Published September 13. 2011 4:00AM
Storrs - Early in the fourth quarter in Nashville Saturday night, Sio Moore came rushing through the Vanderbilt line to sack quarterback Larry Smith and force a fumble.
The ball popped out and into the hands of Yawin Smallwood, who returned it 62 yards for a touchdown and a 21-14 lead.
Leading the charge behind his fellow linebacker to the end zone was Moore, UConn's 6-foot-1 inch, 232-pound bundle of energy.
In the season-opener against Fordham, Moore was dropping into coverage one minute, tipping a ball that was intercepted by Byron Jones, and rushing through the line the next, making a fourth-down stop in the backfield on the Rams' final play from scrimmage.
"He's very athletic and very explosive, strong, powerful, all those things," UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni said of Moore. "As he matures here, he just has to learn to play recklessly within the guidelines of the defense. Be reckless, go make plays, but do it within the system."
Moore said the linebacker position is all about finding that right balance.
"I'm a very fiery guy, so when I get out there, I expect a lot," said Moore, a redshirt junior from Apex, North Carolina. "It's just about trying to channel it the right way. It's a matter of not getting too hot-headed. There's a difference between playing with aggression and doing something that could be detrimental to the team."
Pasqualoni, a former defensive coordinator in the NFL with Miami and Dallas, sees everything Moore brings to the table with a keen eye.
Moore, the only returning starting linebacker, spent last season playing alongside NFL draftees Lawrence Wilson (Carolina) and Greg Lloyd (Philadelphia), as well as Scott Lutrus, who is on the Carolina Panthers practice squad.
"Scott, Greg and Bama (Wilson), and even Danny Lansanah, who was a couple years before, those are guys I still talk to to this day and look up to," Moore said. "When I was younger I would watch them, and now to see them do what they're doing just helps me. I learned a lot from them while they were here and I try to take a little bit of each part of their game and put it into mine."
Beyond the fraternity of UConn linebackers, Moore talks about NFL stars at the position like Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis with reverence.
"This is a prideful position," he said. "If you don't take pride in playing it, you're not built to play linebacker. Those guys do more than just play the position. They channel all their energy to the players around them and get everyone else going. That's something I want to do."
He has already started.
While all four returning starters on the line and in the secondary return from last year, Moore may be the single most important player on the defense, and poised to have a breakout season.
"Playing controlled is the best way to play," Moore said. "When you play linebacker and start to grow into it, it's more of a mental game."
Moore had some of his best games of the season last year against quality opponents West Virginia and South Florida. This year, Moore is third on the Huskies with 10 tackles, including four for a loss. He has 3.5 sacks (all against Vanderbilt), two pass deflections, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble.
"As good as he's been, in the next two years, he's going to be a really, really good player," Pasqualoni said. "To his credit, he's all in."