Crocker sees better days ahead for UConn football defense
UConn's leaky defense has recently taken almost as many hits from its critics as it has delivered to opponents.
The Huskies are deserving targets given their historically bad numbers, including locking up the NCAA record for most yards given up per game in a season. With one game to go, they've allowed 626.6 yards, easily surpassing the 2015 Kansas team's total of 560.83.
Heading into Saturday's season finale against American Athletic Conference foe Temple (7-4, 6-1) at 3:30 p.m. at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, UConn (1-10, 0-7) ranks last in the country in scoring defense at 49.8, nearing a modern record in that category set by Louisiana (50.3) in 1997.
Defensive coordinator Billy Crocker, a Waterford native, understands the criticism.
But he's not concerned about what people outside of the football program are saying. He continues to work hard on rebuilding a defense that he believes will earn attention for the right reasons down the road.
"I couldn't care less, to be honest with you," Crocker said about the criticism. "We know what's going on. We've been here every day and know what it's been from last spring until now. The people that need to know, know. That's what you've got to worry yourself about. We just continue to get these guys as good as we can and see if we can make some improvements (Saturday) and then get to spring practice and see what happens."
It will likely be another long game for the Huskies, who'll try to avoid finishing with fewer than two wins for the first time since 1977. They went 1-10 that year while playing in the Yankee Conference.
While the Huskies have dropped eight straight, the Owls are finishing strong, winning five of their last six. One of UConn's three wins last season came at Temple, a 28-24 decision.
Saturday will be another opportunity for the young defense to gain some valuable experience. Eight freshmen, including four starters, and three redshirt freshman are listed on the two-deep chart. The first team also includes two sophomores and three redshirt sophomores.
Overall, UConn has played 40 underclassmen this season, tying it for fifth most in the nation.
On top of that, some players have been asked to play different positions.
"The numbers are because of the situation that we're in, playing with all those young guys," coach Randy Edsall said. "I would guarantee you there's nobody in that country that has that many snaps by true freshmen on defense. Not even close.
"... I think the kids understand. We'll be realistic with them. They'll be better next year because they'll have a year under their belt. ... We did what we had to do to be the best that we can be this year and then moving forward to next year. If I did it another way, the numbers would have been worse."
The Huskies have paid the price. They've been regularly torched for big plays, struggled to get off the field on third down and missed tons of tackles. They've forced only 10 turnovers, the second fewest in the AAC.
The missed tackles are especially frustrating.
"It's the youth, the strength level and I think it's the confidence," Crocker said. "We try to preach to these guys all the time that you can't stop your feet when you go to tackle somebody. They're so scared to miss sometimes that they stop their feet, and they create more space in between them and the ball carrier. We're not going to win that matchup. We have to go eliminate the space and be aggressive."
Despite the rocky season, Crocker has witnessed improvements not seen on the game day scoreboard.
"You look at individuals and see how some of these guys have grown," Crocker said. "I think that's probably the biggest thing. We haven't certainly put together a whole game but there have been glimpses and bits and pieces, maybe a quarter here or a quarter there that you see there is something there."
The next recruiting class will be a vital one for Edsall and his staff. They're still in the early stages of a massive rebuilding job.
Every area still needs a talent and depth upgrade on defense, especially in the linebacker department.
"Secondary is going to be fine," Crocker said. "There's some young talent there. The young D line will get stronger, but we need linebackers who can make some plays for us."
First, UConn hopes to take some momentum into the offseason with a good performance on Saturday.
"We have one more chance to finish it on a good note," Crocker said. "A win would be awesome. Improvement, great."
In other news, New London's Brian Cespedes, a reserve redshirt junior offensive lineman, will be one of the Huskies honored during Senior Day festivities.