John Denton's Knights Insider: Defense Seeks Complete Game at K-State

Sept. 22, 2010

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF ranks in the top 20 in the nation in pass defense, total defense, scoring defense and pass efficiency defense, all categories that it also sits atop Conference USA in.

But the way senior linebacker Derrick Hallman sees it, the best is still yet to come from a Knights' defense that he feels has yet to play its best game from start to finish.

``Subpar to say the least. That hasn't really been us out there yet in these first three weeks. We're top 20 in the nation in total defense and we still haven't even played a game that we're proud of,'' said Hallman, who ranks third on the team with 16 tackles. ``We're not stopping the run like we normally do. But we'll make adjustments and we'll be ready this weekend.''

UCF's defense will face arguably its biggest challenge of the season when the Knights (2-1) play Kansas State (3-0) in Manhattan, Kan., Saturday afternoon in a nationally-televised game. The Wildcats are led by 6-foot-2, 228-pound senior Daniel Thomas, who ranks second in the nation in rushing yards (552) just behind Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson (559).

Thomas, a native of Hilliard, Fla., just north of Jacksonville near the Georgia state line, is averaging 6.7 yards a carry, has six rushing touchdowns and he's never fumbled in two seasons at Kansas State. And he's done enough to impress UCF's coaching staff.

``They've got an outstanding tailback, one of the best that I've seen,'' UCF coach George O'Leary said. ``He's a guy you will see playing on Sundays (in the NFL). As a defense we have to tackle better because (Thomas) is a guy who makes a lot of people miss. And he's the kind of back who tends to make others around him look better, too.''

Coming off a 2009 season in which UCF led most of the major defensive categories in Conference USA, the Knights have shown little drop off this season. Through three games, the Knights have allowed just 785 yards - the lowest amount by a UCF defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision era. In fact, it's been 20 years since a UCF defense has been this stingy about allowing yards.

UCF is 45th in the country in rush defense (128.67 yards per game), 12th in pass defense (133 yards per game), 15th in total defense (261.67 yards per game), 19th in scoring defense (19 points per game) and ninth in pass efficiency defense (87.79 yards per game).

And UCF has been especially good in the second half of the first three games, allowing just one offensive touchdown against South Dakota, NC State and Buffalo. And the Knights have yet to surrender a fourth quarter score this season, outscoring foes 35-0 in the final period.

``For us, it's about finishing,'' Hallman said. ``That's what we say every day in practice because those 24 periods each day are a grind. Once we get past 12 periods we break it down as a defense and talk about finishing. It's not how you start a game, but how you finish.''

The emphasis this week in practice is finishing tackles against Thomas. Because of his rare blend of size, power and speed, he's made a name for himself by making defenders miss tackles and then gobbling up large chunks of yards. He shredded UCLA for 234 yards and last week against Iowa State he carried the ball a career-high 34 times for 181 yards. The Wildcats entrust Thomas to carry the offense so much that they threw the ball just 12 times last Saturday.

``Against a back like him you have to be prepared for it because the average back is nowhere near that size,'' UCF senior defensive end David Williams said. ``He's so shifty too. For his size, his athleticism is almost unforeseen in college football. Body weight we'll only have 20 or 30 pounds on him with our defensive ends. So we'll just have to attack him hard and gang tackle him.''

UCF's other two defensive ends, All-America candidate Bruce Miller and Darius Nall, are playing some of the best football of their UCF careers and give the Knights a chance of corralling Thomas. Miller, college football's leader in sacks with 28, scored his first collegiate touchdown last Saturday when he picked off a shuffle pass and scored from 30 yards out.

Miller's interception return was set up by a big hit from Nall, who was named C-USA's Defensive Player of the Week after collecting nine tackles, three stops for a loss and two sacks. Nall, who missed all of the 2008 season while undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous mass near his right lung, already has more tackles this season (15) than all of last season (12). He also has three sacks, four tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries.

``When somebody else makes a big play it just inspires me to go out and make a big play myself,'' said Nall, a junior. ``(Stopping Thomas) is a good challenge and we're looking forward to it. We've been practicing hard so far, so we're looking forward to the game.''

And if Hallman is true to his word, UCF's defense could be primed this Saturday to help the Knights pull off a shocker of an upset. Hallman thinks UCF is poised to play its best versus an elite runner in Thomas and a BCS opponent in Kansas State.

``Trust me, I know we can still play a lot better defensively,'' Hallman said. ``We haven't played a complete game on defense yet and look where we are. It's coming, I know it is.''

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John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.