Attacking Champions. It's the motto inside of UCF Football's locker room. It also deftly describes what defensive coordinator Randy Shannon expects his players to be this season.
On the evening of National Signing Day, Feb. 7, UCF coaches introduced the program's newest Knights to a gathering of fans inside The Venue. As Shannon stood up on stage with film of defensive lineman signee Randy Charlton displayed behind him, Shannon told the crowd the crux of his defensive philosophy.
"Create tackles for loss," he said. "That's the biggest thing that we're going to do on defense this year, create tackles for loss and negative plays. ... Creating negative football plays, that's what defense is all about."
When talking to Shannon's players, it's clear he has been hammering that philosophy into their heads all summer long.
"This year, they really want us getting off the ball, getting in the backfield more, getting after the quarterback and running back," defensive tackle Joey Connors said. "I really like that. Coach Shannon is big on linebackers coming downhill, D-line getting upfield, so I love that. I love getting off the ball."
While the 2017 defense was highly ranked for a significant portion of last season and forced the second-most turnovers in the nation, it settled into the middle of the pack when it came to sacks and TFLs. And about half of that production came via players who are no longer on the roster.
The voids up front left by the likes of Jamiyus Pittman and Tony Guerad will be filled, at least in a starting capacity, by tackles Connors and A.J. Wooten, and ends Titus Davis and Brendon Hayes. Charlton, whose film clips from that signing day event made a few people in the audience react with a quieter Ric Flair impersonation, is listed as a backup to Hayes. Trysten Hill, who is on the preseason watch list for the Bednarik Award, might be the Knights' most physically gifted defensive lineman, and he is currently listed as a backup to Wooten, which does speak to the depth UCF has along its front line.
The 4-3 scheme demands speed off the edges, which is why players such as Charlton and Davis have turned from linebackers into edge linemen. For the senior Davis, who started out on the line in George O'Leary's 4-3 defense, he admits that returning from being a linebacker still took some time getting used to.
"It's been a big difference from the start," Davis said last month. "Like my stance: Do I have one foot up or am I stagnant standing? How do I play it? Just fitting into those defenses, adjusting to it, making me more agile to adversities, it feels good."
Behind the front four is the man that many on this defense see as its leader, middle linebacker Pat Jasinski. While everyone was rightfully tracking Shaquem Griffin's every move on the football field, waiting to see kind of havoc he would create next, people may have overlooked that it was Jasinski who paced the Knights with 105 tackles last this season. His current backup is freshman Eriq Gilyard, a four-star recruit who brings more of the quickness and skills that Shannon desires.
Jasinski will be flanked by starting weakside linebacker Eric Mitchell and strongside linebacker/converted safety Shawn Burgess-Becker. They both saw game action last season but will be making their first career starts versus UConn. However, the relevance of that fact is overblown, according to Shannon.
"Everybody gets caught up into the starting deal; they played in games. It don't make a difference. If you played in games, games are
all that matter ... That's all it is. It's just the momentum and excitement of playing a game. If you've got confidence in a young man, the young man will play. If you don't have confidence in him, he won't play. We have confidence in all the guys on defense."
This defense is replacing six full-time starters from 2017. Yet, Shannon is as confident now as he was back in February that the Knights' offense won't be the only unit authoring big plays consistently this season.
"We lost a lot of guys up front, but with guys like Randy and a couple of other guys we got on defense, we can create a lot of sacks and create a lot of turnovers," Shannon told the supporters.
We are mere hours away from seeing if they can do exactly that.