A Case for the Defense

STORRS – Linebacker Sio Moore has seen his share of good defensive players – and units – during his time at Connecticut. Last season, the Huskies were outstanding against the run, yielding 85.7 yards per game to rank third in the nation. But lack of depth at linebacker and injuries in the secondary made UConn susceptible to the pass and the Huskies ranked last in the Big East in that category.

With preseason camp set to open Friday at UConn, Moore feels something special is in the works for 2012. He says his defensive teammates have worked extremely hard in the offseason, with the common goal of correcting the problems from last season when the Huskies often found ways to let leads slip away in the fourth quarter.

Moore, a fifth-year player and the top returning tackler for UConn, is predicting big things for this defensive unit, which has eight starters back.

"I think this defense is going to be Top 10 or Top 5 – nationally," said Moore, who is on the preseason watch list for both the Butkus Award and the Lombardi Award. "Right there with the Floridas, the Alabamas, whatever – you name it. There's no way around it.

"It's all about the complete game. . . . But I'm lucky enough to play on the side of the ball where I can say, ‘Defense wins championships.' "

With that in mind, we asked Moore to breakdown UConn's defense, by units. First comes the defensive line with Jesse Joseph and Trevardo Williams at the ends, and Ryan Wirth and Shamar Stephen manning the tackle spots.

Moore: "We did lose Kendall [Reyes] from last year. But we do have some great guys filling in at that spot. Shamar is a hell of a player and he's going to take up space; big guy but very athletic, almost similar to Kendall. We've got Wirth and he's been working his tail off like no other person. And then we have some D ends in Trevardo, obviously, who is a tremendous pass rusher. Then you have a power anchor in Jesse, who is just completely physical. He's a smart player.

"Then we've got Teddy [Jennings] and he's a long guy. He has gotten so much better. The strong point for us has always been our D line. The D line helps out the linebackers and the secondary. They really make the game, for us, better."

Trevardo Williams on the sack attack (US PRESSWIRE)

We asked Moore to predict what Williams is capable of accomplishing in his senior season. Williams had 12.5 sacks last season and his 19 career sacks ranks sixth all-time at UConn. He is on the preseason watch list for the Bednarik and Lombardi awards, in addition to the Bronk Nagurski Trophy.

"Trevardo is a worker," Moore said. "He's a quiet guy but he gets in there and works. He's in the weight room and he's putting up numbers – something like 650 on the squats. He's no slouch. We talk about it all the time, how we need 15 [sacks] apiece. I'm excited to see what he does. This year, the sky's the limit."

Moore wants to work with Williams as a tandem.

"Who are you going to block? That's the question," Moore said. "If you have to worry about him, I hope you don't forget about me. And I hope you don't forget about the rest of the defensive line. When you have that type of talent on one side of the ball, it just opens up things for that many more guys. I think it's going to be great."

Moore totaled 86 tackles last season, down from 110 as a sophomore. But his 202 career tackles lead all returning Huskies. The 6-foot-2, 229-pound redshirt senior has started 21 games, including 12 last season at linebacker. He led the 2011 team with 16 tackles for a loss and was second with 6.5 sacks.

At times, he was feeling the entire weight at the linebacker position last season. Now depth at linebacker could be the biggest improvement for this defense. Yawin Smallwood and Jory Johnson are likely to start along with Moore. Ryan Donohue, who sat out last season after transferring from Maryland, is expected to battle for a starting spot and make a big impact.

"It's beautiful having a bunch of guys at linebacker," Moore said. "We've got young guys and guys who are ready to learn and make their input. It reminds me of when I was younger and I had Scott [Lutrus], Greg Lloyd and Lawrence [Wilson] to give us a big group of linebackers. We're right back to it.

"We have Jefferson [Ashiru], Marquise [Vann] and Ryan Donohue, who's a physical, snotty-nosed . . . I mean when you talk about a true backer that kid can lay some wood on you. Yawin is way more experienced and has become a better player. And Jory is the old man of the defense; the wise man. Jory is always around the ball. He's one of the smartest guys on the defense. When you mix experience with some youth, you only get productivity."

Injuries in the secondary, especially the loss of cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson, forced coach Paul Pasqualoni and his staff to shuffle players and try different combinations last season. The benefit comes this season when Ty-Meer Brown and Byron Jones, both redshirt sophomores, will start at the safety spots. Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz give UConn seniors at the cornerback positions.

"I really feel we have two of the best corners in the Big East," Moore said. "I'll never shy away from that. We have two guys who can really lock down. If they can take two guys out of the picture, that leaves the rest of us to create chaos in the first level of the defense.

"Byron is probably one of our most athletic guys on the field on defense. He played corner for a while when Blidi went down and now he's back at safety. He's completely comfortable with that position. Ty-Meer came in later and he really made his mark. He can do it all – play the run, play the pass, blitz, whatever. He's an all-purpose guy.

"It's all great for us because as much youth as we have on defense we have enough old guys and experience to lead the entire team. Everybody on defense went through growing pains. And now the growing pains are over because everybody knows what they have to do – and how to do it."

Linebacker Sio Moore wants another Big East championship ring. And there's no doubt he is dreaming of a long career in the NFL. And when you consider the remarkable journey Moore has taken to this point, it makes his story pretty special. Visit UConnPlaybook.com later this week to read the remarkable personal story of Sio Moore.

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