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    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    Jones a key contributor to a vastly improved UConn defense

    UConn defensive back Durante Jones (19) signals to the sideline during an NCAA football game on Saturday, August, 27, 2022 in Logan, Utah. (AP Photo/Tyler Tate)
    UConn sophomore defensive back Durante Jones talks to the media Tuesday in Storrs. He had a key interception in Saturday's upset of Boston College and ranks fifth on the team in tackles this season. (Gavin Keefe/The Day)
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    Storrs — Sophomore Durante Jones is passionate about playing football and it shows.

    Jones fires up his teammates during practices and games.

    “It’s just something that I naturally have,” said Jones, who’s from Atlanta. “Growing up as a kid from the South, you got to have passion to play the game. …. I’m not going to go out on the field without being passionate.”

    As a starting defensive back, Jones is part of a vastly improved UConn defense.

    The defense is a major reason why UConn (4-5) has its highest win total since going 6-7 in 2015 and still bowl eligibility with its grasp with three regular season games left, including Friday at 7 p.m. against UMass at Rentschler Field.

    “We’ve made a ton of progress and we continue to make progress,” Jones said.

    A year ago, the Huskies allowed 38.5 points per game. This year, they’ve given up 26.2 points but only 13.5 in the last four games during which they’re gone 3-1. They’ve already tied last season’s interception total (10) and have 10 more sacks — 22 overall — than in 2021.

    Jones made a key interception — his first of the season — in Saturday’s 13-3 upset of Boston College, the program’s first victory in the series. He picked off Phil Jurkovec’s pass in the end zone in the second quarter to stop a BC drive and help UConn keep the lead.

    “I didn’t think he was really throwing it because there was nobody open,” Jones said. “I just made a play. Thank you.”

    Mora says Jones is a student of the game and “studies like crazy.”

    “I love coaching that young man,” Mora said. “He’s so passionate about football. He wants to do everything he can every single week to be as prepared as he can to go out on the field and play well. … Being a good football player is so important to him. Winning football games is so important to him and being prepared.”

    With the offense struggling while dealing with injuries and inexperience, UConn’s defense stepped up and didn’t allow a point in the second half.

    Overall, the Huskies registered season highs in turnovers (five) and sacks (five), the latter being the most in a game since 2013.

    Mora believes his defense can play better than it did Saturday.

    “When we went back and looked at the film, I don’t think it was our best performance of the year,” Mora said. “We busted a couple of coverages. We lost leverage on a couple of things. We didn’t finish on the passer enough when we had chances. But we tackled better and we played hard.

    “When you play hard and you tackle well, you’ve always got a chance to have a pretty good performance. Then, of course, taking the ball away.”

    The Huskies are receiving important contributions from a variety of defensive players from Eric Watts and Pryce Yates up front, to Jackson Mitchell, Ian Swenson and Brandon Bouyer-Randle at linebacker, and Malik Dixon-Williams, Tre Wortham and Jones at defensive back.

    Mitchell, one of 15 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, is second in the country in tackles with 100 and fourth in tackles per game with 11.1. He had a monster day against BC, finishing with 12 tackles, one sack, one interception, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.

    “He’s Mr. Connecticut, the heart and soul of the UConn football team,” Jones said. “We all know that. Jackson is a guy that when it comes to crunch time that we don’t have to look to him, we know it’s coming.”

    The Huskies are getting healthier as a team, especially on offense.

    Three key players — receivers Cam Ross and Keelan Marion as well as running back Devontae Houston — could return against UMass after missing time due to injuries.

    “They’re both working hard to get back for this week,” Mora said of Ross and Marion. “They both were at practice and participated (Monday) night. … We’re going to make sure that they’re not just physically right to play but they’re emotionally and mentally right to play.”

    Ross, who was projected to be a starter, has yet to play a down this season after breaking his foot during preseason practice in August.

    Marion returned to action vs. Boston College for the first time since the season opener and injured his ankle on his first play. Houston, who’s second on the team in rushing yards, has been limited to six games.

    News and notes

    WIth a short week to prepare for UMass, UConn changed up its routine, switching practices to late afternoon/early evening. “We wanted to make sure we maximized our preparation time, maximized the time our players have to rest and recover yet still get the work that we needed to get done on the field,” Mora said. … UMass is coming off a 23-13 loss to New Mexico State on Saturday. The Minutemen (1-7) have dropped seven straight. … Mora talked to his team about the issue of pre-snap penalties that hurt UConn against BC. “It’s controllable. It’s human error.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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