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Five Biggest Questions #2: Will the Defense Be Better?

UCF’s defense struggled mightily last year. Can Coach T-Will turn it around?

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Central Florida
Kalia Davis and the Knights’ defense need to cause more havoc in 2021.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

As we wind up for the kickoff of the 2021 football season, we are will spend this week asking answering our the five biggest questions we think the UCF Knights will have to answer coming into the season. But this year, we’re doing it a bit differently than in the past: Round Table Style.

We continue with Question #2: Will the defense be better this season under new coordinator Travis Williams?

Jeff Sharon

Man, I hope so. Bend-but-don’t-break broke in a big way in 2020, culminating in Zach Wilson torching the Knights’ defense in the Boca Raton Bowl.

The numbers don’t lie. Last year, UCF was:

  • 123rd in FBS in total defense (491.8 yards allowed per game)
  • 93rd in rushing defense (192.6 yards allowed per game)
  • 121st in passing yards allowed (299.2 yards allowed per game)
  • 92nd in scoring defense (33.2 points allowed per game)

So with Randy Shannon gone, in comes another former-linebacker-turned-coach in Travis Williams, complete with a brand new attitude - not to say that Randy didn’t get his guys up to play (he did, and I think some fans were unfair to him a lot over his tenure), but this group is getting more buy-in from the man up top.

Gus Malzahn emphasized the defense in his introductory press conference, and the players have said there is a lot more camaraderie between the offense and defense, where last year it seemed the team was divided by unit.

They’re going to need that chemistry, because the high-flying offenses the Knights will face this year, starting with Boise State, will be licking their chops at a relatively inexperienced secondary. But I think this unit will surprise some people with how good the front seven is.

Andrew Gluchov

I don’t think the defense was able to get much worse last year.

It was a perfect storm situation. First, two starters and then two more on the initial two-deep roster opted out due to covid. Second, a number of players, all defensive players, got in trouble and were dismissed from the program. Third, the offense was so quick, the defense never got a chance to rest. Let’s look at these points a little more.

No other school in the country had more opt-outs than UCF. The Knights were the only one with over ten. Tay Gowan and Kalia Davis were expected to be leaders on the defense with highly-anticipated transfer Davunte Dawson being a major contributor in the backfield. None of them ever saw the field in 2020. Gowan moved on to the NFL, but Davis and Dawson are back. Again, they’re expected to play major roles in the defense this year. All during spring practice, Davis has been garnering praise from his peers. He’s also been used in some goal line formations as a running back, which he played in high school.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 Gasparilla Bowl - UCF v Marshall
Kalia Davis
Photo by Mary Holt/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

No one can anticipate disciplinary situations. When a traffic stop went sideways, the price the defense paid was catastrophic. The Knights lost starters Randy Charlton, Kenny Turnier, Eric Mitchell, and Antwan Collier. While the cliche “next man up” has to be applied, you don’t just make up for that lost depth. In the case of Mitchell, his replacement, Tatum Bethune, became the better player between the two, but the nickel defense run by defensive coordinator Randy Shannon put a lot of pressure on the linebackers to cover a lot of the field with fewer bodies. The defensive line failed to really create that much pressure after the dismissals and that cascaded problems throughout the rest of the defense. The defense has retooled its depth through player development and recruiting.

Any defense, even one at full strength, needs time to rest and recharge while the offense is on the field. Josh Heupel’s offense tried to be so fast, you’d have possessions that lasted less than two minutes. That’s not good for a defense. You can still have a fast offense, but not always rely on the home run ball. Malzahn’s offense will not be as one-dimensional.

Jeremy Brener

The defense lost a lot of talent in the offseason. No Richie Grant and no Aaron Robinson make the secondary a bit suspect. Sure, adding Big Kat Bryant and Kalia Davis back into the mix help the team, but the unit isn’t as proven this year as it was last year.

The biggest difference the defense has from last year to this year is defensive coordinator Travis Williams.

Travis Williams at Auburn
Travis Williams at Auburn
Image Courtesy: Auburn University

T-Will is going to employ a far more disciplined defense than Randy Shannon had, which will hopefully bring out the best in his young and mostly unproven defense.

I don’t have high expectations for the defense at the moment, but the unit will have to grow into their own as the season rolls along. Don’t expect this to be an elite defense, but expect this group to be aggressive and target takeaways and improve as the season goes along.