Former defensive coordinator Don Brown has moved on to Boston College, but elements of his hair-on-fire defense will remain at UConn.
The challenge will be finding players to feed the schemeafter six starters left.
"I think we'll be very similar to what we've been," said Hank Hughes, who replaced Brown and is serving his second stint as defensive coordinator in 13 seasons with the program. "You have to be aggressive to some degree. We're not just going to radically change. These kids have been recruited for this and guys have been working in this system. It's not like we're going to have a whole different system because we lost some starters."
UConn was ranked ninth in the nation in total defense, allowing 309.92 yards a game. The Huskies averaged 2.75 sacks, 18th nationally. Four of the five UConn players selected in the NFL draft, cornerbacks Blidi Wreh-Wilson (Titans), Dwayne Gratz (Jaguars), linebacker Sio Moore (Raiders) and defensive end Trevardo Williams (Texans) started on defense (tight end Ryan Griffin was the offensive player drafted). Linebacker Jory Johnson and defensive tackle Ryan Wirth also were important to the defense.
"We've got some good players we have to replace," Hughes said. "You don't replace guys like that overnight. Guys have to develop themselves and get better at their techniques, and guys have to step up. This year we lost some really good players on defense but other years we've lost good players, too. I'd like to franchise tag every one of those guys and bring them back."
Junior Byron Jones, who came to UConn from St. Paul in Bristol as a corner but was moved to safety, will move back to a corner spot. Andrew Adams, who saw a lot of action, will slide into the spot next to Jones. Both know the system, as do senior Taylor Mack and redshirt freshman Jhavon Williams, who are locked in a battle to start opposite Jones.
Redshirt sophomore linebackers Jefferson Ashiru and Marquise Vann have been in the system since its inception, although they haven't played much at UConn. Florida transfer Graham Stewart, also a redshirt sophomore, and Maryland transfer Ryan Donohue will be counted on as linebackers to step in and play big roles. Junior Yawin Smallwood is back at linebacker and should be primed for a big season. Last year he had 120 tackles, 15 for a loss, and four sacks.
On the defensive line, the Huskies will count on senior tackles Shamar Stephen, juniors Angelo Pruitt and Julian Campenni, and senior Tim Willman, who last season was valuable in a reserve role. Freshman Mikal Myers should play some tackle as well. End Jesse Joseph was granted a medical redshirt year for 2013 and junior defensive end B.J. McBryde has emerged.
"I think we have the pieces to put together a good defense and there's no reason we can't," Hughes said. "You get confidence by doing something over and over again. If you do it six different ways and get beat on five of them, you're not going to have a lot of confidence. So we're going to repeat it, get good at what we do, get guys to play hard, run to the ball and play physical."
Two players have Hughes and the coaching staff intrigued: junior Reuben Frank, moved from fullback to defensive end, and the Great Dane, a.k.a. 6-foot-9 Andreas Knappe, who came into the program fresh but raw last season, from Denmark. Frank was recruited by UConn as a defensive end.
""You're going to hear about [Frank]," Hughes said.. "One of the guys I thought who really came on at the end of spring practice, too, was [Knappe]. He's up to 294 pounds now and is a big kid. He's starting to get to where he understands how to [use] leverage, using hands. Now he's learning how to focus his energy."