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Most Improved Defensive Player? Joey Connors Gets the Nod

Senior defensive tackle has found success and self-belief in Randy Shannon’s aggressive scheme

Joey Connors UCF Knights Football fumble
Senior defensive tackle Joey Connors recovers a fumble versus Cincinnati on Nov. 17.
Derek Warden (Black and Gold Banneret)

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. — UCF defensive coordinator Randy Shannon’s high-pressure, turnover-focused scheme has improved the fortunes of a handful of Knights who have aspirations of continuing their football journey in the pros.

Perhaps no one’s career has been more impacted by Shannon’s arrival than senior defensive tackle Joey Connors. And the transformation began with their first meeting, on Shannon’s first day with the Knights last December.

Connors was busy hosting a recruit when Shannon approached him with a question: Who are the three best defensive linemen on this team? Connors rattled off the names rather quickly: Jamiyus Pittman, Tony Guerad and, if he was put on the front line, then-linebacker Titus Davis.

With that, Shannon followed with another query: Why didn’t you say yourself?

“When he asked me that, it kind of hit me,” Connors said Friday.

It was an epiphanic moment. He felt in that moment just how much his self-belief had become damaged.

Connors’ confidence began to drop at the start of the 2016 season, his redshirt sophomore year. Although he was a starter throughout fall camp, he fell behind freshman Trysten Hill on the depth chart right before the season’s first game. Hill ended up being an every-week starter, and with he, Pittman and Guerad playing a large majority of the snaps in UCF’s 3-4 alignment, Connors was left to spend most of his time as a sideline spectator on the second string.

“Being a two,” he said, “you can kind of lack that confidence and it makes you think, ‘Are you good enough?’”

That’s what Shannon set out to prove to Connors this season. And one of the first steps was having Connors look at his actual first step.

The teacher wanted the pupil to see just how quickly he was able to get off the line for a man of his size. He told Connors, whom most regarded pre-2018 as a run-stopper first and foremost, that he could be one of the best pass-rushers he has ever coached. The two watched tape of NFL All-Pro linemen such as Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh and Fletcher Cox because Shannon wanted Connors to see how he is not so much unlike them with his quick reactions.

“I think this season, with the sacks and the pressures and the tackles for loss, I think that’s just him building that confidence,” Connors said of Shannon, “and showing the technique of NFL guys and how it can translate to my game has been huge.

“Every single day -- spring, (fall) camp -- he built that confidence in me. Between him and [defensive line coach Shane] Burnham, they’ve built so much confidence in me and I think this year, finally, I just felt that and let it all out.”

Connors has filled up the stat sheet this season with 27 tackles, four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, four QB hits, a fumble and a blocked kick. It wouldn’t have been possible without Shannon’s attacking scheme — ”I loved last year’s defense,” Connors said, “but this defense we’re running allows us to have fun.”

But it also took plenty of work on the player’s part, and Connors has followed Shannon’s lead all the way. It’s why when Shannon was asked Friday whom he considers to be the most improved player on this defense, he pointed directly at Connors, sitting just a few feet to his right during the morning’s media scrum.

“Really happy for him, him being a senior, a guy who’s been here for four years,” Shannon said. “What he’s done, it’s been exciting.”

Connors was caught slightly off-guard when told of the coach’s praise, but it’s just another piece he can use to build that confidence.

“Even him saying that, you just get that feeling inside that you’re doing something right, and that’s always a good feeling,” Connors said.

The Powder Springs, Ga. native thinks his time with Shannon has altered his NFL trajectory, but he doesn’t want to think too much about the future right now; his focus remains on finishing out his college career with yet another victory. He’s trying the best he can to take in all of these final little moments and said Friday, “If it’s my last time playing football, I think [the Fiesta Bowl] is a pretty good stage to go out on.”

But considering how Connors has changed as a player in 2018, both internally and externally, Tuesday may not represent his football finale.

“Just doing the right thing and seeing the results finally happen, it took a little while, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “This is an awesome fifth year.”