STORRS — The final tackle of the 2018 UConn football season had yet to be recorded when the talk was already turning to the future.

The desire to turn the page after a disastrous campaign would invariably mean some new faces emerging, especially at the linebacker position.

D.J. Morgan transferred in from Notre Dame, Dillon Harris arrived from Lackawanna College, and Ridgefield All-Stater Jackson Mitchell was eager to join in the competition. Kevon Jones, Jordan Morrison, Terrence Ganyi and Hunter Webb were among the options in the previous recruiting class. Eddie Hahn and Ian Swenson were returning after combining to start 14 games, and Omar Fortt’s transition from safety to linebacker was hitting the home stretch. T.J. Gardner came in with plenty of hype, so perhaps this was the year he carved out a role.

Yet, when the Huskies lined up for the first defensive play of the 2019 season, the man in the middle of UConn’s defense was not any of those players.

Redshirt junior Ryan Gilmartin has been defying the odds since his days at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian School, when recruiters from the high profile programs in North Carolina and South Carolina encouraged him to pursue lacrosse at the next level. He was told he was too short, too slow, and too everything else to be a Division I linebacker.

Gilmartin, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, is working with his third defensive coordinator and playing for a coaching staff that didn’t exactly encourage many of the players brought in by the former regime to stick around. A season after playing rather sparingly at linebacker, Gilmartin never wavered in his belief in himself and loyalty to a struggling UConn program. He was rewarded with the first home start of his college career and perhaps he will be starting yet again when the Huskies play host to Illinois on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network).

“I just feel like that is who I am, how I was raised,” said Gilmartin, who made a career high six tackles in a season-opening win over Wagner. “Just because something didn’t go your way, I am going to stick with it, keep working and pushing because there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“I knew it was going to be a competition with Dillon coming in, Eddie played a lot last year and I knew D.J. was coming so that was a bunch of good athletes and we had KK (Jones) too but at the end of the day, I knew if I worked my hardest I would find my way onto the field.”

Gilmartin’s only previous start came in the 2017 finale at Cincinnati. Getting the chance to start at home is a much different deal.

“You think about that moment when you are 12-years old watching College GameDay and knowing you are going to be the guy on the Jumbotron,” Gilmartin said. “It is nice but once that ball is snapped, I know it is go time because I belong. You have to have that confidence to know you are special.”

The linebackers and the rest of the defense will be tested on Saturday. While it was impressive to hold FCS Wagner to 185 yards of total offense, Illinois certainly offers a different challenge.

“I feel like we have a good opportunity in front of us and we are just ready to play against them,” UConn sophomore defensive lineman Lwal Uguak said. “Not to knock Wagner or anything but this is better competition playing against a team in the Big Ten and I feel like it is something that can help us in the future to show that we can do good against any team that comes into our house.”

UConn coach Randy Edsall is as curious as anyone to see how the team responds. The Huskies have given up an average of 580 yards of offense during their current 16-game losing streak to Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

“How much do you have inside of you to lay it all on the line and get after it, who is willing to step up now?” Edsall said. “Ain’t nobody giving you a chance to win. Are you willing to pay the price and are you willing to give everything you’ve got to prove people wrong? Are you willing to do the things necessary to give your team an opportunity to win? That is what you find out in games like this, who wants to compete and who wants to lay it all out there.”

Gilmartin plans on being at the front of the line of the players willing to lay it all out there.

“We are chomping at the bit to get after these guys,” Gilmartin said. “People think the Big Ten is going to roll in here and overpower us but I promise that is not going to be the case. We are going to be prepared, we are going to be fundamentally sound in our gaps and we are going to be going downhill.”

james.fuller@hearstmediact.com; @NHRJimFuller