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Connecticut Natives Emerging As Standouts On Young UConn Defense

Alex Putterman
Contact Reporteraputterman@courant.com

With UConn a week into its preseason training camp, the picture of who will start on defense is beginning, ever so slightly, to snap into focus. And if these early practices serve as any indication, the Huskies’ defensive starting 11 could have a decidedly local flair.

With three weeks until the season-opener Aug. 30 against UCF, three Connecticut natives are regularly practicing with UConn’s first-team defense: Windsor’s Tyler Coyle, Hartford’s Tahj Herring-Wilson and Stamford’s Omar Fortt (with New Haven’s Travis Jones also earning first-team reps on the defensive line).

“We’re fighting for the people of Connecticut,” Fortt said Monday. “People really sleep on UConn as if we’re not a major school for competition, and I just feel like it’s a good thing that a lot of people from Connecticut are going to UConn so we can put our school back on the map and just show the world what we have.”

Of the Connecticut trio likely to start against UCF, Coyle is the most experienced, and perhaps most promising. As a freshman last year, the ultra-athletic safety led UConn with two interceptions and ranked third with 67 tackles. Now, as a default veteran in an exceedingly young secondary, he’s one of few defensive players seemingly guaranteed major playing time.

Fellow sophomores Fortt and Herring-Wilson also gained some game reps last fall and appear poised to claim larger roles in 2018. Fortt, who is listed at linebacker but has played safety in camp, played in all 12 of UConn’s games, starting four, and recorded 40 tackles on the year. Herring-Wilson, a cornerback, started two games and registered 17 tackles. Both have the inside track on starting spots.

Fortt, Coyle and Herring-Wilson all say that being from Connective gives them added motivation to build up UConn’s program.

“There’s always been extra meaning,” Coyle said. “Being from Connecticut, I committed when the program was struggling, and that was one of my goals: to see the program rise back up.”

Herring-Wilson was a UConn fan when Edsall was first head coach (from 1999-2010), watching up close as the Huskies earned their first bowl bid, their first bowl victory, their first Big East title. He saw how the team’s success generated excitement around the state.

Now he’s a likely starting cornerback, part of a group tasked with returning the program, which has endured back-to-back 3-9 seasons, to where it once was.

“That’s one of the main reasons why I chose UConn,” Herring-Wilson said. “I wanted to do something for my state, for my town.”

Fortt said he hoped this UConn squad could capture fans the way Edsall’s teams did a decade ago.

“When we go out and win some games, people are going to be on our back, and we can get the old UConn back,” Fortt said. “Especially with Randy Edsall back here leading the way.”

UConn has an uneven record with Connecticut natives. The program has had locally born standouts, from Dan Orlovsky to Byron Jones, but it has also gone stretches without many notable contributors from its home state. In recent years, Huskies recruiting classes have featured anywhere from one Connecticut native (in 2015) to six of them (in 2013), with an average of about three per year.

Receiver Noel Thomas, defensive lineman Cole Ormsby and running back Arkeel Newsome have represented Connecticut in recent seasons, but with all three now graduated, it’s time for a new generation. That’s where Coyle, Fortt and Herring-Wilson come in.

Though playing close to home can sometimes bring unwanted pressure, UConn’s three most prominent Connecticut natives all say they welcome the challenge.

“I want to play in front of my family to make them proud,” Fortt said. “Especially because it’s Connecticut.”

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