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UCF is Finding Out Where All Its Pieces Fit on Defense

The Knights are trying many different player/position combos during training camp.

Gasparilla Bowl UCF beats Marshall 48-25
UCF safety — or cornerback? Nickelback? — Richie Grant.
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Richie Grant has been a fixture at safety for the UCF Knights for the past two seasons, starting 25 of 26 possible games. During that time, he has become one of the best safeties in the American Athletic Conference, if not the nation. He is a two-time All-AAC first-team selection, a 2019 preseason All-American, and has been named to a bevy of award watch lists in each of those years.

In training camp this year, Grant is playing safety. And sometimes cornerback. And sometimes nickelback.

While a full-blown position switch would take something drastic, this is the kind of season where drastic measures may indeed be required. That’s why, in order to build depth and foster competition, the Knights are experimenting in camp, trying to see who can fit where.

“We’ve moved guys around,” defensive coordinator Randy Shannon said Friday, “because you’ve always got to prepare for the future and prepare for things. That ‘What if?’

For example: What if UCF has a handful of players from one position impacted by COVID-19 and ruled out for a game that carries on as scheduled? What’s the backup-backup plan?

“It challenges people to keep playing at a high level and not just sit back and say, ‘Well, I’m the backup to this position,’ because you can move guys around. The more depth that you build, it gives you more leeway to move people around and have a much better football team,” Shannon said.

In the secondary, Antwan Collier and Jermaine McMillian have plied their trade at free and strong safety. Dyllon Lester, who Shannon says has been “unbelievable” in camp, has taken reps at nickelback as well as both safety positions.

The mixing and matching continues in the middle of the defense, where five linebackers appear to be in heavy rotation.

“I’ve put Tatum (Bethune) with Eric Mitchell and Eriq Gilyard. I’ve put Jeremiah (Jean-Baptiste) with those guys. I’ve put Eric Mitchell with Quade (Mosier). It’s just moving them around and making them all feel comfortable with each other, and they’ve done that.”

Mosier is the only freshman in that group, and Shannon pointed out that only veterans, no freshmen, are being tested at wholly different positions. His intention is to be “steady” with the first-year players while letting the more experienced Knights branch out because they are “the guys that should be able to pick things up.”

Shannon also expects recent reinforcements via the transfer portal, such as defensive backs Divaad Wilson and Jaiden Francois, to push for big roles at some point this season. They may not be ready at the moment since both men arrived at UCF just this month, but Shannon was clear: No one on this team is here to settle for a backup gig.

“We’re bringing guys in here to compete, to take people’s jobs, to make us better,” he said.

More Praise for Freshmen

For the second day in a row, Mosier was on the lips of a UCF coach who was asked which youngsters are looking good in camp.

Quade Mosier got here in January, so he’s been very, very good,” Shannon said. “Also, Josh Celiscar, freshman, has done a tremendous job. His weight is up. He’s strong, he’s powerful, but he’s a freshman; he’s making freshman mistakes like all of them are. But the one thing they’re not doing is continuing to make the same mistakes. I think that’s a big thing.”

Shannon said if the freshmen keep progressing at their current rate, all of them “will be ready to go” by the third or fourth week of the season.

“We’re excited about all of them because they have brung a lot of excitement and challenges and competitive edge. And they are pushing guys, which is very fun to have, to have young guys pushing people to make them better.”

Leading From the Sidelines

No one on this defense may be able to replace the vocal leadership that linebacker Nate Evans provided last season; Shannon said his group doesn’t have a lot of “rah-rah” players. But one player who has provided leadership in camp is redshirt senior cornerback Brandon Moore, who is still recovering from a knee injury that he suffered one year ago Saturday.

“On that sideline, he is in those cornerbacks’ heads every second of the day. And that’s becoming a leader,” Shannon said of Moore.

Speaking Up For Justice

Don’t be afraid to talk about what’s going on in the world. The Knights aren’t: