The Connecticut secondary is a position the national experts expect the Huskies to take a hit at in 2009. Darius Butler, now a member of the New England Patriots and the former four year starter, has left the keys to junior Jasper Howard and senior captain Robert McClain, both talented and experienced corners.
McClain started his first game at Syracuse in 2008, a week after Butler suffered a knee injury in Connecticut's loss to West Virginia. 'Reggie' as McClain is commonly called by coaches and teammates, responded when he returned an interception 37 yards to paydirt.
He also led the way in the fourth quarter of UConn's most prolific win a year ago, a 40-16 dismantling of Big East Champion Cincinnati. His second interception of the day was returned 28 yards for a score that put the game out of reach.
"Our secondary is looking very strong this year," said McClain during the team's media day last week. "Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Dwayne Gratz and Gary Wilburn and even our incoming freshmen are out there contributing, actually making plays. I believe our secondary is just as strong as when Tyvon [Branch] and Darius Butler were here."
McClain said he learned a lot from Butler, both in talking with him and just observing the way he went about the game, week to week.
"Play at a fast level during the game. You can't go out and play slow. Just watching him [Butler], how he competed during practice. How he prepared for each game. How he studied each person, the QBs three-step, just watching how he prepared helped me prepare the way I should when it became time for me to start."
On the other side, Howard returns after getting a full-year of starting under his belt in 2008, when he led the team with four interceptions and finished 4th on the team with 60 tackles. Like Butler, Howard is an athletic specimen, something he put on display with a one handed interception at North Carolina.
Moving to the safety positions, Robert Vaughn remains the starting free safety, a spot he has held for the last two-and-a-half seasons. Now entering his senior year, the reigning Second Team All-Big East Selection is seen as a leader.
"Especially at that position, you like to have somebody that has experience," said Edsall about Vaughn at today's press conference. "He's a guy that's been tested and been through a whole lot and we're expecting him to make sure he's the glue back there in the secondary in terms of communication with everything and to make sure we don't have any of those big plays against us. He's had a lot of experience, a lot of playing time and he's got to make sure the communication back there is what it needs to be amongst the four guys."
Jerome Junior has emerged as the starting strong safety, replacing Dahna Deleston from a year ago.
"Jerome runs well, he's physical, he's athletic," Edsall said about the redshirt freshman. "To me, he's a guy that's going to get better and better the more he plays. Dahna was really good for us, but not as good playing some of the deep things, where as Jerome is exactly what you want in terms of strong safety. A guy that's big enough, strong enough, physical enough to get up and play the run, but then athletic enough, fast enough to do the things you want to do in the passing game. He's a guy that's got speed and also isn't afraid to hit you, a physical guy."
Edsall added a brief story about Junior that caught the coaches eye on the recruiting trail.
"The reason that we brought him here, he came up to our summer camp. And one of the things is, I just try to look for different things that separate people from other people and he took a bus from Baltimore, by himself, to come up to camp. And that tells you something about a young man in terms of whats important to him. And again its his work ethic, his character to do that and then when you saw him run and do all the different drills and then watch him play on film and see him play physically, those are really all the reasons why we liked him coming out of high school."
It will be interesting to see how the first-time starter reacts to the spotlight come Saturday in Athens, OH.