Football: Melifonwu next in line of great UConn defensive backs

Defensive back Obi Melifonwu makes a tackle during a game against the Houston Cougars on November 21, 2015 at Pratt and Whitney Stadium in Hartford. (Bailey Wright/The Daily Campus)

NEWPORT, R.I. — Bob Diaco isn’t afraid to make a statement.

At his first American Athletic Conference Media Day two years ago, Diaco called safety Byron Jones one of the best at his position in the country. A few months later, Jones broke a broad jump world record at the NFL Combine and was selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the No. 27 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

“Two years ago, we’re sitting here, nobody really listening, I’m talking about Byron Jones, and nobody really paid attention, but I tried.” Diaco said.

Just last year, Diaco said the team’s sights were set on a national championship after a 2-10 season. The result? No national title, but the program’s first bowl appearance since 2011.

This year’s media day was no different for Diaco, who wasted no time praising redshirt senior Obi Melifonwu as the follow-up to Jones and the next great defensive back to come out of UConn and land in the NFL.

“Obi is the best safety in America,” Diaco said. “This is a special, special young man. He will be either the or one of the top players evaluated for the NFL. He is an absolutely spectacular safety prospect.”

The 6-foot-3-inch Melifonwu hopes to build off a strong 2015 season, in which he finished third on the team with 88 total tackles and enters 2016 as the Huskies’ leader among returning players with 59 solo tackles. Melifonwu also added two interceptions and five deflections last season as part of a defense that finished second in the American with 18 interceptions and cemented himself as an essential piece in a stout UConn defense.

“I have goals that I set for myself, and one of those goals is to be the best safety in the country,” Melifonwu said. “I think that the work that I do this year and the preparation that I’ve done over the summer and the preparation that I continue to do at camp every day through film study, through practice is definitely going to help me prepare for that.”

Melifonwu hopes to join Jones, Darius Butler, Dwayne Gratz, Tyvon Branch and Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Andrew Adams on the list of Husky defensive backs in the NFL. The redshirt senior has used his time in Storrs to develop physically and mentally, learning and implementing what made these five so successful both in college and the NFL.

“I’ve definitely been around great guys since my freshman year…Players like Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Dwayne Gratz that both play in the NFL, players like Darius Butler that came before them, players like Andrew Adams that I played along side, players like Byron Jones that I played along side,” Melifonwu said.  “So it’s definitely been great to take bits and pieces of their game, and parts that I’ve taken from [Adam’s] is that he’s a very smart football player. He does a lot of film work, a lot of technical work…It’s definitely great to follow in their footsteps.”

Heading into his final season, Melifonwu looks to lead a defense that continues to develop into one of the strongest in the American thanks to more experience both on the field and with Diaco’s system. While normally quiet, Melifonwu’s leadership skills have developed to help not only guide this year’s defense, but round out his NFL profile as well.

“He has turned himself into a demonstrative leader, a demonstrative communicator, recognizing a necessary component to that piece, which would be the final piece for him,” Diaco said. “

But Melifonwu isn’t wrapped up in what the future holds. He just sees the present.

“I’m definitely excited about my future, but I feel like players get too caught up in the future and where they want to go,” Melifonwu said. “I think it’s definitely easier and more beneficial to just take it day-by-day, and focus on what you have to focus on that day at that moment at that time.”


Dan Madigan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.madigan@uconn.edu. He tweets @dmad1433.