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UCF’s Checklist vs. East Carolina

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Will the Knights’ defense fix its Week 1 mistakes? How will that group handle East Carolina QB Holton Ahlers?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Tulsa at ECU
East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers
Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

“You want to make the biggest strides from game 1 to game 2.”

That was UCF Knights secondary coach Willie Martinez earlier this week, citing a widely accepted tenet in football. Despite their convincing victory over an ACC team on the road in their 2020 opener, there are some areas where the Knights can evidently improve in game No. 2. We’ll cover a couple of those here, but we have to start with the one man who gives the East Carolina Pirates any chance of keeping Saturday’s game from becoming a laugher by halftime.

1. How will UCF try to contain ECU QB Holton Ahlers?

Everyone is singing Dillon Gabriel’s praises, and deservingly so. He is backing up all of the love he got from a handful of preseason award watch lists this summer, including the Manning Award, which honors college football’s best quarterback. But did you know that one of the other 29 QBs joining Gabriel on that list is the Pirates’ Holton Ahlers? He basically cinched his spot with this four-game span to end last season:

1,715 passing yards (429 per game); 14:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 65.1 completion percentage.

The Knights have seen Ahlers twice, including in his first career collegiate start back in 2018. He’s a big kid at 6-foot-3 and around 230 pounds, but one with an arm to match and the mobility to create when everything breaks down. As you can see in the video below, he does good work when he is out of the pocket, and he doesn’t need to use much effort to sling that bean 40 yards downfield.

Ahlers’ bugaboo is that, sometimes, he’s not exactly sure where his throws are headed. There were at least two plays I remember from UCF’s 41-28 victory over East Carolina last year in which Ahlers literally tossed the ball up for grabs while under pressure. Forcing Ahlers to work under duress from inside the pocket should be one of UCF’s chief goals.

2. Will UCF’s defense clean up its communication issues?

The Knights’ defensive line played pretty well against Georgia Tech, highlighted by Randy Charlton’s active hands and Josh Celiscar’s dream debut. However, the second and third levels of the defense made a few glaring, repetitive mistakes when the Yellow Jackets sent their running backs on wheel routes.

On Tech’s second drive, Jahmyr Gibbs lined up left of the quarterback, went on his route and should have been picked up by linebacker Eriq Gilyard. He wasn’t, so the result was a wide-open Gibbs, who caught a pass for a 20-yard gain.

Three plays later, running back Jamious Griffin leaked out of the formation and took advantage of a UCF blitz to pick up 25 yards on a catch-and-run. A couple of drives later, Gibbs gained 23 more yards on a reception as linebacker Eric Mitchell was caught between blitzing and guarding his man.

Then, right before the half, Gibbs scored an easy 9-yard touchdown when safety Dyllan Lester clearly missed his assignment, leaving Gibbs all alone for a walk-in score.

These things happen, certainly in the first game of the year. But when asked this week about the defense’s performance, multiple coaches have stressed that they need to fix the communication issues and busts that led to these chunk gains.

Also, as I said in our latest podcast episode, I again want to see how UCF’s freshmen cornerbacks perform, this time when challenged by Ahlers. The trio of Corey Thornton, Justin Hodges and Davonte Brown were fine last week, but Jeff Sims simply didn’t look to throw outside the numbers much. And when he did, his passes were often uncatchable. Ahlers will be much less reticent to air it out, and he is definitely a better passer right now than the true freshman Sims.

3. Ryan O’Keefe: You’re up.

You know Marlon Williams. You know Jacob Harris. And after last week, you certainly know Jaylon Robinson. But once Tre Nixon got hurt at the end of his second-quarter touchdown grab, it was sophomore Ryan O’Keefe who replaced him in four-wide formations and ultimately played 25 snaps. O’Keefe is yet another field-stretcher who saw a couple of targets last week once Nixon departed. Both of them were, naturally, thrown 30 yards down the field. The first was underthrown by Gabriel; the second carried Keefe out of bounds as the ball arrived. But UCF would be wise to use his speed, especially since Gabriel said this week that O’Keefe is the fastest guy on the team.

To me, that’s a more interesting statement than Gabriel’s proclamation that UCF is the best team in Florida.

O’Keefe played in every game last year, catching seven passes for 74 yards. Most of his field time came on special teams. But head coach Josh Heupel said Thursday that O’Keefe’s work ethic beyond game day has earned him this more prominent role.

“I think late last year, we tried to involve [O’Keefe] more in what we were doing because of his practice habits and what we had seen from him. That continued during the course of training camp here, too,” Heupel said. “A young guy that’s really started to figure out what we’re doing inside of our system, how to handle the tempo that we’re playing at and be in the right place at the right time. Dillon has got great confidence in him.”

The Knights set up in four-receiver formations on more than 50% of their plays last week before the game really started to get out of hand in the fourth quarter. Granted, Nixon still hasn’t been officially ruled out by Heupel, but that’s just gamesmanship. It would be stunning if Nixon plays, so that means O’Keefe is going to see probably more snaps on offense this Saturday than he did in any game last season.

Is he the fastest player on the team? Maybe Gabriel will throw some deep balls to give his claim some evidence.

4. Will UCF’s defense stay locked in during the second half?

Look, no one expects this to be a close battle. The Knights are favored by 27.5 points against a team with a defense that was one of the worst in the FBS last season. But what UCF’s coaches don’t want to see is a rerun of what happened when these teams met in 2019.

UCF led 35-3 with 8:23 left in the second quarter. Everything was dandy. From there, the Pirates outscored the Knights in the Bounce House, 25-6. Even though this upcoming game is expected to be another blowout, I’m sure the coaches have been constantly reminding the players how East Carolina outplayed them in the second half last year.

“We’ve got something to prove,” Martinez said, “because we didn’t play really well in the second half the last time we played [Ahlers].”

If UCF is once again up by 30 at halftime this Saturday, you will know exactly what the coaches are telling them in the locker room.