STORRS, Conn. — It’s the second day of fall camp at UConn, and the man who left an empire and moved to rural Connecticut this winter to take on the toughest task in college football is starting the morning walk-through by telling his players he’s made a mistake.
Lou Spanos traded his role as an analyst at Alabama in January to become the coordinator of a Huskies defense that spent the 2018 season building a case to be considered the worst defense in the history of college football. Spanos tells his linebackers now that he mixed up one of their responsibilities in the pass coverage he taught them the previous day and wants to make sure they know the confusion was his fault.
OK, so maybe not the mistake you were thinking. Spanos is thrilled to be leading the defensive restoration project in Storrs. To suggest otherwise or question his sanity for taking on what he deems a “great challenge” has been known to unleash the fiery passion that made him an attractive candidate for the job in the first place. He doesn’t take the questions personally, but he says he will get — no pun intended — defensive.
The 48-year-old disciple of Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau runs drills at the Burton Family Football Complex with all the enthusiasm one would expect from a coach brought on board to re-energize a young, struggling group. He checks all the boxes of your stereotypical defensive savior — the bark-scorched vocal chords, the palm-punishing clapping, the jaunty steps that seem to repel turf like magnets of matching polarity. Spanos ticks through all the buzzwords often spouted by men in his position. The UConn defense, he promises, will be “swarming, attacking, relentless,” all that good stuff.
Then, Spanos pauses practice as it’s winding toward a close so his team can take a moment to thank the staff members holding the water bottles. He is betting that the two words that will set him apart, and set UConn back on the right track, are accountability and appreciation.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he says. “I want to let everyone here know I appreciate what they do.”
Spanos’ first challenge was getting his new players to appreciate football again. He recalls sitting in a film session early this spring and cracking a joke. He laughed. The rest of the room remained silent. He says he had to remind them that it was OK to have a good time, which is understandable given what his players experienced on the field last fall.
The 2018 UConn defense surrendered more yards per game (617.4) and more points per game (50.4) than any team in FBS history. The Huskies were the only team in the past 15 years (as far back as ESPN’s Stats & Information database stretches) to allow touchdowns on more than half of their opponents’ possessions. If you eliminate drives that ended because time expired, opponents scored points nearly 70 percent of the time they touched the ball.
The struggle wasn’t totally unexpected. Head coach Randy Edsall has spent most of his career working to make overmatched teams better, but this has been his toughest rebuild yet. That includes a previous stint at UConn while the Huskies were transitioning from the FCS to the FBS level. He said when he returned to campus in 2017 that there was less talent on the roster than during his first stay.
Edsall decided to fill his defensive two-deep with freshmen and sophomores in hopes of getting them experience despite knowing that many of them weren’t physically ready to compete. He decided to run an offense that would struggle and sometimes put his young defense in tough spots — an effort to plan for long-term success rather than try to eke out short-term wins.
“This wasn’t going to be an overnight sensation, far from it,” he says. “I made those decisions to play all those young kids because No. 1: They were the best ones we had. But No.2: I didn’t want to go into this year having guys that had no experience. … I’m doing what I think is best, and that’s what I’m getting paid to do. Yeah, some people might not like it. Tough s—.”
Safety Tyler Coyle, the team’s leading tackler with 108 stops and one of the defense’s oldest starters as a redshirt sophomore last year, knew there would be growing pains. He didn’t expect things would get quite so painful. Coyle said the team seemed demoralized by late September after a 49-7 loss to Cincinnati — one of 10 games last season in which the Huskies allowed at least 49 points.
“That was a turning point. Everybody put their head down,” Coyle said. “We were down in the dumps.”
After finishing a 1-11 season, Edsall hired several new defensive assistants and a new strength coach. Spanos and Edsall shared the same playbook language and had similar schematic philosophies. Spanos evaluated the team’s film and spotted strengths to highlight. He was also — along with strength coach Matt King — a fresh jolt of energy and enthusiasm that would make it easier to hit reset and breed new confidence in a broken group.
Spanos says he was attracted to the job because it gave him more of a chance to have an impact on the guys he was coaching, both because he was moving from an analyst job to the coordinator job and because of the room for growth on UConn’s roster.
He said he learned to avoid negativity as much as possible during the 15 years he spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers and carried that into other jobs in the NFL and as the defensive coordinator at UCLA. That takes on more importance when dealing with a young group in need of a confidence boost.
“The first day I came here, they were all quiet and unsure,” Spanos said. “It was like I was the teacher on the first day of school and they were wondering what is this teacher like?”
He says he’s tried to build their trust by being consistent, by learning about their lives off the field and by cracking a joke every now and then. Coyle said optimism has seeped back into the locker room. Edsall sees a team that is bigger, stronger and has a better understanding of how to work. He noticed his players were talking more on the field during their first couple of days of practice this August. Spanos picked up on a change during his eight months with his new players.
“They’re laughing now,” Spanos says. “They’re enjoying being a part of the defense. They know it’s hard work, but they’re having fun.”
Laughing alone won’t keep the Huskies from being a laughingstock. An extra year of experience and time in a college weight room should help. So will the addition of graduate transfer D.J. Morgan (previously of Notre Dame) who is expected to provide help at linebacker. Unlike a year ago, Edsall and his staff have seen their players on the field and have an idea of their strengths and weaknesses. They’ve incorporated new approaches to making the most of what they’ve got.
First, though, Spanos is working on reshaping his team’s approach and attitude. By the time his new coach finished thanking the support staff on the second day of practice, Coyle said that message was starting to rub off.
“I came out yesterday and felt like, ‘Hey, I’m back to having fun with it,'” he said. “We’re ready to grind.”