John Denton's Knights Insider: Playing as One Unit

Aug. 15, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - To illustrate the uncanny cohesion and chemistry between UCF junior defensive backs Josh Robinson and Kemal Ishmael, you only had to see one play from fall camp as evidence.

Speedy wide receiver Quincy McDuffie darted inside on what was supposed to be a quick-hit slant pattern only to find Ishmael waiting for him at safety. Covered on the inside, McDuffie broke the route back to the outside where he hoped to find daylight. Instead, there was Robinson in place for the offense's contingency plan.

Quarterback Jeff Godfrey ultimately had to throw the ball away and McDuffie slinked back to the huddle with somewhat slumped shoulders. Meanwhile, UCF's two standout defensive backs slapped high fives and shared a hearty laugh.

``We have such a good relationship because we know he has my back and I have his back,'' said Ishmael, referring to his bond with Robinson. ``When I mess up, he's the first one to get on me and tell me to do it right and I'm on him too. It's such a good back-and-forth that we have.''

The scene that played out recently in practice is one that is a regularity during games because of the camaraderie, cover skills and chemistry between the two defensive backs who are heading into their third season together as starters. Robinson was a starter from his first game at UCF, and Ishmael soon followed him as a leading playmaker in the secondary. Their time together frustrating opposing defenses helped them forge a bond that pays huge dividends when it comes to shutting down opposing passing games.

Now, Robinson and Ishmael have evolved from youngsters in the secondary to the recognized leaders looked to for guidance from others. UCF is incorporating junior A.J. Bouye and redshirt freshman Clayton Geathers into the starting lineup, and Robinson and Ishmael are having to be examples on and off the field for the younger players.

``Kemal and I came in together and formed that camaraderie together right away,'' Robinson said. ``Now, we're trying to spread it to A.J. and Clayton. We're trying to show them how we're always a unit, we always stick together and we're a unit. Those are my brothers and we keep that bond. Unity is what holds us together. Like coach (George O'Leary) always says, we're an open hand, but when we close it we're a fist and one unit.' The secondary we're working hard to be a strong unit back there.''

UCF defensive coordinator John Skladany said having two defensive backs so experienced takes a huge amount of stress off the defense. He said that with Robinson being the team's best cover corner and Ishmael being the surest tackler on the team, he can afford to take more chances up front. He compares the experience the Knights have in the secondary now to 2007 when four veterans were in the defensive backfield.

``Those two guys help us so much,'' Skladany said. ``Before in 2007, we had the secondary back with Joe Burnett, Johnell (Neal), Sha'reff (Rashad) and Jason Venson, and it made everything a lot easier for us because of the toughness and experience back there. It makes it so much better when you have kids like (Robinson and Ishmael) who have played games back there and you know they aren't going to just panic.''

There's hardly ever any sense of panic between Robinson and Ishmael because of their familiarity with one another and their ability to work together. Robinson, a 5-foot-10, 192-pounder from Sunrise, is as every bit as fast as McDuffie and is just as dangerous as a returner as he is a cover corner. Ishmael, a 5-foot-11, 211-pounder from Miami Beach, is the talker and the traffic-cop on the field, directing players into position while also leading the Knights in tackles. As expected, both made the All-C-USA First Team last season and they are preseason picks again this year.

Robinson was one of the most highly acclaimed recruits in UCF history when he came to play for the Knights in 2009. And he didn't disappoint, leading all freshmen in the country in interceptions (six) that first season on campus.

Whereas Robinson graduated high school early and participated in spring drills in 2009, Ishmael didn't arrive on campus until later that summer. He was projected to redshirt his freshman season, but he was so good on the scout team and while working with the first unit that the coaches elevated him to a starting slot and moved Derrick Hallman back to linebacker.

``When I got here in the summer, I kept messing with Josh and asking him, `Are you going to play this year? Are you playing this year?''' Ishmael recalls. ``It was motivation for him, and it turns out we both played as freshmen.''

Robinson struggled at times last season with the fact that quarterbacks shied away from throwing the ball his direction. But when they did challenge him, Robinson came up large in the Knights' two biggest games of the season. He had seven tackles, two pass breakups and a diving interception in the C-USA title game defeat of SMU. And in the Liberty Bowl against Georgia, he helped hold wide receiver A.J. Green to just 77 yards and no TDs in UCF's 10-6 victory.

``It drove me crazy at the beginning of the season because I was so anxious to get more picks. When they weren't throwing to my side, I was just like, `Come on man, what's going on here?''' remembered Robinson, who will also handle punt return duties full time this season. ``But when they did start throwing my way, I made some plays, but not as much as I wanted. That's where I want to improve and be consistent. I want them to go a whole season of not being able to throw it over there to my side.''

Consistency is the best way to describe Ishmael, who had at least seven tackles in eight of UCF's games last season. Former UCF defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable (now at Wisconsin) used to say that there's no one he'd want between a ball-carrier and the goal line more than Ishmael. Fittingly, he led the team with 93 total tackles, while also breaking up five passes and intercepting two balls.

And like Robinson, he was never better than in the monumental Liberty Bowl win against Georgia. He had 11 tackles that day and two pass breakups. The final one - a play in which he leaped high into the air and batted down Aaron Murray's Hail Mary pass in the end zone to secure the victory - will go down in UCF history as one of the biggest plays ever for the program.

Now, more is expected of the duo off the field as well as on it. They are the unquestioned leaders of the defense, both with their words and their actions while making plays in the secondary. Their belief is that the UCF defense can be even better this season than it was last year when it led C-USA in most major categories.

And Robinson went as far as saying that if UCF can actually be better this season and possibly run the table for a 12-0 regular season, the Knights could morph into becoming a ``BCS-buster'' similar to Boise State and TCU.

``Everyone here knows that the expectations are greater now and that's what we've been working towards. We want to go back-to-back and repeat. We're not the same team that we were last year, but we want to be even better,'' Robinson said. ``We feel like we can win every game on our schedule. But it comes down now to working hard enough to win all of those games. We can't control everything that happens - like maybe getting up to that Top 10 - but we can control working hard and trying to win every game.''

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