Madison's Matt Walsh looking to save his best for last at UConn
The Madison native and former Hand High star has had an interesting run at UConn. A tackling machine in high school, Walsh began his collegiate career at fullback before moving over the linebacker.
Coming into the 2015 season playing behind leading tackler Marquise Vann, Walsh worked himself into a position to earn starts against Army, Missouri and Navy. Now a senior, there is a sense of finality as this will be his last camp at UConn.
"I want to leave everything on the field," Walsh said at Tuesday's American Athletic Conference football media day in Newport, R.I. "I want to play in a sense where I have no doubt and no regret that this is going to be my last camp. I feel like this is not going to be my last camp because I expect so much out of myself this season that I am going to be able to continue my career and everybody feels the same way on this team."
Walsh and Junior Joseph enter camp as the starting inside linebackers. However, the presence of Florida State transfer E.J. Levenberry will make things interesting as the Huskies have at least inside linebackers worthy of earning starting spots. When Walsh made the move from offense to defense, nobody was more helpful to him than Vann even though eventually it cost the two-year captain playing time. Walsh plans to take a similar team-first philosophy when it comes to helping Levenberry and other teammates reach their potential.
"I have never been the spiteful kind of guy or anything like that," said Walsh, coming off a 47-tackle season. "I always try to be welcoming and I am always going to help out everybody because the best guy is essentially going to play, I am trying to help everybody be the best player along with myself so it doesn't really matter who is playing, I am just excited for everybody to be playing together."
Despite the loss of five starters, Walsh has high expectations for the UConn defense.
"We feel like there is no reason why we can't be the best defense UConn has ever had," Walsh said.
When UConn coach Bob Diaco was asked about the most intriguing position battles, he quickly mentioned the outside linebacker spot previously played by Graham Stewart. Vontae Diggs and Omaine Stephens, who have a combined 28 career tackles at UConn, start camp as the top options at that spot.
"We feel very confident that there are a lot of different guys that can play that position and get the job done," Walsh said. "I am just really excited to see it all come together in camp."
While being invited to AAC media day by Diaco does not mean Walsh (or fellow Newport attendees Andreas Knappe, Obi Melifonwu and Noel Thomas) will be named captains, it does give an indication that they are faces of the program and the type of people Diaco feels comfortable representing the team.
In the last five seasons, the only Connecticut native to be named a team captain is current Dallas Cowboys safety Byron Jones. If Thomas and Walsh both get the call, it would be the first time two in-state products were named team captains since 2010 when Waterford's Zach Hurd and Brookfield's Scott Lutrus received that prestigious honor.
Whether or not he is a captain, Walsh has embraced the role of local football star who thrives at UConn both on and off the field.
"I feel like I had such a big family coming to the University of Connecticut before I even got here just from all the towns around me and all the guys who were able to follow me throughout high school and that support," Walsh said. "When I came to UConn, I almost branched out and make my family so much bigger to where everywhere I go, I feel like I know somebody and I am comfortable talking to everybody."
Diaco mentioned how much Walsh has changed for the better since he arrived. So what has helped Walsh mature as a player and person?
"Dedication and sacrifice, the past two years I kind of put all my eggs in the basket of football," Walsh said. "I am going to give it all I've got to where the investment is going to be something I've never done before so that is why I expect to have great success from it. I've always believed that you get what you put in so that was the philosophy I've embraced over the last few years."
Camp kicks off on Friday with the first media availability coming next week. For seniors like Walsh and Thomas, there is a sense of anticipation as the start of camp quickly approaches.
"You feel the energy in the locker room, everybody is really looking forward to putting pads on and excited to be playing again and making plays together," Walsh said. "That is why we came here for, that is kind of the love of the game that everybody has shown so everybody is excited to get out there."
Thomas is coming off an outstanding season with 54 catches and 719 yards. Dating back to the 2005 season, the only UConn player with more catches and yards in a season is current New York Giants WR Geremy Davis who caught 71 passes for 1,085 yards during the 2013 season.
"I am so ready," Thomas said. "I just want to play football, we have been lifting, running all this time and I want it to change to football."
Thomas is surrounded by a talented but young group of receivers. The 12 receivers on the roster feature seven true or redshirt freshmen, three sophomores, Thomas and fellow senior Brian Lemelle.
"They got their feet wet, they needed that year of experience and they know what to expect now," Thomas said of Tyraiq Beals, Hergy Mayala and Aaron McLean who combined for 35 catches as true freshmen. "They have been working hard and their confidence level is off the (charts) and I am excited to see Brian Lemelle this season too."
Thomas' numbers could have been even more impressive if he had caught a pass in the loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl. After the game Thomas took to social media and vowed that would never happen again.
"That was in the heat of the moment," Thomas said. "I am a receiver and nobody wants to have a catchless game but things happen and I am looking forward, I am going to do whatever I can to help the team."