John Denton's Knights Insider: The Desire to be the Best Defensive Unit

Oct. 11, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - There have been, at times, turnovers that have put them in bad spots and momentum swings where it seemed everything is against them, yet UCF's defense has stood firm each time.

For proof of that, one has to look no further than the raw, jaw-dropping numbers: In five games, UCF's defense has yielded just three touchdowns and three field goals. Two of those allowed touchdowns came after muffed punt returns inside the 10-yard line, meaning the Knights have allowed teams to put together a sustained march for a touchdown just once in 20 quarters of football this season. BYU's 38-yard drive for a third-quarter touchdown remains as the lone TD march UCF's defense has allowed all season.

And the gaudy numbers showing just how dominant UCF's smothering, swarming defense has been don't stop there. The Knights rank first in the nation in pass defense (100.2 yards a game), second in total defense (177.6 yards per game), second in points allowed per game (10 ppg.) and eighth in run defense (77.4 ypg.). As far as points allowed, UCF trails only Alabama (7 ppg.) - a defense with eight projected NFL players on it - and the Knights' mark would almost assuredly be tops in the country had the offense not yielded two touchdowns off turnovers and the special teams group had not given up a kickoff return and the two muffed punts.

There is a steely resolve to this UCF defense that no matter the circumstance, no matter the predicament that it is put in during games that it continues to fight to keep teams out of the end zone.

``We take a lot of pride in (not giving up touchdowns) because that's the only part that we can control out there as defensive players,'' said redshirt sophomore Victor Gray, UCF's most consistent and dominant defensive lineman this season. ``We can't control the fumbles or the dropped passes, but we can control where they put the ball. We take pride in stopping the run, stopping the pass and playing complete defense.''

UCF's nationally ranked defense will be put to the test on Saturday when the Knights (3-2 overall and 1-0 in Conference USA play) travel to Dallas to face SMU (4-1, 2-0). The game will be a rematch of last season's C-USA title game, one that the Knights won 17-7. And most of all it will pit UCF's defense against an SMU offense that is 12th in the country in passing (326.8 yards per game) and 32nd overall in total yards per game (449.4).

``One thing I have been doing is looking at our (defensive) rankings and it's motivation to not let those numbers ever go down,'' UCF standout cornerback Josh Robinson said. ``We're trying to be the best defense out there. From the moment since I first stepped on campus we have always wanted to be the best defense in college football. That goal will never change.''

SMU was the last team to throw for a touchdown against the Knights on a 22-yard pass with 9:15 left in the fourth quarter of the C-USA title game. That means, including the defeat of Georgia in the Liberty Bowl last December and the five games this season, UCF has not allowed a TD pass in more than 369 minutes of game action. But UCF head coach George O'Leary knows that the Knights will be tested by one of C-USA's most dynamic passing attacks.

``Our kids are making plays every opportunity that they have. They are playing really good team defense and there's no one guy playing better than anybody else,'' O'Leary said. ``From a sense of urgency standpoint and playing with passion they've been great. The kids are playing tough and fast, and that's what we'll have to have this week. We'll have to have a helluva ballgame because SMU is playing on all cylinders right now.''

Despite narrow losses to FIU and BYU, UCF's defense has hit on all cylinders all season. The Knights have held three foes (Charleston Southern, Boston College and Marshall) to single-digit first downs, and no opponent has even come close to getting 300 yards against the Knights this season. Even in defeat, FIU (204 yards) and BYU (260 yards) were badly outgained by UCF's offense.

``The way we're playing is a testament to the coaches and players here, and since I've been here we've always prided ourselves on being a defense that's tough and physical,'' said senior middle linebacker Josh Linam, who had six tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in UCF's 16-6 defeat of Marshall last Saturday. ``We've tried to stick with it and be mentally tough throughout the entire game. That's why we've been able to be so successful.''

One thing that O'Leary likes about this defense is that several players have posted impressive numbers on the tackle chart - a true sign that the Knights are getting several players to the ball. Liname leads the team with 28 tackles, followed closely by junior safety and emotional leader Kemal Ishmael with 26 total stops. Converted tailback Jonathan Davis has been a big hit at linebacker with 21 stops and a team-high 7.5 tackles for loss.

Robinson has lived up to his preseason billing as one of the nation's best defensive backs with 10 tackles, two interceptions and seven pass breakups even though teams often shy away from throwing to his side. And Gray has solidified the defensive line with 16 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries.

And several newcomers such as cornerback A.J. Bouye (15 tackles), safety Clayton Geathers (15 tackles), Leilon Willingham (14 tackles) and Ray Shipman (12 tackles) have answered questions about a defense that lost standouts Bruce Miller and Derrick Hallman from last season.

Unlike some defenses that thrive while gambling and taking risks, UCF has found success while just playing sound base defense. The Knights loathe to blitz and leave themselves exposed in the secondary and as a result have just seven sacks. Also, UCF has forced just four interceptions and one fumble recovery, but has thrived with gang tackling and disciplined, fundamental play.

And the Knights have stayed strong despite changing defensive coordinators in the offseason. When highly successful coordinator Dave Huxtable left for Wisconsin, linebackers coach John Skladany was promoted to defensive coordinator. O'Leary feels that Skladany's familiarity with the defense helped make the transition easier, and he's gotten great results with his cerebral approach to defense.

``Hux did a very good job here, but John is a different personality and a different temperament. But it's the end result that you look at and whether or not the kids play with great effort or not,'' O'Leary said. ``What I see is our kids playing with great effort and they are complementing each other really well. There are a lot more guys involved in tackles and assists, so we're getting to the ball better.''

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