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Host of transfers to fill hole UConn’s holes at linebacker behind deep defensive line

UConn’s defense is loaded with 10-plus returners on the line who played snaps last season, including all four starters. The question comes at linebacker, where Jackson Mitchell stands alone as the only returning starter after the Huskies lost Ian Swenson, Marquez Bembry and Brandon Bouyer-Randle to graduation.

UConn brought in a handful of replacements from the transfer portal who Mitchell, the leader on and off the field for the last two seasons and nicknamed “Mr. Connecticut,” was sure to take extra time with when they arrived in the spring and throughout the summer.

“(In the summer) just work, get in the playbook so we can get a good understanding. They bring great depth and experience to our linebacker room and I think they’ll step in and do a good job,” Mitchell had said on the first day of camp.

Adding to Mitchell, a senior, all five of the linebacker transfers have played at least three years of college football.

“I think they all bring different things,” Mitchell said. “It’s a lot of guys with experience which is really helpful. … Last year sometimes we struggled with depth at multiple positions and this year maybe we can rotate guys in, stay a little more fresh.”

‘Working through the dirt,’ UConn defensive lineman Eric Watts sets sights high for senior season

The line, which recorded 26 sacks last season, No. 61 of 131 FBS programs, went into camp focused on developing its pass rush to where it can get at the quarterback on every down.

“The biggest key we talk about is just creating pressure on first and second down, getting the quarterback off his spot, make him move his feet and make him make those tough throws,” defensive line coach Kenny McClendon said. “We just want to get him off the spot and as that happens and we keep creating pressure I think the sacks will come and I think the negative plays will come. But we’ve got to get pressure first before we get the sacks.”

Here is a breakdown of UConn’s front seven:

Top returners

The line starts with a big four of Eric Watts and Pryce Yates on the ends and Dal’mont Gourdine and Jelani Stafford at tackle – all who started in just about every game last year. The returning depth comes with defensive end Collin McCarthy, who was fourth on the team with three sacks last season, Carter Hooper and tackle Sokoya McDuffie.

Watts, an NFL prospect entering his final season, led the Huskies in sacks (7) and tackles for loss (10). This year his goal is to double those numbers. Yates made 4.5 sacks and 45 total tackles, second on the line to Watts (47).

Gourdine and Stafford combined for 62 tackles and 3.5 sacks from the tackle positions.

The main face of the program, Mitchell, led the defense in tackles for the last two seasons, his 140 total in 2022 was good for fourth in the nation and tied him for sixth in UConn’s single-season record book. He also forced two fumbles and led the FBS with five fumble recoveries while making 9.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, three pass breakups and an interception.

Other returners, like tackle Timothy Passmore Jr. and linebacker Langston Hardy, who each took a redshirt year in 2022, could make an impact. Donovan Branch, a skilled pass-rusher at the linebacker position, Nathan Voorhis and Tui Faumnia-Brown also had good camps.

Top transfers

Raashaan “RJ” Wilkins Jr., from Illinois, is the only transfer portal addition on UConn’s defensive line after it added Stafford and McDuffie ahead of last season. Wilkins, a senior, saw time in five games last year and prior to that, he played in 19 games through two seasons at Vanderbilt where he started 10 games in 2021 and made 13 tackles.

Wilkins’ highlight game at the college level came in his freshman year when he made two tackles for a loss and recovered a fumble against South Carolina.

Eriq Gilyard, a graduate transfer from Kansas, is seemingly in position for one of the starting spots at linebacker alongside Mitchell. Entering his sixth season of college football, Gilyard combined for 197 tackles over four years at UCF prior to transferring to Kansas last season. At Kansas he had 24 tackles, a pass deflection and an interception that he returned 11 yards.

Noah Plack, another graduate transfer, made 81 tackles at Delaware. Kevon Glenn, a redshirt junior who started his career at Florida State before transferring to Georgia Southern, made 26 tackles with a sack and a forced fumble for the Eagles.

Amir Renwick (Coffeyville CC) and Maurice Wilmer (Nevada) are also in competition for reps. Wilmer made 25 tackles at Nevada last year while Renwick totalled 99 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and two interceptions against junior college competition.