UCF's Defense Improved Dramatically Since 2020, More Will be Expected Against Louisville

UCF’s rush defense led the way during the first two weeks of 2021, and there’s ample opportunity to become a complete defense against Louisville.
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ORLANDO - UCF boasts one of the nation’s best rush defenses, provides a secondary with promise, and faces a Louisville team that will be challenging due to its athletes and a dynamic quarterback. Here’s a closer look at the UCF defense so far this year and what needs to be improved upon with the Cardinals up next on the schedule.

Considering the additions of Bryson Armstrong (Knight), Big Kat Bryant (Defensive End), Ricky Barber (Defensive Tackle) and Kalia Davis (Defensive Tackle) along the front seven, one expected the rush defense to improve.

Those same players also helped aid the pass defense. So did the maturity of younger players such as Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste and Tatum Bethune at linebacker, as well as defensive end Josh Celiscar at defensive end. That’s where this defense should be discussed first, within the front seven.

Rush Defense is Top-Notch

The Knights took away the running game against Boise State (20 yards rushing allowed) and Bethune-Cookman (24 yards rushing allowed). With that much dominance, UCF Defensive Coordinator Travis Williams and Co-Defensive Coordinator David Gibbs can be creative with other aspects of the defense.

The combination of the two coordinators provided new roles for several players, including starting defensive end Anthony Montalvo. He’s not often discussed, but he’s playing his role best by protecting his gap during running plays. He’s just one example of how the Knights improved team defense overall, and that’s especially true against the run, as the following tweet proved:

The run defense will aid the overall defense, make no mistake about that. In fact, it already has because Behtune-Cookman hardly even tried to run the football. The Wildcats only attempted 14 runs as compared to 51 passes. Being a one-dimensional offense rarely worked against a quality defense 20 years ago, and that’s true today as well.

For one, the Knights rush defense will allow for better blitzing opportunities when they want to blitz instead of as a last resort. Many other programs must take chances with blitzes because stopping the run proved to be a challenge. Moving forward for UCF, keeping opposing quarterbacks off balance with varied blitz schemes can be a weapon.

There’s also the ability to redefine what the secondary will do with such a dominant front seven rush defense. Whether playing man defense or zone defense, or a combination of the two, the UCF secondary has more options when it’s often third down and five or longer. Still, there’s more that needs to be done for the Knights to become a complete defense, especially on the “Money Down.”

Third Down Defense Must Improve

The Knights’ third down defense currently resides at No. 74 nationally. After giving up seven of 15 third down opportunities to Bethune-Cookman, there is reason for concern. The Wildcats also converted their only fourth down attempt.

As one might expect, the reason Bethune-Cookman could not score more than 14 total points would be the aforementioned rush defense. Many Bethune-Cookman drives stalled because of a run stuff by the front seven. Against Louisville, stopping third down conversions must improve dramatically.

Amongst many ways to stop a third down, making a critical interception, deflecting a pass at the line of scrimmage, or sacking the quarterback, the Knights must do a far better job of handling third down situations. Speaking of sacks...

Where are the Sacks?

Zero.

That’s how many sacks UCF registered through two games. Zero. Hard to believe considering the raw talent available, but true. At the conclusion of the Louisville game, that number needs to be three or higher. Remember that number -- three -- as the bare minimum the Knights need.

Keep the pressure on the quarterback will be very important for the Knights

Keep the pressure on the quarterback will be very important for the Knights

Keeping Malik Cunningham wary of his pass protection failing, that’s the goal. Sure, sacks are great because they cause lost yardage; watching a quarterback drop his eyes off the intended targets because he thinks there is pressure when there really is not pressure would prove to be even more beneficial than actual sacks.

After being placed on the ground a few times, quarterbacks often do just that -- look down at the rush instead of concentrating on targets -- leading to many different negative outcomes for the offensive team. Cunningham has done this many times himself over the past two seasons, and it often leads to him escaping the pocket too soon.

That’s when missed reads and interceptions often take place. The Knights must ‘get home’ to the quarterback and place him on his backside. This is also a necessity during the early portion of the game so that Cunningham does not gain a rhythm. Once he completes three or four passes in a row, watch out.

The UCF defense must conquer the zero sacks dilemma. In doing so, the secondary will benefit.

Safety Play, Trending in a Positive Direction

The safety position can be very difficult, especially against spread offenses like Boise State, and yes, Bethune-Cookman as well (Shannon Patrick is a quality signal caller). The first two games provided valuable lessons that can be utilized as the season moves forward, however, beginning with Louisville.

In case anyone did not know, the leading tackler for the Knights would be Quadric Bullard. The former Chaminade-Madonna Lion came into this season expected to be a backup. He’s played nothing like that at all. He’s leading the Knights with 16 total tackles, and the next highest total would be 10 by Armstrong and Jean-Baptiste.

Quadric Bullard (#37) leads the Knights in tackles

Quadric Bullard (#37) leads the Knights in tackles

Bullard’s play is only part of the safety evolution. The rise of Divaad Wilson and former nickel cornerback turned safety Dyllon Lester (he was really active against Bethune-Cookman) have aided the safety.

Getting hands on attempted passes (Lester recorded three pass breakups this past Saturday), being active against screens, and the overall tackling improved since last season as well. If the Knights continue to play well in the deep secondary, there should eventually be some easy interceptions via passes being overthrown and the safeties playing their responsibilities well. Perhaps against Louisville one of the Knights safeties will come up big.

The other aspect of the secondary is harder to grade just yet.

Cornerback, to be Determined

As mentioned above, Bethune-Cookman did well on third and fourth down conversions. Part of that blame certainly falls on the defensive line for not hammering the quarterback sooner. The other part falls on the pass defense; cornerback in particular needs to play tighter coverage.

The three cornerbacks that received the most playing time during the first two games -- Marco Domio, Corey Thornton and Davonte Brown -- each need to raise their performance. Even if only one additional ‘play’ per game would be made by each of these young men, that would lead to far better pass defense. That starts with execution and ends with execution.

It’s that simple. There’s no secret sauce for a cornerback to play better. They simply need to execute at a higher level, especially on third down.

With speedy wide receivers and the threat of Cunningham making plays with his legs or right arm, the UCF cornerbacks will be challenged. Let’s see how the UCF cornerbacks perform against Louisville.

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