Preview: Torrid Running Times at UCF

Fresh legs and fast yards.
UCF football is making a living with those elements in a big way in 2019.
While lots of college programs boast of their skill-position depth, the Knights put it on display every night.
UCF head coach Josh Heupel and his running backs coach, Anthony Tucker, boast a four-headed monster at the running back spot that may be as talented, productive--and-fast—as any quartet in the country.
Individually, they came to Orlando from Florida high schools in Miami, Jacksonville and Daytona Beach.
Collectively—and particularly in UCF's high-tempo attack—they terrorize opposing defensive coordinators these days with their ability to throw fresh—and ultra-talented--bodies at worn-down defenders.
They've also created a magical culture in the Knights' running backs room where the conversation is way more about winning than carries or yards.
And it's paying off in a huge way in the UCF win-loss column.
Late on Saturday night, actually early in the fourth period, UCF cornerback Tay Gowan intercepted a Florida Atlantic pass and flipped the field in favor of the Knights.
On first down, UCF running back Bentavious Thompson burst virtually untouched through the middle of the line for a 28-yard touchdown run.
Those marked the final UCF points, gave the visitors a 48-6 lead and might have provoked a ho-hum response from the spectators, many of whom had headed home as the Knights created a one-sided win.
Yet, that was hardly the reaction on the UCF sideline. Over there, Adrian Killins Jr. and Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson jumped up and down like little kids—almost as if Thompson's run had been worth a title or a trophy.
And that's because Tucker, Thompson, Killins, McCrae and Anderson are in on that dirty little secret that college football observers around the country are just now learning.
On a technical basis, maybe the UCF depth chart looks crowded. The Knights help solve that by listing Anderson in a "utility" role. Yet his teammates know the other team is in trouble when he or Thompson takes the field—because their fresh legs are fully capable of making game-changing plays.
"You put one guy in, that guy needs a breather, and you put another guy in and that guy needs a breather and it just keeps coming at you in waves," says Tucker.
"Greg McCrae needs a breather and Otis is in there and, boom, he gets a 40-yard TD because he's got fresh legs after Greg just went four or five plays in a row. In that situation, Otis is the freshest guy on the field and he's one of the most talented guys on the field. That's a great combination.
"Then AK (Killins) comes in and goes 74 yards, and then Bentavious comes in and does what he does. It can be overwhelming. When we put a guy in, there should not be a 'tell' because all these guys are capable of doing anything we need. That's the way we try to develop these guys.
"I think they appreciate being able to catch their breath. These guys know that they can come out and take a breather and still get back in there and play.
"They like being able to go in there and feel good. They're in good shape, and yet our tempo is not easy. It's about conditioning. They know the difference between being on the field too long and being on the field the right amount of time.
"It's hard to wrap your mind around this until you're in it because guys just naturally do not want to come off the field. This is a different culture."
Tucker—in great part because of the Knights' hard-charging, high-tempo aggressive approach—has convinced his pupils that more (in terms of number of carries) is better.
A lot better.
Tucker is just old enough to understand the old-school way to do football business. A two-year starter at wide receiver at Fresno State in the late 1990s, Tucker recalls always being worried that if he came out of the lineup he might not get back on the field.
These days, Tucker teaches the exact opposite.
In his playing days, backs like Ron Dayne (Wisconsin) and Ricky Williams (Texas) made their collegiate livings by wearing down opposing defenses carrying the ball 30 or 35 times a game.
At UCF, not so much.
Last season, the Knights set a single-season school record (and ranked eighth nationally) in rushing. Yet their top ground-gainer and UCF individual single-season rushing leader (McCrae) accomplished that without ever starting a game and averaging only 10 carries per contest.
Just when McCrae (5-10, 175, junior from Miami) has lulled a defense to sleep with his 90 yards per game, the Knights unleash the speedster Killins (5-8, 158, senior from Daytona Beach) who will slash and gash as a runner, receiver or kick returner.
Once he has frustrated an opponent, here comes Anderson (5-11, 164, junior from Jacksonville) who can be a traditional running back or line up as a slot receiver or punt returner.
Then there's Thompson (6-1, 200, redshirt sophomore from Miami) who brings a combination of speed and power to the party.
At UCF, the depth chart requires waves to list all involved. And that's the beauty of it for the Knights.
"And they are all totally different builds," says Tucker. "Each one has something that makes them a little unique. And yet they are all well-rounded. They all fit what we do. We're a young room, we're still developing. Just one senior (Killins) in the room this year."
A year ago the four combined for 277.5 all-purpose yards per game, with both Killins (107.5) and McCrae  (101.6) topping the century mark. Anderson averaged 11.9 per punt return and McCrae 8.9 per rush. Killins averaged 19.8 yards per reception and 21.9 on kickoff returns.
So far this fall, that mark has jumped significantly to 386.5 all-purpose combined yards per game between the four—including a gaudy 9.09 yards-per-touch figure. The Knights continue to share the wealth--to the tune of 25 touches for McCrae, 24 for Killins, 22 for Anderson and 14 more for Thompson.
That's no day in the park for an opposing defense.
UCF defensive line coach Shane Burnham has seen enough of the Knights' backs in practice to know what his counterparts are up against.
"It's like greased lightning," he says.
"There are so many of them, and we've got a big offensive line so you can't see them back there. They are kind of small and they are hard to find.
"They are really patient and they wait for that crease--and when they hit it, it's zero to 60.
"It's like a Lamborghini. By the time you feel it and see it, it's too late.
"Once they get vertical, man, it happens so fast. They are quick as a hiccup and they're gone."
Adds UCF linebacker Eric Mitchell, "Just working with our running backs makes me feel like they really get us ready to play against any other team's backs because I think our guys are as good as anybody else out there with their speed, their cuts, their vision.
"They are special."
Tucker had an interesting challenge when he, Heupel and the rest of the current coaching staff took over in December 2017. They inherited a group that went 13-0, led the nation in scoring and averaged more than 530 yards per game. It wasn't quite a scenario where the returning players were eager to make changes because they had not been successful. And all four of the current UCF backs—McCrae, Killins, Anderson and Thompson—were already on the Knights' roster when Heupel's coaching staff arrived in Orlando.
So Tucker took another approach to making them better.
"I had an idea on a couple of our guys," he says. "I knew Otis (Anderson) because I had recruited him when I was at another school, and I knew AK because we had played UCF two years in a row.
"I knew there was some ability, but I didn't know them personally or any more about them until I got here. I certainly knew AK had great speed because I had seen him several times on crossover film. But in a lot of ways we were starting from scratch.
"And it's rare that you step into a program coming off an undefeated season. It wasn't as if we had to fix everything. We tried to embrace the things that worked and try to nudge them in the direction to continuously improve.
"It's not the same offense, it was different. So there was a getting-to-know process. I challenged them to expand their knowledge base. Be students of the game. It's not just run left and run right, it's to improve their acumen in terms of understanding the whole game and not just their own jobs.
"Know where your job fits with the offensive line. Learn run schemes and run concepts. Understand what goes on up front and your talent takes another step."
As Knights' senior offensive tackle Jake Brown said succinctly this week, "We do our job. They do their job."
Continues Tucker, "I'm huge on challenging these guys to understand the game, understand defenses, where everyone fits, who the quarterback is reading, all those types of things. It's getting them to relate those things back. That's when you start to see guys who are talented really take off."
The Knights have benefited tremendously from the fact there is major—if friendly--competition just among the running backs.
"You have a lot of talent in that (running back) room, and so everyone kind of feeds off each other," says Tucker. "Nobody wants to be the guy in the room that doesn't know something.
"When one guy has a great work ethic, that becomes contagious because competitively, these guys don't want to be outdone. So now these guys in that room push each other and have a great time doing it. They don't worry about who is in the game at any one time and being envious. Whoever it is, his biggest fans are standing right there next to me.
"When AK has a great play, those guys love seeing it. It doesn't matter who it is--it's great chemistry. Then when you have young guys coming into that, you've got a really high standard.
"All these guys are different, but they all ultimately want to be better. I want to help each one of them improve on the things he wants to get better at. That's my job, to point out the thing they can do better. I want guys in the room that can do everything because that makes us really good."
Anderson, for one, loves what he sees from the group:
"It's never going to be one guy that runs the whole show. We make sure that everyone gets their job done and we're working to incorporate (redshirt freshman) Trillion Coles more into the picture. He's the next guy and we're grooming him and getting him ready.
"What we have in our running back room gives me chills. We can have fun, we can get to work, we can hang out or watch football and we never skip a beat. And we don't argue.
"I can't imagine a group that's closer than we are."
Tucker remembers what it was like at the very beginning in Orlando.
"It was all about learning what these guys could do," he says. "Some things they did really well and some things we could help them with. Put guys in a position to do well so they can feel good about what they are doing and then continuously challenge them to improve. Guys don't like doing things they are not good at. If you put them in situations where they can be successful, you see those little incremental gains—and they appreciate it more."
Tucker loves the fact all four players made major gains in the weight room in the offseason.
"They are all scrappy, tough guys--and that goes a long way at this position," he adds. "AK says all the time, 'I've been small my whole life. It's not going to change tomorrow.' But you can get stronger and the mental edge part can be a big thing.
"They don't think small and they don't play small. I've seen a huge jump in their approach to the weight room. Let's build their bodies and maximize their potential. As they grow up, they better understand what it means to take care of their bodies and eat well and pay attention to nutrition.
"Plus, if one of our guys is in the weight room and sees another guy working or sees another guy eating a certain way, then he thinks, 'Maybe I better try that, too.' It becomes a very positive influence."
Once the 2018 season ended, Tucker was prepared to take his group to the next level.
"When we finished the 2018 season and went into spring ball, I started pushing them in terms of knowledge base. We had installed our offense and as that season went along we added things here and there, but we still did not get into all the things we wanted to do.
"So we took all the things they did last year and started providing some of the whys, to be able to explain those and challenge them to learn why we do certain things. There are 11 guys, so understand the other guys' jobs. The detail here may be the knowing what the backside guard does or how to affect what the other team's safety does.
"We all just want to win games. So my job is to make sure these guys are prepared and give us the best chance to be successful. These guys work hard, they love each other, they like having a good time and they are highly, highly competitive. They absolutely love playing ball.
"I don't care who gets the credit, I just want to win. I want my guys to feel prepared and feel good about what they are doing and enjoy it."
Adds Anderson, "It was mostly learning the new terminology and a little bit different philosophy.
"We embraced what Coach Heup had, and we took it to the next step."  
At the end of the day, Tucker appreciates a culture that has been built and improved both on the UCF football team as a whole and in his running back room. No doubt that 27 wins in 28 games from 2017-19 has helped that.
"We've got great fans, great support. Everything's moving in the right direction," he says.
"And I don't think we're a finished product, by any means. All the guys still have so much potential.
"Even a guy like AK has improved on so much, even with how productive he has been over his career. All these guys just naturally learn some new things in our system after doing it in a different system—and that's good for them. They have all become more comfortable learning new things and have become more inquisitive as a result.
"When you have talented guys and their IQ increases, it's a lot of fun. And a defense can't just focus on stopping one of our guys.
"When you've got good players, you've got a lot of competition.
"It's never going to be perfect, but these guys love to play football."
And if Tucker and Heupel have their way, those fresh legs and fast yards will play crucial roles in carrying the Knights a long way in 2019.