A chance for redemption. Several young players thrusted into action last season return, and the addition of transfers will also add to the competition. Regardless of which players earn starting nods from UCF Defensive Coordinator Travis Williams and Co-Defensive Coordinator David Gibbs, who also coaches the secondary, this will be about an overall unit coming together and improving.
There will be individual areas to examine once the season begins. For now, however, the goal will be for the defensive backs to play better and work with each other to create difficult passing situations for each opponent, starting with Boise State. There’s one category that stands above the rest and that’s where the examination begins.
Stopping Third Down Conversions
Last season, UCF allowed 63 of 146 third down conversions, which meant 43.2% of the opponent's third downs turned into first downs. Above all else, third down defense will be evaluated during the 2021 season. That number needs to dramatically drop.
Considering the talent level for UCF’s front seven and the subsequent pass rush that will likely be available, there’s a good chance the secondary will be helped far more this season than last. The pass rush was solid in 2020, but the talent of Big Kat Bryant, Kalia Davis and Ricky Barber was not present during the 2020 season, and will be present for the 2021 season. Bryant and Barber transferred to UCF, while Davis sat out last year. The front seven will aid the secondary with a quality pass rush, but the secondary must improve by themselves, too.
As for the defensive backs, the group as a whole needs to really step up and just be better in coverage. There’s no need for deep analysis; be better in man coverage and better in zone coverage. That includes the entire secondary executing their assignments so that coverage mishaps do not take place like they sometimes did in 2020.
From watching game film from last season, tackling should be considered inconsistent. It must improve this season, and there’s reason to believe that it will. When one realizes the number of young players that played or even started, it’s not that surprising the Knights sometimes did not make tackles as well as they should have.
As an example, 2020 saw freshman cornerbacks Davonte Brown and Corey Thornton start a combined 15 games. That’s a tough introduction to college football. Even if they were not responsible for a missed tackle, there are nuances to feathering an opposing runner to the rest of the defense. That’s one of the reasons why football coaches say “11 hats to the football” on a consistent basis. It’s a combined effort to pin in a player with the football in his hands.
With more experience and added talent arriving via the transfer portal like Jarvis Ware coming over to UCF from Missouri to add competition, there’s ample reason to believe this unit’s tackling will be better in 2021.
Making Clutch Plays
This category needs to be graded by more than tackles, interceptions and fumble recoveries. The details of funneling in a runner (see above), not being involved in the stat sheet because an opposing quarterback stayed away from a defensive back that provided excellent coverage for the vast majority of the game, or simply making a special play like deflecting a sure third down conversion that ends a drive. Those are the ways UCF needs to improve in the secondary this season.
To that end, against Boise State a special play could be as simple as keeping the Boise State signal caller from even throwing towards Khalil Shakir, a dynamic wide receiver that paced the Broncos with 52 receptions, 719 yards and six touchdowns last season.
Now, which UCF defensive backs reach that level where an opposing quarterback literally tries to stay away from him? That’s where the Knights need to be, but which player(s) reach that summit?
Making a tackle in the open field deserves credit, doing it with 25 seconds left in the game and the opponent needing another ten yards to reach field goal range to win the game would be quite another. These in-the-moment plays need to be examined further after the conclusion of the Boise State game.
Defensive Secondary: Mid-Level Confidence
With added experience, new players, as well as a new coaching staff, there’s good reason to believe the Knights will move up the defensive passing statistical areas like third down defense. Against Boise State, there will be chances to prove what can be done against a top player like Shakir. Overall, there’s enough talent to increase interceptions and most other defensive passing statistics as well.
Will the Knights provide elite secondary play? That remains to be seen, and that would be a monumental improvement from one season to the next. The raw talent to make such a leap resides in the Knights secondary, but there needs to be verifiable proof before anyone will say much more about it.
As for the individuals, the first game versus Boise State will provide the details for which player(s) standout for UCF. Inside The Knights will be watching the secondary quite closely throughout the game to watch how players execute coverage responsibilities and better define which UCF defensive backs did their job with tackling and playing team defense.