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UConn taking a defensive stance

Storrs - There are still plenty of questions on offense, including a four-man quarterback competition. Big plays, in fact, were few and far between during UConn football practice on Tuesday.

The defense, however - with nine starters and 16 lettermen returning - has the potential to be a force.

Coming off the best season in program history, the Huskies return all four starters up front and in the secondary from a unit that was sixth in the Big East in total defense.

"They're fast," coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "Those guys can run. Once they find the ball, they can go. The issue is finding the ball fast enough. You have seniors up front, seniors in the back end."

Senior captain Kendall Reyes, an All-Big East selection a year ago. anchors the line at tackle, while junior end Jesse Joseph led the Huskies in sacks with 12 last season. Trevardo Williams also returns at end, with Twyon Martin joining Reyes at tackle. Shamar Stephens will rotate in at tackle.

"Coach (defensive coordinator Don) Brown didn't come in here trying to feel his way around," Joseph said. "He came in here with expectations. He threw everything at us and it was our job as players to get accustomed to it and just execute it. Right now we're doing a good job of it. One of our major focuses is to get better, tougher, smarter."

In the secondary, cornerbacks Blidi-Wreh Wilson and Dwayne Gratz join safeties Jerome Junior and Harris Agbor as returning starters. The unit has plenty of depth as well, with Gary Wilburn, Byron Jones, Taylor Mack and Gilbert Stlouis.

Junior and Wreh-Wilson each had four interceptions a year ago, while Gratz is the second-leading returning tackler.

The defensive cohesion is a byproduct of playing together.

"The experience, the communication, the bond that we all have as players is a benefit," Joseph said. "We all know how we work. We know how to push each other without pushing anyone's buttons. That lets the young guys learn from us."

While the line and the secondary are clearly the defense's strengths, the linebacker core is a bit more muddled, with Scott Lutrus, Lawrence Wilson and Greg Lloyd all toiling in NFL camps.

Jerome Williams was penciled at middle linebacker on the depth chart, but he has been out with a knee injury. Jory Johnson and Yawin Smallwood have been playing in the middle. Sio Moore, the team's lone returning starting linebacker and leading returning tackler, missed practice on Tuesday with an injury. Freshman Jefferson Ashiru took his place with the first team.

"We're trying to accelerate the development of the entire linebacking group," Pasqualoni said. "We're working hard at that, because that's where the youth is, where the inexperience is."

• Ben Chapman, a redshirt junior walk-on center from Stonington, has left the program to concentrate on his studies.

o.poole@theday.com

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