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 #4: After losing a lot of talent to the NFL, who will need to step up in the Knights’ secondary?
One thing we learned from the bowl game against BYU was that the depth of UCF’s secondary was inexperienced to say the least. But sometimes getting roasted by an NFL first-rounder like Zach Wilson shows you exactly how far you have to go in the off-season.
So now is the time for the true talent back there to step it up - and Travis Williams’ unit is talented in the secondary. The question is whether those players will be experienced enough from spring and summer practice to be in the right position to make the plays UCF needs them to make. I expect Divaad Wilson to emerge as the leader, and I really look forward to seeing what some of the younger guys who got some run last year do, like Quadric Bullard and Davonte Brown.
But the key here will be coaching. Gus Malzahn hired a 27-year coaching veteran in ex-Mizzou defensive coordinator David Gibbs as his co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach, and also added Addison Williams to coach the cornerbacks specifically. Gibbs’ 2019 unit at Mizzou was sixth in pass defense. Williams comes from Coastal Carolina, who were 16th in the nation in pass efficiency defense last year, and held Wilson to just 17 points in their matchup last season - and a paltry three points in the second half. I’ll take that amount of coaching talent and experience any time.
One benefit from everything that went wrong last year is that a lot of players who are back this year got meaningful play time, even if it wasn’t pretty. It doesn’t make up for the misery the close score losses gave, but we need to see the silver lining here.
There are a number of players who will be expected to help make things happen in the secondary. First is Derek Gainous. The senior has been on the field a lot throughout his career at UCF, so he’s viewed as one of the leaders of the defense. Next is Corey Thornton. The freshman got thrown into the fire early and is one of three defensive backs to record interceptions last year. After that is Divaad Wilson. The transfer from Georgia came to UCF with high expectations. Same with Jaiden Francois, who got stuck in transfer purgatory from Nebraska to UCF. He was stuck on the scout team, but he is on the active roster now. There were high hopes that Missouri Jarvis Ware would be able to contribute, but an injury ended his season before it began.
I really like Divaad Wilson the most at this moment in time, but most of the secondary has not seen a lot of playing time. Wilson could not get onto the field until late in the season with eligibility problems, but from what we saw in the latter half of the season made me hopeful that he could be a key contributor coming into the season.
Dyllon Lester will also have an increased role, and he was beginning to show some flashes towards the end of last season as well.
It’s going to be a collective effort. The unit had two players drafted on Day 2 in this past draft, so not only is this position group replacing seniors, but really good seniors at that. The work is certainly cut out for them, but with good coaching and stepping up when opportunity knocks, the unit could surprise people this season.
This is probably the biggest question mark for the team this preseason. Outside of Divaad Wilson and Corey Thornton, it’s not really known who will be starting. Thornton probably got more playing time than expected last year, with Tay Gowan - who is now with the Arizona Cardinals - opting out last season due to COVID.
Seniors Derek Gainous started four games last year, and Dyllon Lester played in all 10 games last year. Or will we see younger talent like Davonte Brown and Quadric Bullard step up this season?
Regardless of who lines up in the defensive backfield, with a much improved front seven, the secondary should post significantly better numbers than last year.