‘Working through the dirt,’ UConn defensive lineman Eric Watts sets sights high for senior season

PUBLISHED August 5, 2023 at 2:43 p.m. | UPDATED: August 5, 2023 at 3:07 p.m.
Eric Watts was not ready for college football when he made his first trip from Sumter, South Carolina to Storrs in early 2019. He was a 225 pound freshman, some 50 pounds lighter than he is today, looking to compete for a defensive end spot.
But he arrived a semester early and practiced in the spring, eventually getting reps with the starters and the second-stringers and ended up playing all 12 games in the fall. He made 30 tackles and the team finished with a 2-10 record.
Now a Herculean 6-foot-5, 277 pounds, Watts has a very real shot at getting to the next level.
He made 49 tackles last season, 10 for a loss, seven sacks and forced two fumbles – he even blocked two kicks. This year, as a senior, his goal is to double those numbers.
“I want to set for 20 TFLs, 14 sacks,” Watts said after UConn’s practice Saturday (the FBS sacks leader, USC’s Tuli Tuipulotu, now with the LA Chargers, recorded 13.5 last season). “I know it’s high but I feel like I definitely can do it and that just makes me work even harder to reach those goals.”
Watts, a “goofy” presence on an experienced defensive line, according to second-year UConn defensive line coach Kenny McClendon, recognizes his own significant mental development as an edge rusher. As a freshman he was just trying to be in the right spots and not mess up. Now the game has slowed down, he understands the system, can take cues from the opposing offensive line and is able to lead by example.
“(My freshman self) would be very, very surprised at where I am,” Watts said. “I would not expect this from my freshman year because I was nervous, I was a kid. I was a kid playing with men, I will say that for sure.”
When he wasn’t on the field getting reps in Saturday’s practice, Watts stood to the side with other defensive leaders like Jackson Mitchell, Durante Jones and Dal’Mont Gourdine, all who had experience playing on what some considered the worst defense in college football pre-Jim Mora.
“You’ve been there with somebody when we were at the bottom. Losing games, we all sat and cried together like, ‘Man, damn, what are we gonna do? We gotta figure this out,’ but I would say that all made us tighter. Like, ‘Bro, we’ve been there.’ So we know how we’ve got to push everybody so we don’t go back,” Watts said.
“I’ve been through the struggle and now I’m kind of seeing the light, and it makes you feel rewarded. I would say it’s definitely worth it, coming from the bottom, like how much worse could you get? We were the worst, but now kind of making a rise, people kind of noticing that, it makes you feel like what you’re doing is earned and I’m fine with that. I’m fine with working through the dirt.”
The defensive line returns all four starters from last year’s team, including Gourdine as well as Jelani Stafford and Pryce Yates, and Sokoya McDuffie and Collin McCarthy who each played a number of snaps. All of the leaders have been focused on setting the tone and incorporating all of the new faces.
“Eric’s not a talker, he’s like the goofy one, but at the end of the day he has the ability, of very few in my opinion, he can turn it on and turn it off. He can be joking and laughing and then he can see the temperature of the room and know when to cut that mentality on,” McClendon said. “There’s times when Eric speaks, the beauty of it because Eric doesn’t just talk to talk. When he finally does speak, everyone listens. He’s a great leader and he leads by the play on this field which I think everyone on this team respects.”
A great day for the offense
During the early stages of the 11-on-11 portion of Saturday’s practice, quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson fired a 40-yard spiral down the seam to receiver Teddy Williams, a Cromwell native who’d gained a couple steps of separation from his defender. Williams made the catch and went into the end zone, sparking a collective cheer from the offensive sideline.
To end the practice, receiver Kylish Hicks made a diving catch in the front left corner of the end zone, hauling in the pass from Zion Turner for a touchdown. Hicks’ catch finished what was an impressive day for him, and Mora called his name to break down the final huddle.
The quarterback competition “is tight,” according to redshirt junior defensive back Malik Dixon-Williams. Joe Fagnano, a transfer from Maine, was also part of the rotation working with the first-string offense.
The receivers, who were impressive on the first day of camp July 31, continued to display an increase in talent, and depth, from last season.
“They want to make plays, they’re going to be aggressive, they want to be great so that’s just gonna make us better,” Dixon-Williams said. “I’m glad we got those guys on offense and the guys on defense, we’re gonna make each other better and we’re gonna have a great year.”
Dixon-Williams mentioned graduate transfers James Burns from Austin Peay and Brett Buckman from Delaware as difficult players to go up against. He said Burns blew right past him with his speed in one-on-ones and was then giving pointers on how he should be defended.
“Now you see a little bit of health sprinkled in with some other guys and you see the explosiveness that they can give you,” McClendon said.
Picking up the pace
Dixon-Williams said one of the goals for the defense this year is to be faster, more explosive. “When you watch film we want to look crazy,” he said, “like running around everywhere. Being explosive, moving fast and just being all on one accord.”
That speed on defense starts with smoothing out the kinks and getting used to the unique coordinator-by-committee approach – “We’re starting to understand what everyone’s thinking, so now it’s just a smooth transition no matter who is calling it, which we’re all doing a great job,” McClendon said.
It also comes in the secondary, where the program has added a slew of new faces who can compete for a spot.
“We got speed, a lot of speed, in the DB room,” Dixon-Williams said. “We’ve got a lot of guys that want to play, they want to get better… A guy that comes to mind, Cam Chadwick, he’s behind me right now. Every time he gets off the field he comes to me, he wants to learn, he wants to know what he did wrong, what he did right. So yeah, we’ve got a lot of guys that want to play.”

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