John Denton's Knights Insider: More Than Just a Pass-Rush Specialist

Aug. 30, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - To hear even Darius Nall himself tell it, it's as if the career highs he posted last season in tackles (31), tackles for a loss (9.5) and sacks (8.5) should have come with an asterisk attached to them.

With him sharing time at defensive end with David Williams last season, Nall was mostly a specialty player for the Knights and entered games usually as a third down, pass-rush specialist.

In baseball vernacular, Nall was the equivalent of a designated hitter. In basketball terms, he was the one-trick player who comes in as the zone buster and little else. The role, while being a very important one to the Knights, wasn't a complete one because he shuttled in and out of games so much as a rush specialist.

Now, entering his senior season, Nall has worked hard to become an every-down end for the Knights. He's stronger and better conditioned in hopes of being as good against the run as he is at rushing the passer. And make no mistake about it: Nall is UCF's elite defender when it comes to relentlessly attacking quarterbacks off the edge.

When the Knights kick off the season Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Bright House Networks Stadium against Charleston Southern, Nall will be getting after quarterbacks now as an every-down end. It's more of a difference than the layman might understand, but Nall feels he's ready for the step up in responsibility.

``I have to prove each and every day that I can do that job. I feel that I can and I'm ready to take on more responsibility,'' Nall said. ``I feel like I'm ready to take on that every-down role now. I spent a lot more time working on my strength and conditioning to get ready for that. I need to be out there on the field being a leader for my guys on the defensive line.''

Nall, a 6-foot-3, 246-pounder, is one of the unquestioned leaders for a UCF defense that is gunning to once again be the best in Conference USA. The Knights suffered their biggest losses along the defensive line, losing all-time sacks leader Bruce Miller and Williams, and responsibility to fill that void falls now on the shoulders of Nall and fellow defensive end Troy Davis.

``Being my senior year, there's a sense of urgency there and I want to make sure that the guys are ready to play and I want to be more of a leader. I want our focus to be on our goals because the expectations are higher than ever,'' Nall said. ``I'm trying to take on that leadership role and I'm doing it more by example than vocally. That's the way you lead and make people follow you - by doing it and not just saying it.''

Nall is clearly one of head coach George O'Leary's favorite players - and not just because he overcame a serious medical battle early in his career to get back on the field. When it came to the Knights having one player represent them at the C-USA meetings in Memphis in late July, Nall was O'Leary's choice to talk for the team. And in UCF's first news conference on Tuesday to preview Saturday's opener against Charleston Southern, Nall was again the pick to talk along with senior tight end Adam Nissley.

O'Leary likes Nall's combination of toughness and football smarts. But he knows the senior end is facing a rise in expectations this season to become more than just a pass-rush specialist who plays primarily on second and third downs.

``He's a good football player. It's one thing coming in on third down with fresh legs, but now it's about how many times can you work through the sticky times. That's what he's having to work through now,'' O'Leary said. ``Last year, he was coming onto the field fresh all of the time and now he's having to learn to play with the same energy. The good thing about that is we have some good backups who will replace him really quickly if he's not doing it.''

Defensive end is one of the Knights deepest and most dynamic positions what with the offseason additions of JUCO transfers Toby Jackson and Cam Henderson. The two were teammates at Navarro (Texas) Junior College where Jackson was the MVP of the JUCO National Championship Game. Putting them with Nall (8.5 sacks) and Davis (5.5) and promising redshirt freshman end LeBrandon Richardson, and the Knights have a deep rotation to bring pressure off the ends - something that's a must in the pass-happy C-USA.

Said Nall: ``There's a lot of competition at defensive end and I love that. If you want to play, then bring you're a game every day.''

Nall was so good last season that there were hardly any mentions of him having to miss the entire 2008 season after doctors discovered a baseball-sized tumor affixed to his lung. He still has a scar that wraps around his side from sternum to spine, but as it turns out it's the only lingering effects from the scary incident that had him briefly fearing for his life.

After a 2009 season in which he battled fatigue and sluggishness, Nall bounced back in a big way last season. Despite being primarily the pass-rush specialist, opposing coaches still thought enough of his abilities to vote him second-team All-C-USA. He had a three-game stretch last season where he dropped the quarterback four times and had several more hurries. Later in the season, he was in on 2.5 sacks against Rice, another sack against East Carolina and he dropped the quarterback once in the defeat of SMU in the C-USA title game.

With the pressure that the Knights can put on quarterbacks along the defensive end, the addition of several talented newcomers at linebacker and some veteran savvy in the secondary, Nall feels that UCF can have a dominant defense this season. Of course, much of that is dependent on him carrying his load as a defensive end that stays on the field and battles as hard against the run as he does rushing the passer.

``I feel like we can be one of the best defenses in the nation if we stay together and do our jobs. There's no telling the damage that we can do this season if we live up to our potential,'' Nall said. ``We know that we can beat anybody in the country. But it's all about us preparing the right way and, like last year, coming with that same intensity every game.''

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