This week, we’re answering what we think are the five biggest questions facing the UCF Knights as they enter the 2019 college football season. The third entry in this series covers the team’s new-look defensive line.
Roster turnover is just a fact of life in college football. And that fact of life is coming at UCF’s defensive line hard this year. The Knights are trying to replace their top three tackles — Trysten Hill, A.J. Wooten and Joey Connors — as well as their best defensive end and, really, the defense’s spokesman in 2018, Titus Davis.
In short, the Knights’ defensive line in 2019 is three things: New. Young. Varied.
Any discussion about this line has to begin with Hayes, the only returning senior at the position who has any game experience at UCF. He is the alpha of this group now, which is a far cry from where he was a year ago when even his own coaches didn’t know where he could fit.
“Last year, believe it or not, we benched him during this camp,” defensive line coach Shane Burnham said. “We came in, he was a [first-string player] during camp. We didn’t like the way he was playing. At this point last year, I didn’t know if Brendon Hayes could help us win a game or not. I’m just being honest. He was a big, 285-pound D-tackle that we were trying to strip down to a 255-pound D-end. That usually does not go well.”
But Hayes made the weight, made the transition and ended up either first or second on the team in sacks, tackles for loss and QB hits. He was named to the All-AAC second team.
Hayes said last week that he has “definitely” improved his pass-rushing prowess but also acknowledged there is plenty of room to grow.
“I’m not content in any facet of my game right now,” he said.
You know you are a little wet behind the ears when one of your leaders is a true sophomore. But other than Hayes, Charlton probably is this line’s most experienced returning player. And he is ready to lead by example.
“I just take it like a responsibility that I have,” the defensive end said about being a leader. “... I just feel like I’ve got to step up and help the younger guys that don’t know how Burnham wants it, show them how he does want it, help B Hayes lead and be that captain.”
The Miami native had some bright spots as a freshman, but he is looking to exponentially improve his stat line from 2018, when he compiled 21 tackles, one sack and three TFLs.
“At least seven sacks. I want to get a lot of tackles for loss ... 15, probably 20,” he said. “I just want to be up there. I want to be up there with the greats.”
Wilson didn’t officially become a Knight until May and has spent only one season as a defensive tackle, but given the state of UCF’s defensive interior, he will have a chance to start right away.
Working in Wilson’s favor is the lack of a long learning curve. The 6-foot-3, 285-pound grad transfer from Indiana is already familiar with what he is being asked to do.
“They have an attack defense, that is what I was playing at Indiana with [head coach Tom] Allen,” Wilson said. “They did a good job of teaching attack defense, so down here, I’m getting acclimated to the same things. It was a smooth transition.
“They recruited me for get-off, and that’s what they want me to do here. They want me to get off the ball, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
Wilson made 10 tackles and one sack as a reserve player for the Hoosiers last season.
Wilson said he has been “hip-to-hip” with Hayes and Turnier since arriving at UCF, which is fitting since those are two guys he will often play between when he lines up at right defensive tackle.
Turnier has made the move from end to tackle, drawing praise from Burnham for how he has put on weight this summer. He picked up two sacks in very limited playing time last year.
And a Host of Others ...
The Knights will open with four down linemen, but much like last season, they are intent on rotating through a bevy of players during a game. Burnham said at least two players will be used at each position, including at least five different D-tackles.
Redshirt junior Dedrion Bacote-Sweat has been beset by injuries during his UCF career, but both Burnham and Charlton said he was the team’s best pass rusher in the spring. He will try to provide pressure on third downs and obvious passing situations.
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Cam Goode has “reshaped” his body, according to Burnham, having trimmed down from 315 pounds to 285 since enrolling. That’s allowed him to play better football more consistently and for longer periods of time.
“He can move better now, more explosive off the ball,” Burnham said of Goode.
Landon Woodson is a 6-foot-6 defensive end who didn’t play as a true freshman due to a knee injury, but the Knights had plans on using him right away. Burnham said Woodson is gaining more confidence in his knee as it heals and is currently lining up with the second team in camp.
You can also include athletic 6-foot-4 tackle Noah Hancock and two players who logged game action last season: 6-foot-7, 305-pound tackle Mason Cholewa and converted linebacker Kalia Davis.
So, what happens now?
There is nothing that can truly replicate live game action against a real opponent, but the Knights are confident that they have the depth and athleticism, if not the experience, to make to make up for what they have lost.
“That unit, I said it at media days, maybe grew and changed as much as any position throughout the course of summer,” head coach Josh Heupel said about his defensive line last week. “Physically, when you see them come out on the practice field, they look different. They’re moving different than they were. I think [Hayes and Charlton] really grabbing the reins of that group took them to a different place this summer, but also will ultimately turn them into who and what we’re going to be up front on that side of the line of scrimmage during the course of the season as well.”