It’s our last full week without UCF Knights football, and as we continue to preview the Knights for 2022, we give you our Five Biggest Questions facing the Knights heading into the season.
We continue by looking at the position group that had the most amount of turnover this offseason: the linebackers.
Two of the team’s leading tacklers, Bryson Armstrong and Tatum Bethune, have moved on along with a majority of the depth behind them. Only three of the 12 linebackers listed on the roster were Knights last season.
So, in Round Table format, we each give our answers to this question: How will the Linebacker unit hold up with so many new additions?
Answering the question are Jeff Sharon, Kyle Nash, Andrew Gluchov, and Bryson Turner.
Jeff: It’s clear that this is the biggest issue Travis Williams is going to have to sort out. Tatum Bethune is gone to FSU, and the unit was already thin to begin with. However, I don’t think this will be as bad of an issue as others do.
For one thing, Tre’mon Morris-Brash is back at the Buck position (hybrid LB/DE), and he is a human wrecking crew. Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste is also back, and UCF picked up a very talented player from the portal in Maryland transfer Terrence Lewis.
The good thing is this group will have plenty of room to grow. Up front, the D-Line is massive and well-seasoned, as is the secondary behind them. Should the D-Line perform as expected, that will free up the backers to do what T-Will wants them to do: Create turnovers.
Kyle: The answer to this question will be essential to UCF’s success in the coming year. The good news is that they have tons of support coming in from their veteran corps of talented defensive backs and Ricky Barber in the trenches will draw double teams from the defensive tackle position to prevent any opposing interior offensive lineman from going to the second level to block.
But where the problems will come is facing mobile quarterbacks and disciplined ground attacks. Anyone who saw the 2021 edition of the Louisville game will remember Malik Cunningham (a prospect that coach Gus Malzahn recruited while still at Auburn) zipping all over the field on the Knights. While the counter-argument to this will be that a number of players were injured in that game allowing Cunnigham to take over, the bigger point is that UCF is now younger and less deep at the position that’s most essential to canceling out a mobile man under center.
I’m on record stating that I think the Knights will finish fourth in the conference this year, and this group is among the biggest reasons why. That being said, reports out of camp from Malzahn and his defensive coordinator Travis Williams are that despite the new faces, there is depth at the position. If that’s true, I will enjoy fans telling me how wrong I am.
Andrew: We’ve seen this before. UCF had trouble with their linebacking unit going into 2021. There was a definite depth problem. Gus Malzahn brought in Bryson Armstrong and he did a great job before his season ended prematurely due to injury.
Like last year, UCF had to go to the transfer portal to fill in holes. This year, UCF had more holes to fill and used the portal that much more. Gone is Armstrong and former starter Tatum Bethune. The portal giveth and the portal taketh away. With Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste as the primary holdover, Malzahn went to work on the portal and he brought in a haul.
Asked me how I’m doing I said better pic.twitter.com/1IUkFV4dWC— TerrEnce Lewis (@lewis_t2) August 11, 2022
The most hyped player of the group is former five-star recruit Terrence Lewis from Maryland. Lewis missed 2021 due to injury, so he doesn’t have any college numbers yet, but he’s a redshirt freshman with a lot of potential ahead of him. Also from Maryland is sophomore Branden Jennings. He played in five games last year, totaling 23 tackles and a forced fumble. Senior Walter Yates III comes from Savannah State. His best season was in 2019, where he had 61 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, and a fumble recovery. Lastly, the man with the best college resume is Jason Johnson from Eastern Illinois. Johnson has quite the number of accolades. He was first-team All-OVC in 2021 and 2020 and he was All-OVC Newcomer Team in 2019. In 2019, he was a second-team freshman All-American. He was also a sophomore All-American in 2020 and 2021. As for his numbers, he had 101 tackles, 0.5 sacks, and 4 fumble recoveries in 10 games. In the short spring 2021 season, he had 66 tackles in six games. UCF is going to have to rely on the experience of Johnson and Yates to go along with Jean-Baptiste and Quade Mosier.
Bryson: It will not exactly be easy to replace two of the top three tacklers on the team last season. Bryson Armstrong has graduated and moved on to the next phase of his life while Tatum Bethune entered the transfer portal and is now with Florida State. So, it will be up to one of the team captains, Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, to lead his position group full of new faces into 2022.
While I think Jean-Baptiste should still have a good year like he did last season, he cannot be everywhere.
Check out my Linebacker preview for the full list, but the newcomers to the linebacker room range from experienced veterans at the FCS level with Jason Johnson and Walter Yates lll to less experienced but highly touted former Power Five players in Terrence Lewis and Brandon Jennings. Two of these players will likely have to step up in order for the room to be at the place it was last season.
Defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Travis Williams has praised these players’ abilities during Media Day and fall camp pressers, but the true test will start soon. With that said, if there is anyone that can reload this position group, it’s T-Will.
I would not be surprised if Louisville’s Malik Cunningham gives this group some issues in Week 2, but I think once they get to Week 5’s matchup with SMU, led by QB Tanner Mordecai, they will have enough playing time under their belt to, at the very least, hold their own for the rest of the way.