To put together a season like UCF had in 2017, a perfect storm has to brew and one of the biggest factors is strong leadership. There was no better leader than Shaquem Griffin. He wasn’t only a leader of the defense, he was someone all players and fans alike looked up to. Now that Griffin is making waves in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks, UCF’s defense is going to have to find their next man up, as if it wasn’t hard enough learning a new scheme. The only problem is, who can fill shoes that big?
Between players graduating, declaring early or transferring, the Knights defense lost five of their starting 11 from a year returning only 54% of their total tackle production. There are four projected starting seniors on defense who have seen it all: a winless season, an undefeated season and three different coaching staffs. Those are the guys that are going to need to step up and be the leaders of this unit.
One of the players who really helped lead the defensive backs last season was then junior safety Tre Neal. With Neal transferring to Nebraska, a lot of eyes have turned to redshirt senior safety Kyle Gibson. Gibson is one of the most experienced players on that roster and his guidance will be very helpful to this fairly young secondary.
Another major presence on that defense is senior linebacker Pat Jasinksi. Pat may not be the vocal leader Griffin was, but he’s most certainly respected by his peers and feared by his opponents. He’ll be a player who will lead by example and serve as a great role model for the younger guys.
Senior defensive lineman Titus Davis and Joey Connors will also play a big part in leading this defense as they are projected to be part of the few starting seniors. Titus got to learn under Shaquem as a part of the linebackers group before switching to defensive end for the upcoming season. Connors, a fifth-year senior, is another mature, experienced presence who will need to step up and help lead this unit.
The reality of the situation is that players like Shaquem Griffin only come along every so often. There’s not going to be only one man in that locker room who can fill the void. Honestly, who knows if that void can even be completely filled? At the same time, who would have thought in 2014 or 2015 that Shaquem would have turned out to be the player and leader he became. If one thing is for certain, we'll see who rises to the occasion come kickoff next week.