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Will the All-New Secondary Get Burned?

Six Biggest Questions Facing UCF Football in 2017

UCF DB Tre' Neal intercepts a pass against FIU. Photo: Derek Warden
UCF DB Tre' Neal intercepts a pass against FIU. Photo: Derek Warden

There once was a time when UCF was Defensive Back U. It started with Travis Fisher and progressed to Asante Samuel, Atari Bigby, Joe Burnett, and others who went on to professional success.

But heading into 2017, the UCF secondary is considered by most experts to be the potential weakest link on the defense.

Gone are all four starters from last year – six seniors in total – replaced by a capable but untested crop of players:

Pos. 2016 Starter 2016 Stats 2017 Starter Year 2016 Stats
S T.J. Mutcherson 73 tackles, sack, 2 INTs Kyle Gibson So. 25 tackles, PBU
S Drico Johnson 63 tackles, 2 INTs Tre' Neal Jr. 21 tackles
CB Shaquill Griffin 50 tackles, 4 INTs Brandon Moore Fr. ---
CB D.J. Killings 42 tackles, sack, 3 INTs Chris Johnson Sr. 2 tackles

But don’t let the lack of starts on the stat sheet fool you. Tre' Neal, for one, is no newbie.

I think it's one of those challenges I'm embracing," Neal said at Media Day. "I'm loving these guys coming up to me asking for help. I'm willing to offer any kind of help that I've learned over the past three years I've been here."

Neal may end up a household name by year’s end. The redshirt junior from the football factory known as Buford High School outside of Atlanta has waited patiently for his turn, and after playing but not starting in all 13 games last year, now he has it.

He teams up with Kyle Gibson, another redshirt junior from a football factory – Armwood High School, outside Tampa – give the Knights added speed in the secondary. Gibson also played in all 13 games last year.

But the biggest question marks remain at corner. Head coach Scott Frost knew that coming in, but at Media Day, Frost said that he’s found two guys who took the jobs in camp.

Redshirt senior Chris Johnson, from Jacksonville, has plenty of special teams and nickel experience, but he opposes a youngster – redshirt freshman Brandon Moore, a graduate of Seminole High School.

Two juniors, Rashard Causey and junior college transfer Keenan Johnson, will be on their heels for the starting jobs, and will likely see plenty of action in nickel and dime packages.

And then there's the question of to what extent three highly touted transfers - former Alabama DBs Shawn Burgess-Becker and Aaron Robinson, and former UNC corner Mike Hughes - will contribute once they get involved.

The competition has been fierce, aided by the receiving unit, which may be the best in The American.

"You either rise up to the competition, or you fold under," Neal said about the younger players in his unit. "We've got some amazing receivers, so we get them to push themselves every day because it's the best we see in conference."

"It gets pretty competitive," said receiver Cam Stewart. "But one-on-one times, that's when it gets really competitive."

"Me and [WR] Tre'quan [Smith] have a little thing going about who wins the most days throughout camp," Neal added. "Right now he'll probably tell you, 'We've won a couple,' but really, we've probably lost only one day, in my opinion."

Teams will test the Knights downfield, particularly the relatively inexperienced Moore. But that sort of test presents opportunities for big plays – something the Knights make a point of under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.

Last year, the Knights were tops in The American in passing efficiency defense (12th in the nation), second in pass defense, tied for fourth in interceptions. And they were second in the country Red Zone defense.

Point is, they were stingy like an experienced defense should be.

Fortunately, the entire defensive line is back, and if they can bring pressure on opposing passers, that will make life a lot easier for the guys downfield. But now that they're in year two under Chinanders' system, the learning curve has flattened out.

"We're way ahead of the ball game compared to last year," Neal said. "I feel like this time last camp, we were still zoning in on basic coverages and basic schemes. Now we're really good with the basic stuff, and we're getting more advanced and detailed with our craft - even specific things like our first step, which makes a difference."

When the four new DBs take that first step onto the field on August 31st against FIU, we'll see for the first time whether that difference shows itself on the field.

Check out our previous questions in this UCF Football Preview series:

Question No. 1: Is McKenzie Milton Still the Man at QB?

Question No. 2: What Will Shaquem Griffin Do for an Encore?

Question No. 3: Will the Offensive Line Be Better This Year?

Question No. 4: How Has Scott Frost Improved in Year Two?