Sep 7, 2013
By Jeff Piascik
After both University of Connecticut starting cornerbacks from the 2012 were taken in the early third round of the 2013 NFL Draft in April, Husky head coach Paul Pasqualoni was faced with the tall task of replacing key pieces that helped the Huskies ranked 19th in the country in scoring defense.
With Dwayne Gratz off to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Blidi Wreh-Wilson with the Tennessee Titans, senior cornerback and special teams standout Taylor Mack has emerged as a strong candidate to help fill the void left by the former Huskies.
At 5-9, 175 pounds, Mack is a smaller cornerback who compensates for his lack of height with top-tier speed and good instincts. The Powder Springs, Ga., native has taken most of the preseason reps as a starting corner alongside Byron Jones and has also worked extensively with the special teams unit.
In 2012, Mack played in all 12 games, recording 28 tackles, including a season-high five in a 23-20 overtime victory against Louisville, and tallied 98 yards of kickoff return yardage.
“I have to use my quickness to my advantage and continue to play fast,” said Mack. “I try to keep all my movements sudden because that’s how I have to make up for the height difference. I understand the challenges, but after playing the game at the college level for three-plus years, I have figured out what works for me.”
The Connecticut defense was stifling at times last season, finishing the year ninth in the nation in total defense, allowing just 309.92 yards per game. Mack was a key piece for Pasqualoni because of his ability to play in the nickel defense and also have a positive impact in the return game. For Mack, managing two different positions is something that he has mastered and is prepared to do again in 2013.
“You have to have an aggressive mentality to come out and play special teams because it’s such a high-tempo part of the game,” said Mack. “Also, playing defense you have to try and stay focused for the full 60 minutes. One blown coverage can hurt the team and maybe even lose us the game, so I’m really trying to limit my mental errors on the field.”
He is projected to be on the field for most of the defensive and special team snaps and Mack wants to take on a bigger leadership role this season. The senior acknowledged his new responsibilities and says the upperclassmen have committed themselves to setting a positive example for the newcomers.
“I’m not the biggest talker by nature but I try to let my play do the talking for me,” he said. “If I can make a few plays I know the defense will be able to rally around that. I am more of a guy that comes out and tries to do his job. As a senior, I want to show the younger guys how we do things around here. That’s just part of being a leader and it comes along with being here for four years.”
When Gratz and Wreh-Wilson were drafted just six spots apart in April, Mack says he didn’t alter his approach too much. In fact, despite the fantastic play of both letterwinners throughout the season, Mack was already preparing himself to become a starter in the event that either player suffered an unexpected injury. The only noticeable difference that Mack has observed in the preseason practices is an increase in his intensity and drive.
“I just want to stay consistent and bring in the same focus this year,” said Mack. “For me personally, I know my intensity and focus is amped up. Those two guys that left were some of the best players I’ve ever been on the field with. I learned a lot from them and I appreciate everything they have done to get me to this point. It’s time for this defense to pick up the slack.”
2013 will be a unique year for the Huskies as they transition to life in the American Athletic Conference after playing from 2004-2012 in the Big East Conference. The tough conference schedule features games against Louisville (Nov. 8) and Rutgers (Nov. 30) and three of the team’s final four games are against new conference foes and will certainly test UConn’s ability to adapt to change.
After consecutive 5-7 seasons following, Mack and his teammates are excited to lead the Huskies into a new chapter of athletic history.
“I think it’s a definitely going to be hard but we look forward to facing new foes,” Mack said “It will be the first time our team has played a couple of these opponents so we’re practicing extra hard because we know that most of those teams are extremely competitive. We’re not going to get too far ahead of ourselves. We have to focus on the task at hand. We know we’re capable of winning more games than we have the past few years.”
Traditionally, the Huskies have relied on their defense over the course of the season to grind out wins and Mack feels that the unit is once against capable of being one of the nation’s best. Since Mack’s arrival in 2010, UConn has held opponents to under 20 points in 14 contests and boasted a 13-7 home record.
“If we keep working every day on our technique and fundamentals, I think this unit has a ton of potential,” said Mack. “We have to take it one day at a time. Week to week, we want to see improvements and we know that our practices are where we can make the difference.”