Knight Riders: UCF Defense Set To Shine
Blake Bortles and the UCF offense received most of the national spotlight in 2013, but the Knights’ defense was stout throughout last season’s historic run.
Central Florida’s defense held opponents to 122.5 yards per game on the ground, yielding 21 rushing touchdowns, including four against Baylor’s high-octane touchdown machine in a Fiesta Bowl win. The secondary surrendered slightly less than 240 yards in the air (239.5, 77th nationally), but only allowed a 56.8 completion percentage and intercepted more passes it allowed touchdowns.
Key contributors from 2013 sit atop the depth chart entering this season as the defense returns 10 of its 11 starters, seven of whom are upperclassmen. Despite defensive coordinator Jim Fleming departing for the head coaching gig at the University of Rhode Island, the Knights will feature a formidable unit with talent at every level.
The defense’s most decorated player is Terrance Plummer, a 240-pound middle linebacker entering his senior year. To go along with his first team all-American Athletic Conference nod, Plummer was a SI.com honorable mention All-American and was named the Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP after racking up 14 tackles. Plummer has broken the 100-tackle milestone in each of the previous two seasons, including 15.5 tackles for loss over that time. He is the focal point of the Knights’ defense and should add more accolades to his resume at the end of the season.
Senior Troy Gray is the other linebacker to keep an eye on in 2014. Gray has been a mainstay in the lineup since his true freshman season, starting nine games in 2011, registering 33 tackles in 2012 and finishing fifth on the team in tackles last season with 62. Gray plays on the outside and chipped in all kinds of ways in 2013 with four tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, four passes defended and one forced fumble.
Roaming the secondary are two potentially lethal tandems. Seniors Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander will man the safety positions. Formerly a walk-on, Alexander made the switch to free safety in 2013 after two seasons starting at cornerback, breaking up seven passes and intercepting three while tallying 63 tackles. Entering his senior season, he’s started 30 games and broken up 21 passes. Not too shabby for someone who didn’t receive a scholarship after graduating high school.
Alexander’s partner in the secondary is Clayton Geathers. Geathers nabbed two picks, deflected 10 passes and logged 100 tackles in his junior season en route to being named a second-team all-American Athletic Conference performer. Playing strong safety frees up Geathers to make his presence felt close to the line of scrimmage as he recorded 4.5 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.
Flanking the safeties are Jordan Ozerities and Jacoby Glenn. Ozerities only picked off one pass in his junior season, but the timing couldn’t have better. With 1:20 remaining against USF, Ozerities sealed the Knights' first win over the Bulls by intercepting Mike White’s final pass. He deflected six passes on the season and his late-game heroics against USF cement him as a key member to the defense.
The youngest member of the secondary is also its best. Emerging as a force to be reckoned with in his debut season, Jacoby Glenn enters 2014 as one of the conference’s best cornerbacks. Glenn forced 15 incompletions and picked off two throws in his initial season, which secured placement on the FWAA’s freshman All-American team and made sure he joined Plummer on the All-American Athletic Conference first team. Glenn’s ascension should instill fear in the opposition as his disruptive play at an early age could force foes to work away from his talents.
Line play is the weakest aspect of the defense. Junior Thomas Niles is the group’s leader in sacks with nine in his first two seasons. Demetris Anderson is the massive man in the middle and totaled seven tackles for loss in his first season of play after transferring from Western Michigan. Jaryl Mamea, a native of American Samoa, started three games in 2013 and brought down the quarterback twice. Luke Adams is the youngest on the line, making only two tackles in 10 games of action (five starts).
However, Central Florida's success wasn’t predicated on gaudy sack totals and the line succeeded by putting pressure of the offense’s front five, which makes life easier for the linebackers and defensive backs. As long as the front four can harass quarterback and challenge opposing offensive lines, preventing them from opening running lanes and getting to the second level to block, the defense will remain prosperous.
The Knights played above-average defense last season by limiting mistakes and avoiding reckless moves. With nearly every important cog from a BCS winner returning in 2014 and Louisville leaving for the ACC, the Knights have the strongest case as the conference’s best defense.