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Since the mid-2000’s, the University of Connecticut has quietly fed the NFL with names that have gone on to play roles in the league. Names like defensive back Byron Jones, running back Donald Brown, tight end Ryan Griffin and defensive tackle Folorunso Futakasi have left their mark on their on the league as a role player if not more. Likewise, players like offensive tackle Matt Peart and defensive tackle Travis Jones stand ready when the opportunities come calling. Not bad for a former smaller division school who’s now an independent team.
With the team going into their second season under head coach Jim Mora Jr, the Huskies look to build off of last year’s 6-6 record (6-7 counting their bowl game appearance). After making a bowl game for the first since 2015, their returning starters look hungry and ready to do more.
But as you could probably tell from the opening paragraph, we’re looking more at the players and less at the team as a whole.
With players like linebackers Takkarist McKinley, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr and Myles Jack, as well as defensive tackle Kenny Clark all having played under Mora Jr. while at UCLA and having steady NFL careers, there’s a good chance the future could be bright for some UConn players. The only question is, which ones? Let’s take a look at five UConn players to watch for and who could make a mark in the NFL.
1. Durante Jones Jr., Safety
Durante Jones Jr.’s stats may not seem too impressive (98 total tackles, 2 passes defended, and an interception) but raw stats don’t always tell the full story. That comes from what his peers on and off the field have said about him.
“He’s a maniacal competitor. Maniacal competitor,” said Mora on Jones. “This stuff is so important to him. There’s not a guy that asks more questions than that guy right there. There’s not a guy that I’ve found that cares more about this team than that guy right there. I love coaching him. I’ve always loved safeties that are passionate like he is. That’s what you want on your team. That’s the kind of guy you want to build around.”
Jones has been praised for his ability to “hit like a runaway train” according to one local reporter. Others have spoken on his leadership on the defense. While the numbers are modest, these are traits that can make all the difference at the next level.
2. Jackson Mitchell, Linebacker
Last year, Jackson Mitchell was the Huskies leader in tackles, racking up 140 total (52 solo and 88 assisted). In addition he registered 4.5 sacks, three passes defended with an interception and forced two fumbles (even recovering five fumbles). He is a nightmare in the middle of the defense.
Early talk around college football is that Mitchell is on the Chuck Bednarik Award watch list, an award given to the best collegiate defensive player of the year. Past winners of the award include Charles Woodson, Julius Peppers, Patrick Peterson, Aaron Donald and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Most players that win this award have gone on to have some level of success in the NFL.
While linebacker doesn’t hold the same reverence that it did less than a decade ago, it still holds a position of importance on the defense. If Mitchell can put together another productive season, don’t be surprised to see his name called on draft night.
3. Christian Haynes, Guard
It’s not very often you see a UConn player on any kind of All-American list (only running backs Jordan Todman and Donald Brown has done so) . It’s also not very often you see someone like Christian Haynes at UConn. After being named to second All-American team at the end of last season, he was recently named a first-team preseason All-American.
According to Pro Football Focus, Haynes finished with a 91.0 pass-blocking grade and 84.6 run-blocking grade. He also led all guards in college football in big-time blocks with 16.
Byron Jones was UConn’s last first-round pick back in 2015. If Haynes can build off of last year’s success, that could all be reset.
4. Victor Rosa, Running Back
Victor Rosa is going into his sophomore year and yet he’s still making noise. While his 651 yards from scrimmage (636 rushing yards and 15 receiving yards) aren’t much, it’s his ability to return kicks that has raised some eyebrows.
As a freshman he averaged 18.9 yards per return. If he can develop on that, he may be able to carve out a nice career. Again he’s going into his sophomore season, so there’s time to develop and figure out his role. For now, he’s just a name to watch.
5. Eric Watts, Defensive End
No, not the former professional wrestler, though he hits like one. Eric Watts lead UConn in sacks last year with seven and was tied with Jackson Mitchell in forced fumbles with two. Add intelligence and a good motor and Watts could be someone to watch for in the future.
The main deterrent has been his weight and a question of quality play. Some are even saying that playing defensive end in a wide 9 package would be his best fit.
Still, another good year could do something for Watts’ stock. Defensive line will always be a need at the NFL level. If Watts can get eyes on him and build upon last year, don’t be surprised if he finds himself celebrating on day two or three of the draft.