into bigger roles following Jones' season-ending shoulder injury.

Now the key is for that experience to be turned a more consistent level of play.

The safety position seems to be in good shape with the return of Andrew Adams and Obi Melifonwu.

No player rose to the challenge late in the season more than Adams highlighted by his three interceptions as UConn posted its only win against a fellow FBS team with a stunning 37-29 victory over Central Florida. He is also a physical presence at safety who can play both the pass and run. While there are plenty of candidates, Adams strikes me as ideal captain material.

Melifonwu is a player that when he gets to work out in front of the pro scouts is going to start soaring up draft boards. If you were going to ask what should an NFL-caliber safety look like, Melifonwu would fit the criteria with the size and speed to play at the next level.

However, there have been some issues with Melifonwu in pass coverage. With all the spread teams the Huskies see, Melifonwu is often times given man to man responsibility and seems like the opponents have targeted Melifonwu early and often. That part of his game will have to improve for not only UConn to be successful but also for him to truly impress the pro scouts. The 10-tackle efforts against Boise State and Army show that Melifonwu is a willing hitter. The same could be said for top reserve safety Junior Lee, who had a monster season on special teams covering kickoffs and punts. Ellis Marder and Jordan Floyd got some work a season ago and will push for more time.

A young group of cornerbacks had to grow up when Jones went down in game 7. Jhavon Williams had already carved out a starting spot but true freshman Jamar Summers and converted receiver John Green had a baptism by fire. True freshman Brice McAllister also worked his way into the mix at corner as the season moved forward. There were some predictable growing pains accompanied by costly penalties or big-play strikes by opponents. The events of the 2014 season, as difficult as they were, should only serve to speed up the learning curve for the talented cornerbacks.

Turning to special teams, it will be not easy to replace Deshon Foxx as the primary punt returner. However, looking back, the Huskies did not get much out of the punt return game after a 72-yard return by Foxx proved to be the winning touchdown in the win over Stony Brook. Anybody who saw Arkeel Newsome carry the ball during a record-breaking career at Ansonia High School had to be surprised by how tentative he was in returning kickoffs. I have a hunch that with a season under his belt, he will hit the creases with more abandon as a sophomore. Brian Lemelle could be an option on both kickoff and punt returns while Josh Marriner was able to return a couple of kickoffs a season ago. Nick Vitale was a threat to score whenever he returned a punt or kickoff during his days at Hand High and I will be interested to see if he works his way into a prominent return role with the Huskies.

Kicker Bobby Puyol and punter Justin Wain return after being the primary specialists for the first time in their college career. Puyol had a long of 45 yards as part of making 9 of 14 fields although he must improve on making 50 percent of his kicks from 30-39 yards while Wain showed what he is capable of in averaging 42 and 44.5 yards per punt in back to back games against Boise State and Stony Brook. The key for Wain is to provide more consistency throughout season.

A large portion of kickoff and punt return coverage units are returning led Lee. It should be noted that UConn led all FBS teams in kickoff return coverage, allowing just 15.5 yards per return. Matt Walsh and Noel Thomas are a couple of players who had made their presence felt on special teams as well. Dom Manco had a solid season in his first season as the starting long snapper.


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