Crocker driven to improve UConn football defense

Storrs — Billy Crocker had a few unwelcome traveling companions on his drive home following difficult losses last season.

Self-doubt was a passenger.

Frustration rode shotgun.

Crocker, a Waterford native in his first season as UConn football's defensive coordinator in 2017, experienced a variety of emotions after watching opponents pile up points against the Huskies, who finished ranked near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference in nearly every defensive category.

He wondered what went wrong. He had built one of the nation's top FCS defenses in his previous job at Villanova.

"It was hard," Crocker said. "Mentally and physically, it was challenging for everybody. There were a lot of those sleepless nights. Driving home from some of the games, my wife would stay on the phone with me the whole ride home, just to make sure I made it home sometimes.

"It was tough. It was challenging. Certainly not something I've been through before, not used to that. We're used to a pretty good level of success. It was new but I think it will hopefully make us better moving forward."

With spring football practice set to begin on Monday, Crocker sounded energized and excited talking on Friday morning about what lies ahead.

Winter workouts went well for the entire team.

"So far, off-season has been great," Crocker said. "The team and the group is really starting to come together. A lot of guys are a little bit more comfortable with things. They've been working hard. We're excited to get on the field Monday and see what these guys have retained and then improve moving forward."

The Huskies will hold 15 practices before finishing with the annual spring football game on April 14 at Rentschler Field.

His main goal is for the defense to continue to get better in every phase.

High up on his list of necessary improvements: tackling.

Crocker called the Huskies a "pretty bad" tackling team last season.

"We missed probably close to 220-something tackles for almost 1,500 yards after contact," Crocker said. "That's going to be a huge emphasis this spring."

Spring will be an important evaluation period, too.

Coming off a 3-9 season, the Huskies have some major holes to fill, as they lost four of their top six tacklers. They were hardest hit on the defensive line.

Some help might come from a promising incoming recruiting class.

Crocker is encouraged by what he's seen so far out of his returning players who experienced some growing pains last fall learning a new 3-3-5 formation.

"Especially the younger guys, you start to see a lot of development there," Crocker said. "And even outside of that, I think it's the attitude. The commitment, I think, it's a 180 from what it was this time last year for us."

Crocker did take some positives out of last season despite his team allowing a program record for points in a season. The Huskies allowed just 22 points in a season-ending loss at Cincinnati, well below their season average of 37.9 points per game.

Also, numerous underclassmen saw extended playing time last season, gaining valuable experience.

"Gradually, things got a little bit better as we went at times," Crocker said. "The last game against Cincinnati we played probably one of our better ones. We got a lot of first-year players pretty good experience even though they may have not been in the right spots. We had to do what we had to do because of the holes that we had.

"We got a lot of young guys some pretty good experience. Moving forward, that will hopefully bode well for them."

Hopefully, for Crocker's sake, his car ride home from games next season will be more enjoyable. He could do without the extra passengers, too.

He never lost faith despite his defense's struggles.

"Never a doubt that I shouldn't be here or shouldn't have left (Villanova), or anything along those lines," Crocker said. "It's been great. I've learned a ton. It's benefited me. ... It was a huge learning experience for everyone involved."

g.keefe@theday.com

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