STORRS — There is more than one pair of shoes to fill on the UConn defense. But stepping into one particular pair means being planted on a lonely island most of the time, so the fit better be right.
Taylor Mack, a 5-foot-9, 175-pound senior who has played in 33 career games, including all 12 last season, has won a spot as a starting cornerback after a competition in camp with Jhavon Williams, a 5-11, 191-pound redshirt freshman who will be Mack’s backup.
UConn lost the longtime starting duo of Dwayne Gratz (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Blidi Wreh-Wilson (Tennessee Titans) to the NFL. Junior Byron Jones has moved from safety to start at the other corner, with sophomore David Stevenson behind him.
“Taylor Mack is a phenomenal player,” Williams said. “I learn from him, and we try to show each other pointers where we can get better. It’s been a grind in camp. Both of our bodies are beaten up.”
Regardless of who’s in the game, there can’t be a drop in production at the position. Coach Paul Pasqualoni said there are others who can contribute.
“I'm pleased with David Stevenson,” he said. “[Redshirt freshman] Ellis Marder is out there practicing well. Javon Hadley, for a freshman, has shown that he's not overwhelmed with being here and making the transition from high school. So this corner thing, I like the way they're working together.”
Mack started against Maryland last season, a 24-21 UConn win, but he had a rough, uneven outing. Terps coach Randy Edsall, who recruited Mack to UConn, picked on him. The strategy didn’t yield quite the results Edsall wanted, but the fact that it was part of the game plan is a concern because Maryland comes to Rentschler Field Sept. 14.
Mack carries an essential trait for the position: the ability to forget when bad things happen.
“I’m confident in myself,” Mack said. “It’s about getting in the playbook and understanding assignments. From there, you should just be able to move. Once you know your plays, you can diagnose and line up assignments and play as fast as you want. Jhavon is really solid in techniques and fundamentals. I think the whole secondary is solid there, so I think we’ll be fine.”
Expectations are high for Williams, who wears No. 6 in honor of former Husky Jasper Howard. Like Jazz, Williams is from talent-rich Florida; he played at Palm Beach Central High.
“Dwayne and Blidi taught me a lot,” Williams said. “I was on the scout team, so I got to learn from them, just small things that you really wouldn’t think about: when we’re in zone, turning and getting your eyes on the receiver; breaking on the ball; a lot of techniques in coverage. They were two great guys to learn from.
“I’m real big on my technique. For example, in the meeting room, if I’m false-stepping, I want to correct it as soon as I can. It really doesn’t matter how big or how fast you are in the game that we play and the life that we lead on the island we’re on. You’ve got to be a technician so you can play fast, and you’ve got to be sharp.”
THE DEFENSIVE BACKS