Yawin Smallwood coming up big for UConn

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.

"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."