NCF Nation: Yawin Smallwood

We'll soon have the American Athletic Conference media days. Here's some info to get you started:

When: July 29-30

Where: Newport, R.I.

Big names in attendance: QB Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville; QB Garrett Gilbert, SMU; WR Brandon Coleman, Rutgers; LB Greg Blair, Cincinnati; LB Yawin Smallwood, UConn; S Hakeem Smith, Louisville; QB Gary Nova, Rutgers.

Five storylines/things to watch:

1. Name tags might be mandatory. The American will have 10 football-playing schools this season: UCF, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, Rutgers, SMU, USF and Temple. Louisville (leaving for the ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten), two of six holdovers from the former Big East, depart the league after the season. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa jump to the American from Conference USA in 2014.

2. Can Louisville win the league and crash the BCS championship game in its last season in the league? After going 11-2 and trouncing Florida 33-23 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl last season, the Cardinals bring back 14 starters, including a Heisman Trophy nominee in Bridgewater. Can anybody in the league challenge the Cardinals this season?

3. Is that really Tommy Tuberville coaching at Cincinnati? The former Auburn coach never seemed like a good fit at Texas Tech, where he went 20-17 in three seasons. Former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, now at Tennessee, guided the Bearcats to back-to-back 10-win seasons, so Tuberville inherits another pressure-packed situation.

4. Along with Tuberville, there will be two other new faces on the sideline: USF’s Willie Taggart (formerly of Western Kentucky), and Temple’s Matt Rhule (a former Owls assistant).

5. The American became a landing spot for plenty of high-profile transfers. Former Notre Dame defensive end Aaron Lynch is eligible after sitting out last season at USF, where he’ll be joined by former Penn State quarterback Steven Bench, who is eligible to play immediately. Former FSU linebacker Jeff Luc landed at Cincinnati, and Louisville added former Florida tight end Gerald Christian and receiver Robert Clark.

Q&A: UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni

March, 29, 2013
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Paul Pasqualoni is about halfway into his third spring with Connecticut. ESPN.com caught up with the head coach for a few minutes this week to check on the Huskies' progress as they look to build off consecutive 5-7 seasons.

I know you guys have been pleased with Chandler Whitmer's progress so far this spring. What specifically are you looking to see from him to take that next step moving forward?

Paul Pasqualoni: We're hopeful that, obviously, this is his second year here now and becoming more comfortable with the offense. He's done a good job in Year 1 of knowing what he had to do, what his assignments are. Hopefully Year 2 at the quarterback position he really starts to get familiar and comfortable with what everybody on the offense is doing so that when problems and issues come up on the field, he can get things corrected out there, almost like being a coach on the field in between series, being able to get over with the offensive line, backs, receivers and talk about what happened on the field during the last possession. I really think that when quarterbacks really get to be really comfortable in total schemes of what everybody's doing, that gives them the authority become like a coach on the field, because they know what everybody's doing and they know what happened and they know what's got to be done to get it corrected. So when you look at the great quarterbacks, if you ever on a Sunday watched a [Peyton] Manning or a Drew Brees or a [Matt] Schuab, those kind of guys, you'll notice that on the field they're really authoritative, they're directing people, in between series they're over there if there's an issue with their teammates, or they're talking to the coaches and discussing things that are happening on the field. These guys are great at that because they not only know their position but they know the entire offense and what everybody's doing. It gives them a license to be an authority on it. You're hoping in the development process that Chandler takes a step in that direction this spring.

[+] EnlargePaul Pasqualoni, Bill Belichick
AP Photo/Jessica HillPaul Pasqualoni, right, chats with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick during UConn's pro day.
How much will it help him having five starters back on the offensive line?

PP: It's going to help a great deal, especially in the context of what I'm talking about. They've been through it -- the communication process with the offensive linemen in the run game, in the pass game; obviously should be really more advanced the second year than it was the first, so that's a big part of it this year.

What do you expect transition-wise with a new coordinator [T.J. Weist] this spring? Do you expect to have the whole offense installed by the end of the spring or does that process take a bit longer?

PP: I expect it to go pretty smoothly. We're learning our offensive terminology and that type of stuff has not really changed, so there's going to be somewhat of a transition, but I hope it would be minimal and that we'd be moving along in that area.

Defensively you lose some pretty talented guys at linebacker. What are you looking for from that position this spring?

PP: We're looking, first of all, Yawin Smallwood's coming back, he's a pretty good anchor there in the middle of the defense. We're looking for Graham Stewart to see exactly what Graham can do this spring. Ryan Donohue I think is practicing really well right now in spring ball, and Marquise Vann has had a lot of reps out there -- as has Jefferson Ashiru, he's had a lot of reps out there. Brandon Steg is playing pretty good in coverage right now. We've got Omaine Stephens, who had a shoulder surgery done after the season, so he's a young guy who's got some talent there as well. So I think we've got some guys, some good players we've got to replace -- Sio [Moore], we've got to replace Jory [Johnson] and various players, but I think if we can stay healthy and they can keep making progress, I think we've got the potential to be good at the linebacker position.

Defensive lineman Andreas Knappe is a guy with an interesting background, having started playing football later in life than most. What have you made of his progress so far, and what do you expect from him this fall?

PP: He's taken big steps, but the nice thing about Andreas is he finds a way each day to get things corrected, to improve and get better on a daily basis. What I really like about Andreas is his focus, his concentration -- his attention to what he's doing is there every single day. He's a very steady, consistent-effort player, which is a really good sign. And the fact that he is getting better every day is terrific. So we're going to see just how far he can come this spring and how far he can come in the summer and preseason, and then see where he's going to be able to help us defensively and see exactly what he can get done for us next year.

ESPN.com All-Big East team

December, 10, 2012
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The time has finally come to announce our picks for the ESPN.com All-Big East team.

You will see that only a few selections differ from the coaches'; they made their first- and second-team selections last week. Among the notable differences: I have Cincinnati running back George Winn on the first team ahead of Pitt running back Ray Graham. I thought Graham was great this year in his return from a torn ACL. But I thought Winn was better and more consistent. He also had more total yards rushing (1,204 to 1,042 for Graham), a higher rushing average (5.3 ypc to 4.7 ypc) and more 100-yard games.

I also have Pitt receiver Devin Street on the first team over DeVante Parker from Louisville. Parker had some flashy catches this year, but Street was way more productive and consistent. I actually went back and forth between Street and teammate Mike Shanahan for first-team honors. Both are worthy.

Defensively, I only have three linebackers on my team (no ties allowed!) so Sio Moore of UConn gets bumped. Moore had a heck of a year, no question, and linebacker was perhaps the strongest position in the league across every team. But I thought Yawin Smallwood, Greg Blair and Khaseem Greene were better. I also have Calvin Pryor at safety over Duron Harmon.

Here is the team in its entirety:

OFFENSE

QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

RB: Montel Harris, Temple

RB: George Winn, Cincinnati

WR: Alec Lemon, Syracuse

WR: Devin Street, Pitt

TE: Travis Kelce, Cincinnati

OT: Eric Lefeld, Cincinnati

OT: Justin Pugh, Syracuse

C: Mario Benavides, Louisville

OG: Austen Bujnoch, Cincinnati

OG: Antwan Lowery, Rutgers

K: Brandon McManus, Temple

RS: Matt Brown, Temple

DEFENSE

DE: Trevardo Williams, UConn

DE: Dan Giordano, Cincinnati

DT: Scott Vallone, Rutgers

DT: Aaron Donald, Pitt

LB: Greg Blair, Cincinnati

LB: Yawin Smallwood, UConn

LB: Khaseem Greene, Rutgers

CB: Adrian Bushell, Louisville

CB: Logan Ryan, Rutgers

S: Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse

S: Calvin Pryor, Louisville

P: Brandon McManus, Temple

Big East mailblog

October, 19, 2012
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Another week, another mailbag. Yippee!

Let's start with some of your BCS questions. Go!

Michael Resendez in Louisville writes: Two scenarios: If Louisville can go unbeaten through the rest of the season, where do you see them playing. If they lose to Rutgers, where then?

Andrea Adelson: At this point, I do not think an unbeaten Big East team can make it into the BCS national championship game. I just want to put that out there before I answer your question. If Louisville goes undefeated, I see the Orange Bowl as the likeliest destination. If they lose to Rutgers and do not finish as the Big East BCS rep, then the most likely spot would be the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla. But there are plenty of other games to be playing, including Cincinnati. Louisville cannot overlook its biggest rival!

Adam J in Silver Spring, Md., writes: Andrea, I have a slightly different BCS question. If any of the three Big East teams goes undefeated, what are the chances they get asked to a BCS game that is not the Orange Bowl? Would a 12-0 Rutgers team that won in Arkansas get asked to the Sugar or Fiesta Bowls, or are they going to get bypassed in favor of everyone else?

Adelson: The Big East champion will get into a BCS bowl no matter what. It remains to be seen which game will select the Big East champion. As you guys know, the Big East does not have a tie-in to one specific game. The Big East is an "at-large" selection. Once those guaranteed tie-ins are filled in for the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC, the selection order for this year is as follows: Fiesta, Sugar, Orange.

Cameron in New York City writes: Hey Andrea, Great job so far. The continuing of an undefeated season for Cincinnati, Rutgers, and Louisville is key for the success of the Big East, but for multiple teams to finish undefeated is impossible. Which scenario do you think benefits the Big East more: All three teams trading losses in a circle and all finishing very close to each other in the BCS standings making it a tough choice for who to go to the Orange Bowl or one team finishing the season undefeated coming out as a clear winner of the conference and finishing with a pretty high BCS ranking?

Adelson: Definitely one undefeated team and two others with double digit wins. It is very rare for any team to run the table, so for anyone in the Big East to be able to do so would speak volumes about that program and I think also give major props to the league itself.

Wallace on The Island writes: Just watched your video on the Bearcats' slow starts, do you believe they are playing down to their opponent when they start off sluggish or is this something much bigger? They didn't seem to start off slow against Pitt but that was week 1. I'd like to hear your take on the reason behind their slow starts?

Adelson: I think there are a few factors. 1. I do believe it is the level of competition. It is much easier to get geared up for a nationally televised midweek game against a Big East opponent than Fordham. Miami (Ohio) has played Cincinnati tough the last two years so I was not as surprised about that. I was more surprised the trend continued last week. 2. Cincinnati has a lot of young players on its team, so coach Butch Jones has to keep impressing on them you cannot just roll your helmets out and win. There is a lot of hard work and preparation that goes into beating a team, and maybe he has not gotten as much of that yet because he is not dealing with the same senior-laden bunch he had last season.

John in Cape Coral, Fla., writes: Andrea, you note in your midseason report that USF is last in the Big East in rushing defense. What isn't included is the fact that USF held Rutgers close to their average (147 in the game, 137.5 average) and that was on 42 carries with one carry going 41 yards (I feel like that run and the one in the Temple game were given up to allow for USF to get the ball back due to the fact that in both cases they had just turned the ball over and were given the option to either let them score or run out the clock). Along with this they held the sixth-ranked Nevada rushing offense, 15th-ranked Florida State rushing offense, and 38th ranked Ball State rushing offense to under their season average. The only game that was really bad was the Temple game (long run at the end of the game padded the stats in that one as well). Has anyone in the Big East faced rushing offenses like USF? I really feel like the third and long D is the real problem.

Adelson: John, I see your points, and it is worth taking into account the type of opponent USF has played. But UConn and Syracuse held Rutgers to well below its average. It is still worth pointing out that USF is giving up 3.9 yards per carry, which is second-worst in the Big East and a league-high 12 rushing touchdowns. Jawan Jamison, by the way, had his season high 151 yards rushing against the Bulls. Playing Nevada does not help the overall stat sheet, but when can you recall the defense making critical stops on rushing downs that helped swing momentum?

Scott Arnold in Pompton Plains, N.J., writes: Andrea, You've got to reconsider your Big East defensive star of the year selection at the season's halfway point. Khaseem Greene single-handedly beat Syracuse last weekend and he is on every major "watch" list for defensive players. The Rutgers linebacker is putting together a monster season, and is quickly becoming a top draft prospect. C'mon Andrea, show us New Jersey Rutgers fans some love! Greene is Ray Lewis in a Scarlet Knight uniform! Vote Khaseem!

Adelson: There is no doubt Greene is a terrific player. But I think a lot of people have Greene at the top of their mind because of his performance against Syracuse. Yawin Smallwood had a near identical game against Maryland a few weeks ago, a game UConn probably does not win if Smallwood fails to come up big. He also has been honored as Big East Defensive Player of the week twice, and has more tackles for loss. None of this takes away how impressed I am with Greene. But I think folks should recognize Smallwood has been just as terrific in the first half of the year.

2012 Big East midseason report

October, 15, 2012
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If commissioner Mike Aresco had asked Hollywood writers to come up with a screenplay for the perfect Big East season, they may have been hard-pressed to dream up what has unfolded at the midway point of 2012.

Three Big East teams are undefeated and ranked -- No. 15 Rutgers, No. 16 Louisville and No. 21 Cincinnati -- making this league one of the best success stories of the college football season. Just look at the numbers:

  • The Big East has more undefeated teams than the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.
  • The Big East has more ranked teams than the ACC and Big Ten.
  • The Big East has gone 4-3 against the ACC in head-to-head matchups, and has moved ahead of its rival league in the ESPN Stats & Information conference power rankings.

To put a cherry on top of the terrific start: All three teams are remaining league members, giving the Big East an early opportunity to flip the script and get the nation talking about who it has in place as opposed to who has departed. While it is true that their strength of schedule is not the best, and none of the three teams has played to its full capabilities just yet, having three undefeated teams at the midway point is better than anybody predicted before the season started.

The Big East has been desperate for an upper echelon to form, the way it has in virtually every other "big-time conference." Seeing that unfold this year has to be particularly gratifying. But at the same time, expectations have been ratcheted up and the standard is now higher. We will see if Rutgers, Louisville and Cincinnati can avoid the upsets that usually dog this league and remain at the top of the Big East in the second half.

[+] EnlargeTeddy Bridgewater
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesTeddy Bridgewater has orchestrated an undefeated start for his Louisville team -- with a No. 16 ranking midway through the season.
Offensive MVP: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville. Right now, this is a two-man race between Bridgewater and Rutgers running back Jawan Jamison, who has been outstanding in his own way. But Bridgewater gets the edge in this one because in the end, I think he is more important to his team's success. Bridgewater has been terrific this year, throwing for 1,438 yards, 9 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, while completing 71.8 percent of his passes. He has two 300-yard passing games this season and has been a true leader for his team. Jamison has five 100-yard rushing games and has been incredibly consistent for the Scarlet Knights. He deserves mention as well.

Defensive MVP: Yawin Smallwood, UConn. This one also is a two-man race between Smallwood and Rutgers linebacker Khaseem Greene. (Fellow blogger Matt Fortuna gives the nod to Greene.) I am giving the edge to Smallwood because I think he has been just a tad better than Greene so far this season. He leads the league with 75 total tackles, and 11 tackles for loss -- including four sacks. I believe he plays on a better linebacking unit, so it speaks volumes that he has still been able to emerge as its best player. Greene had an unbelievable last game against Syracuse and definitely will be in contention as the year goes on. He has forced more turnovers and has more hurries as well.

Biggest surprise: Temple. The Owls were universally dismissed before the season began, and losing to Maryland and Penn State did not help matters at all -- especially because both of those games seemed so winnable. But Temple refocused during its bye week leading into Big East play and coach Steve Addazio went the unconventional route -- scrimmaging his starters during the week off. Addazio says that helped prepare his players for the rigors of conference play and what do you know, Temple is 2-0 in the Big East for the first time in school history. All of a sudden, bowl eligibility is a real possibility for a team that just rejoined the league.

Biggest disappointment: USF. The Bulls were picked No. 2 in the Big East preseason poll, but they have failed to turn around much from a 5-7 showing a year ago. USF now sits 2-4, and 0-2 in Big East play, and questions surround the future of coach Skip Holtz. USF has now lost 10 of its past 11 Big East games, and Holtz is 4-12 overall in Big East play. As I have said on the blog before, it is unacceptable for a program that thinks of itself among the prominent teams in the Big East to lose to Ball State and Temple.

Best game: Cincinnati 27, Virginia Tech 24. This was one of the best wins for the Big East during nonconference play, and it went down to the wire. There is no question one of the highlights of the college football season was seeing Damon Julian streeeetch out and make the game-winning 39-yard touchdown reception with 13 seconds to play. That play capped a seesaw fourth quarter that saw the lead change four times.

Best coach: Kyle Flood, Rutgers. If I had to give a midseason coach of the year award out, it would go to Flood -- the only first-time head coach who is undefeated right now. There were many skeptics unsure about whether Flood would be able to keep a solid returning team playing at the same high level it did a year ago. Those skeptics look foolish right about now. The offense may not be thrilling, but the defense has been pretty stellar. Flood is smart enough not to mess with a good thing.

Big East: Looking back and forward

October, 1, 2012
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Now that we have closed the book on September, let's take a look back at three of the best moments and three of the worst moments in the Big East.

Best

1. Three undefeated teams. Heading into the season, I thought Louisville had a good chance at being undefeated through the month of September. Rutgers and Cincinnati? Not so much. But here we are on Oct. 1, and all three teams are proving there is some darn good football being played in the Big East. Rutgers is 4-0 for the first time since 2006; Louisville is 5-0 for the first time since 2006; and Cincinnati has won a league-high six straight games. The Big East needs these three teams to keep going strong.

2. Best game. USF had a thrilling win over Nevada, and Rutgers had an important victory at Arkansas. But I think Cincinnati's 27-24 win over Virginia Tech was the best win for the Big East in the month of September. Arkansas is now 1-4; Virginia Tech was ranked No. 25 in the coaches' poll headed into that game, and most recently beat the Bearcats 20-7 in the 2009 Orange Bowl. Plus, the victory allowed the Big East to move to 4-3 against ACC teams, a huge stat for those keeping score at home.

3. Best players. Offensive MVP for September goes to Rutgers running back Jawan Jamison, who leads the Big East in rushing with 491 yards. Defensive MVP for September goes to UConn linebacker Yawin Smallwood, who leads the league with 53 tackles and 10 tackles for loss, and ranks second with four sacks.

Worst

1. Week 4. This was the worst week for the Big East by far, as UConn and USF both lost to MAC teams, Temple lost to Penn State, and Syracuse couldn't do much against Minnesota. USF had won 44 straight games against teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences heading into its game against Ball State, but its last minute rally fell short. When you are in a conference like the Big East, you have to win games against non-AQ competition.

2. Worst loss. Pitt's 31-17 loss to Youngstown State in the opener sent alarm bells ringing. Pitt lost to an FCS program for the first time in school history and broke the Big East's 57-game winning streak over FCS teams. Pitt followed that with a loss to Cincinnati before rebounding to win two straight.

3. Worst start(s). Syracuse is 1-3 and has now dropped eight of its past nine games. Coach Doug Marrone has taken responsibility for the tough start and is making no excuses despite the schedule his team has played thus far; Syracuse's four opponents have a combined 14-2 record. USF is right up there, as well, and stands 2-3 after losing three straight games.

Top storylines in October

1. All eyes on Oct. 26. Cincinnati and Louisville have the best rivalry remaining in the Big East, and this year's version should be a dandy. Cincinnati has a great shot at being 6-0 heading into this game. To get to 7-0, Louisville has to get past Pitt and USF. It won't be easy, but it can be done.

2. Can Rutgers move to 8-0? Rutgers has a tendency to lose games it absolutely should not lose. October sets up very nicely for the Scarlet Knights, with games against UConn, Syracuse, Temple and Kent State. Only Temple is on the road, and that is a quick one-hour ride down the Jersey Turnpike. Rutgers cannot afford to drop any of these games.

3. Louisville has a tough month. The Cardinals have only three games in October, but all three are going to be major tests. After a bye this week, they play at Pitt. The Cards have lost four straight to the Panthers. USF is next, and the Bulls are not going down without a fight. Then they close out October with the Bearcats, as mentioned above. Cincinnati has won four straight in the series. The last time Louisville beat all three of these teams in the same season was 2006.

Big East helmet stickers: Week 5

September, 30, 2012
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Time to hand out some helmet stickers from Week 5 in the Big East:

Munchie Legaux, QB, Cincinnati: The Bearcats quarterback had his coming-out party, throwing for 376 yards and three touchdowns in Saturday's 27-24 victory over Virginia Tech. One game after turning it over four times against FCS opponent Delaware State, Legaux was picked off only once. He completed 3 of 7 passes for 68 yards and rushed for 17 more on Cincinnati's final drive, connecting with Damon Julian for a 39-yard touchdown with 13 seconds left to win the game.

Jory Johnson/Yawin Smallwood, UConn: The linebacking duo combined for 25 tackles in the Huskies' 24-17 win over Buffalo, including 2.5 for loss. None were bigger than Smallwood's on the Bulls' final play of the game, as he stuffed quarterback Alex Zordich 2 yards short of the first-down marker to ice the victory.

Senorise Perry, RB, Louisville: Perry rushed 22 times for 119 yards, carrying the Cardinals during an ugly night on an ugly field. His 14-yard score with less than six minutes remaining gave Louisville the winning 21-17 margin; he ran for a score in the second quarter as well.

UConn survives scare from Buffalo

September, 29, 2012
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The final margin isn't what anyone in Connecticut would have hoped for, but the Huskies managed to hold off Buffalo in their final nonconference test, 24-17.

UConn's offense got into the kind of rhythm early that it needed to before entering Big East play, as Chandler Whitmer completed 15 of 22 passes for 227 yards and a touchdown. Lyle McCombs rushed for 97 yards and a score, and Martin Hyppolite added 60 yards on six carries, including a 50-yard scoring run early in the second quarter for a 17-7 lead.

The Huskies had a 24-7 lead late in the third quarter, but their offense stalled down the stretch, netting just 27 total yards in the fourth quarter as the Bulls mounted a comeback. Alex Zordich hooked up with Alex Neutz, who then tossed the ball back to Brandon Murie for a 50-yard hook-and-ladder score in the third. The Bulls added a field goal late and got the ball for one last drive before Yawin Smallwood stuffed Zordich on fourth-and-4 from the Buffalo 39 to ice the game.

The hook-and-ladder was one of several wrinkles Buffalo tossed in throughout the afternoon, including a recovered onside kick following its first touchdown. But the Bulls' offense couldn't do much until the fourth quarter. They went for another onside kick following a late field goal and, despite not recovering, forced a three-and-out to get one last shot.

UConn's offense struggled late, and it failed to take advantage of generous field position down the stretch. But it took control early and did not turn the ball over, small steps for a maligned unit that still has plenty of work to do when conference play begins next week at Rutgers.
Yawin Smallwood has inserted himself into early talk for Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors thanks to his impressive start to the season.

Smallwood leads the league in tackles (35) and is second in sacks (four). He also leads the league and is tied for the national lead in tackles for loss (nine) -- numbers made more impressive when you consider he has only played middle linebacker for a little over a year, moving from his more natural outside linebacker spot to fill a gaping hole.

Coach Paul Pasqualoni put it bluntly earlier this week when asked why he made that decision. At the time, the Huskies had nobody who had ever played middle linebacker on their roster. After Pasqualoni and his assistants evaluated the linebackers they did have, they recognized Smallwood's measurables and raw talent and figured why not.

[+] EnlargeYawin Smallwood
Michael Ivins/US PresswireYawin Smallwood has blossomed in the middle of UConn's linebacking corps, leading the Big East in tackles.
"It was almost like well, 'This is our best guess, let’s put this guy in there and see how he does,'" Pasqualoni said.

Smallwood's initial reaction?

"At first, I was iffy," Smallwood said this week in a phone interview. "I'd never played (middle) linebacker, but I went in with an open mindset. If the coaches wanted me to be there, they must have something good in store for me."

Smallwood ended up starting all 12 games last season as a redshirt freshman and finished second on the team with 94 tackles. Headed into this season, the Huskies returned their entire starting linebacker group, which has been a big reason why this defense leads the Big East.

Another has been the play of Smallwood, who has earned Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors twice in three weeks. He was recognized by more than the Big East for his performance against Maryland a week ago, when he had a game-high 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Smallwood also was named the Football Writers Association of America/Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week, the Chuck Bednarik Defensive Player of the Week and the ECAC Defensive Player of the Week. He also will be added to the Nagurski watch list.

Smallwood has 14 tackles in two different games this year to stand as his career high.

"I played linebacker, I coached linebackers all my life," Pasqualoni said. "I’ve always felt it’s not a very easy place to play, you have to have vision, natural athleticism, be instinctive. ... I think (Yawin) does have good vision, he’s becoming more instinctive in each game."

Smallwood said starting last season had a huge impact on the way he has played so far this year. He admitted to being much more nervous before games last year, but now those nerves are gone.

“My confidence has gone up,” he said. “I’m more focused. I know what I have to do, I know the schemes. I feel like I’m playing a lot faster with better instincts and I feel like my defensive line is giving tremendous effort, giving me an opportunity to make plays."

What is the biggest difference playing in the middle?

"There are a lot more bodies a lot in the middle, a lot more guys are trying to get their hands on you," Smallwood said. "You have to be able to move around with a lot more 300-pound guys trying to push you out of the way."

To that end, Smallwood has worked on increasing his upper body strength. He added about eight pounds in the offseason, and said he feels much stronger this season than last.

As for the way he has played so far, Smallwood says, "I’ve been putting up a lot of good numbers, but I feel I have to keep on doing what I’ve been doing or it means nothing."

I then asked about his potential, considering he has only been playing middle linebacker for 15 games.

"I feel like the sky’s the limit," he said. "All I have to do is keep working the way I’ve been working so far, and keep preparing myself the way I’ve been preparing myself."

What we learned in the Big East: Week 3

September, 16, 2012
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So what did we learn in the Big East in Week 3?

1. The Big East was pretty perfect. No, the Big East was not picture-perfect, but it went undefeated on Saturday and, well, that was better than what happened the first two weeks of the season. The Big East went 5-0 in its nonconference games -- including 3-0 against its archrival ACC. After going 0-2 last week against the ACC, the Big East needed a better performance this week. You figured UConn and Louisville had the best shot. But Pitt? Wow. The Panthers have been derided during their 0-2 start, with neither the Big East nor the ACC wanting custody. Well, I think after its big win over Virginia Tech, the Big East is happy to have it for the next few weeks.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri enjoyed good protection from his offensive line in a 35-17 victory over Virginia Tech.
2. Speaking of Pitt -- Don't count out the Panthers. You know what we learned about this team? It has heart and determination and simply refused to be defined by its first two games of the year. Does this mean Pitt is going to have a good season? I think it is too early to make those sorts of projections. But perhaps Pitt is clearly not as bad as we thought. While the Panthers do have Virginia Tech's number -- each of Pitt’s five wins over Virginia Tech have come against nationally ranked Hokies teams -- there were exactly zero people outside of Pittsburgh who thought they would win. I was most impressed by two things: Tino Sunseri and the offensive line. The two played nearly flawlessly. The line protected Sunseri and allowed just one sack, in probably its best performance since 2010. Not once last year did Pitt give up fewer than two in a game. Ray Graham and Rushel Shell also teamed up to dominate on the ground, and Sunseri showed guts and smarts. This is truly a win to build on; now we'll see what the Panthers do with it.

3. Louisville needs to close 'em out. I admit that after Louisville took a 36-7 lead on North Carolina at halftime, I started talking about whether the Cardinals have what it takes to run the table this season. Then the Cardinals nearly imploded and had to hold on in a way closer than it should have been in a 39-34 victory. That second half was a reminder that Louisville is still a young team with only a handful of seniors, and mostly underclassmen leading the way. "That is what happens in the game of college football when you get a big lead," coach Charlie Strong said. "We are not a mature enough team to go out and play well, and I told them at halftime that if we are a mature football team, we would not lose our focus. We will go out and finish this game. It is so hard when you have a big lead and have a young football team the way we do and just did not go out there and finish the game.”

4. Jawan Jamison is one of the best running backs in the Big East. Rutgers already has the best defense in the league, as proven in its 23-13 win over USF on Thursday night. But the Scarlet Knights now appear to have one of the best rushers in the league in Jamison, who had 151 yards rushing and a school-record 41 carries. Jamison came on strong at the end of last season and has carried that over to 2012, where he has clearly separated himself from Savon Huggins (who sat out against USF with an injury). Jamison has 373 yards this season and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry. If he keeps that up, bank on Rutgers trying to ground-and-pound its way to a Big East title.

5. Yawin Smallwood should start his defensive player of the year campaign. I have been thoroughly impressed with the way UConn linebacker Yawin Smallwood has played to start the season. He had his best game yet in a win over Maryland, with 14 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble on quarterback Perry Hills. Smallwood made some major strides in his first year as a starter last year, finishing No. 6 in the league in tackles. But this season he appears to be a much more complete player and is always around the football. At least it seems that way. By the way, he is only a sophomore.

Big East helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 16, 2012
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Time to give out a few helmet stickers for a job well done.

Jawan Jamison, RB, Rutgers. Jamison set a school record with 41 rushing attempts in a 23-13 victory over USF on Thursday night, breaking the previous record of 40 carries, set by J.J. Jennings in 1972 against Colgate. Jamison finished with 151 yards, for his third consecutive 100-yard game of the season and his fourth straight dating back to last season. He is the first Rutgers running back since Ray Rice to record four straight 100-yard games. Included in all those yards was a 41-yard touchdown run -- featuring one of the niftiest spin moves you will see -- with 54 seconds left to seal the win.

Tino Sunseri, QB, Pitt. You know what? Sunseri played perhaps one of the best games of his career, so I am giving out two Pitt helmet stickers. There is no player in the Big East -- not even USF quarterback B.J. Daniels -- who has taken as much heat as Sunseri in his three years as a starter. But he delivered in a big way in the 35-17 upset of No. 13 Virginia Tech, throwing beautiful touch passes and a few deep balls and returning to the game late on a bad ankle to close out the win. Sunseri finished 19-of-28 for 283 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.

Rushel Shell, RB, Pitt. Shell ran with power and determination in the victory. He finished with 157 yards, becoming the first Pitt true freshman to rush for 100 yards in a game since Dion Lewis had 159 against North Carolina in the 2009 Meineke Car Care Bowl. Lewis had 10 100-yard games as a true freshman in 2009.

Yawin Smallwood, LB, UConn. Smallwood has been on a tear to start the season. In a 24-21 win over Maryland on Saturday, Smallwood had a team-high 14 tackles, including four for loss, three sacks and a forced fumble. That fumble came following a sack of quarterback Perry Hills. On the season, Smallwood has 35 total tackles, including nine for loss. Teammate Sio Moore was just as active with seven tackles, three sacks and two pass breakups.

UConn holds on to beat Maryland

September, 15, 2012
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A defensive struggle through the first three quarters turned into a down-to-the wire finish between UConn and Maryland in the "Edsall Bowl" on Saturday afternoon.

In the end, the Huskies defense proved to be too much for the young Maryland offense, and they held on to beat former coach Randy Edsall 24-21 in College Park. UConn linebackers Sio Moore and Yawin Smallwood wreaked havoc all day long, but Maryland quarterback Perry Hills made some big fourth-quarter plays to help give his team a shot at the win.

After getting the ball back with 3:29 left, Hills made a few nice passes, including a third-down conversion to Stefon Diggs to keep the drive alive. But a third-and-13 at the UConn 35 resulted in a loss of 4 yards, and then Hills threw incomplete in the end zone to end the game.

Hills continued to mature, but he also had his share of mistakes. Maryland had two turnovers -- all to Hills (one interception, one fumble). He finished 10-of -24 for 109 yards, after going 2-of-11 for 24 yards in the first half. What really kept Maryland in the game were some big plays from Diggs, who had 223 all-purpose yards as a receiver, kickoff returner and punt returner. His 29-yard touchdown catch was pretty terrific, considering it was tipped by a teammate and into his hands.

For the third straight game, the UConn offense was completely ineffective. The Huskies got a huge lift from their special teams, as Nick Williams returned a punt 58 yards to start the scoring. But it almost seemed as if the Huskies had no confidence in Chandler Whitmer or their pass game. Whitmer went 10-of-16 with no touchdowns and no interceptions. With a chance to ice the game late, he threw a terrible pass incomplete that gave the Terps their final shot at the win.

UConn finished with 223 total yards -- and won. It can thank its defense. Despite some ragged play in the fourth quarter, that unit stepped up when it needed to, and came up with the big plays on the final Maryland drive.

UConn defense starts strong

September, 5, 2012
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Only one game has been played, and it was against a program that is in its infancy on the FBS level.

But there were some excellent signs from the UConn defense last week.

[+] EnlargeYawin Smallwood
Michael Ivins/US PresswireHuskies linebacker Yawin Smallwood earned Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors after his big game against Massachusetts.
The linebacker group played very well, confirming what many thought would be the case with three returning starters. Yawin Smallwood was honored as Big East Defensive Player of the Week after he recorded seven tackles -- including a sack and 3.5 for loss.

The defensive line dominated up front, and the secondary looked vastly improved. And UConn was one of five schools in the entire country to post a shutout. Not only that, the Huskies are currently ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense, having given up only 59 yards.

Yes, it is early, but it's still something for the Huskies to be proud of because clearly they have made significant strides.

"We’re a little more experienced," coach Paul Pasqualoni said earlier this week. "At the safety position, we played two freshmen as the year went on [last season] and we didn’t have any experience at the linebacker position. So overall, we have more returning players. We’ve been in the system a full year, they know the system better and they know each other better. That to me is the biggest difference."

Now having said all that, we should know a lot more about this group after a big test this weekend against NC State, which features 3,000-yard passer Mike Glennon.

While Glennon did not get off to the best start last week -- throwing four interceptions in a loss to Tennessee -- the Wolfpack do have a veteran offensive line with four starters returning and depth at running back. Plus, UConn is going to be without tackle Shamar Stephen and top reserve end Teddy Jennings, both out with injuries.

"Losing Teddy is a big deal," Pasqualoni said. "That’s a huge loss for us. Somebody else is going to have to step it up. Tim Willman will come in; he needs to step it up. Elijah Norris played a little bit; he’s going to have to step it up. I thought Ryan Wirth played a solid game for us. I think the younger guys in there, Angelo Pruitt and Julian Campenni, they’ve got technique to improve on. They gave effort in there and at times they looked OK. They’ve got to step it up as well this week."

That may very well be the key to UConn posting another impressive defensive performance.

Big East position rankings: LB

February, 22, 2012
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We continue with our final 2011 position rankings by moving to linebacker. There were plenty of exemplary individual performances in this group, as six teams were represented on the Big East first and second teams. But this evaluation is of the unit as a whole, so I am factoring in the performance of every starter, along with depth and stats.

[+] EnlargeKhaseem Greene
Rich Kane/Icon SMIKhaseem Greene's position switch went better than anyone could have expected, as he ended up leading the conference in tackles.
1. Rutgers. Khaseem Greene's move to linebacker was the smartest position change of the year, pushing the Scarlet Knights into the top spot in this category. Greene led the league with 140 tackles en route to Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors. He was essentially all over the field. Greene and Steve Beauharnais were the only linebacker tandem to finish in the top 10 in the Big East in tackles for loss. Add in the much-improved Jamal Merrell and it's easy to see why this group is No. 1. Preseason ranking: No. 4.

2. Cincinnati. J.K. Schaffer had yet another outstanding season for the Bearcats, racking up 100 tackles once again. But quietly, Maalik Bomar put together a nice year as well, and that helped make up for some serious question marks that surrounded this unit going into the season. True freshmen Dwight Jackson and Nick Temple made contributions, but on the whole it was the Schaffer show again and that was enough to boost this group. Preseason ranking: 8.

3. Louisville. Dexter Heyman and Preston Brown had career seasons for the Cardinals, elevating the position and helping Louisville post another outstanding season on defense. Heyman and Brown finished in the top 15 in the Big East in tackles, and Heyman ranked fourth in the league with 16 tackles for loss. His play earned him second-team honors, and he leaves a big hole to fill for 2012. Preseason ranking: 3.

4. UConn. The Huskies were one of two teams without a linebacker on the Big East first or second team. But I thought this position group was vastly underrated for most of the year. Sio Moore came up with some big plays, and Yawin Smallwood and Jory Johnson developed nicely throughout the season. To illustrate how active Moore was, he was the top linebacker in tackles for loss with 16. This unit should be even better in 2012. Preseason ranking: 2.

5. USF. The Bulls were the other team without a linebacker named to the Big East first or second team but that shouldn't diminish the season DeDe Lattimore had. He had seven sacks, 13 tackles for loss and led the team in tackles. In fact, all three linebackers led the team, in Mike Lanaris and Sam Barrington. But the group as a whole underachieved, as the Bulls struggled to get teams off the field and were often times out of position to make a play. Preseason ranking: 1.

6. West Virginia. Middle linebacker Najee Goode had a terrific season, earning first team Big East honors. But beyond him, there were few significant contributions. Injuries hurt and so did inexperience. Plus, the expected emergence of junior college transfer Josh Francis never materialized. Between Jared Barber, Jewone Snow and Doug Rigg, there was not much doing in this group. Preseason ranking: 5.

7. Pitt. The problem in evaluating Pitt is this -- Brandon Lindsey played both end and linebacker in the hybrid Panther role. Does he get evaluated with the line group or the linebacker group? He started eight games on the line, so I gave more weight to his contributions at end. However, I did take him into account for this unit, though it was not enough to life this group up much as a whole. Max Gruder was solid, but otherwise this was a lackluster bunch. Todd Thomas showed some spark but injuries slowed him down. Between Shane Gordon, Greg Williams and Tristan Roberts, there were problems all year. Preseason ranking: 6.

8. Syracuse. It was a struggle for the Orange on defense this season, and linebacker was no exception. Marquis Spruill had to make the transition to middle linebacker and struggled at times. Dyshawn Davis showed glimpses as a true freshman. Dan Vaughan actually was the leading linebacker in tackles. You generally want your linebackers to lead the team in that category, and that was not the case this season. But there is talent here. Another year of development for Spruill and Davis could yield big things in 2012. Preseason ranking: 7.

Big East all-freshman team

December, 16, 2011
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Earlier this week, I listed a few of my top freshmen in the Big East. Now I present my Big East All-Freshman team. True freshmen and redshirt freshmen are included. Some positions were much easier to fill than others. Here is my team:

Offense

QB: Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville

RB: Lyle McCombs, UConn

RB: Dustin Garrison, West Virginia

WR: Michaelee Harris, Louisville

WR: Deonte Welch, USF

WR: DeVante Parker, Louisville

OL: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers

OL: Quinterrius Eatmon, USF

OL: Jake Smith, Louisville

OL: John Miller, Louisville

OL: Eric Lefeld, Cincinnati

Defense

DL: B.J. Dubose, Louisville

DL: Elkino Watson, USF

DL: Jamaine Brooks, Louisville

LB: Yawin Smallwood, UConn

LB: Dyshawn Davis, Syracuse

LB: Todd Thomas, Pitt

LB: Jewone Snow, West Virginia

DB: Ty-Meer Brown, UConn

DB: Calvin Pryor, Louisville

DB: Andrew Johnson, Louisville

DB: Byron Jones, UConn

Specialists

K: Tony Miliano, Cincinnati

P: Jonathan Fisher, Syracuse

KR: Jeremiah Kobena, Syracuse

The toughest choices for me were at running back and receiver. I went back and forth between Garrison and Rutgers redshirt freshman Jawan Jamison. Their yardage and touchdown totals are virtually identical, but Garrison has a much better yards per carry average and was a more explosive player this season. Receiver was probably the toughest because of the three freshmen receivers for Louisville. I had Eli Rogers on this list at various points, but went with Parker because of his six touchdown receptions.

You also see only three down linemen. There were simply not many impact freshmen defensive linemen in the league this year. The same goes for cornerback (which is why I went with three safeties) and tight end. Those were the three weakest positions for freshmen in the league. Receiver, running back and linebacker were the strongest.

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