STORRS — UConn linebackers coach Jon Wholley puts it this way: “The sky is the limit for Yawin Smallwood.” And Wholley is not alone in assessing the Huskies' 6-foot-4, 236-pound junior that way.
Smallwood, from Worcester, was an All-Big East first-team selection last season after posting a team-leading 120 tackles. This year, Smallwood was named to the Bednarik and Butkus Award preseason watch lists; those awards go go to the best defensive player and best linebacker in the country, respectively. Smallwood was also named to the Walter Camp watch list for player of the year.
Smallwood, who turns 22 on Christmas Day, is coming off a phenomenal year but has a challenge that awaits as he attempts to take his game to the next level. Named a tri-captain along with Steve Greene and Shamar Stephen, Smallwood will be making the calls, directing the defense. Sio Moore did it last season; now it's Smallwood's turn.
“This is really going to be a big year to determine how far this guy can go,” UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said. “If he's going to be too cool for school, like, ‘I know this' or ‘I got it,' it's going to be a very, very rude awakening for him.
“Now, if he comes in with this passion to play this position — and there is no question you cannot play this position without a high level of passion and high level of internalized motivation to study and to know your opponent — he can do a lot. For the linebacker [making the calls on defense], it's part of the job. It's not something that's extra.”
Smallwood says he's ready to be the quarterback on defense.
“I think I've always been a leader,” he said. “I've just been the quiet guy. Nowadays in college, a lot of teams come out with a lot of quick tempo. I've got to be the guy to make sure everyone gets their eyes where they're supposed to be, positioned to be able to stop the play, because if guys aren't lined up, not set right. it leads to big plays.”
And on top of all that, Smallwood still has to be ... Smallwood.
“That's all right,” he said. “I'm perfectly fine with that. Coach Wholley is going to have me ready each week. I'm looking forward to this season.”
He's not alone there.
“I'm excited about Yawin,” Pasqualoni said. “We'll have to see how it goes, but his vision, his instinctive reactions, sometimes you get linebackers who only see things one way.
“The other thing I really like about him, which I think is a strength, is that he doesn't process what he sees. He just goes. Some guys look at it and they hesitate, then they go. He's not a process guy. He's a read-and-react guy, which is a big part of the position too.”