While UCF’s offense made big headlines leading to their Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor, the unsung heroes of the Knights’ 12-1 campaign were on the other side of the ball. While the numbers were good but not spectacular, UCF’s defense came up with several key plays down the stretch that enabled Blake Bortles to work his magic.
But big changes to the defense took place even before the Fiesta Bowl kicked off, and so the second biggest question facing the UCF football team in 2014 surrounds what should be one of its greatest strengths:
2. How good will UCF’s defense be under Tyson Summers?
During the Fiesta Bowl telecast, it seemed like the cameras covering the UCF sideline spent more time on linebacker coach Tyson Summers than they did on anyone else, George O’Leary included. The reason for this was self-evident: The young assistant was calling his first game as the Knights’ interim defensive coordinator in the biggest game in school history. The results cannot be argued with: A win is a win, especially over an offense as high-powered as Baylor’s.
Little did Summers – or anyone else, for that matter – know that he would not be just the interim defensive coordinator for long, as he was named the full-time defensive coordinator barely two months later.
Summers’ route to his current job could best be described as circuitous. The Knights’ linebacker coach took over the defense following the departure of Jim Fleming for the head coaching job at Rhode Island. His unit performed admirably in the bowl game, given the circumstances, and made a few key third-down stops that enabled the Knights offense to win the shoot-out.
O’Leary had tabbed ex-Maine defensive coordinator Paul Ferraro for the job prior to the Fiesta Bowl, but Ferraro informed O’Leary in March that he would return to Maine, despite accompanying the team to Arizona (though he never coached even one practice) and even appearing with the team at National Signing Day functions. So O’Leary pulled the interim tag off of Summers before Spring Ball.
He has certainly made an impact already.
“Going into the preseason, you definitely see the drive, the motivation that [Summers] has to push this defense forward,” said senior LB Troy Gray at UCF’s Media Day this past Friday.
Despite moving up in conference and playing the nation’s top offense in the bowl game, the Knights still averaged giving up just over 21 points per game over the course of last season – third-best in the American Athletic Conference.
However, a cynic will tell you that Summers-coached defenses average giving up 42 points and 550 yards per game. But again, that’s a one-game sample size against the best offense in the country in 2013. With a full spring and summer under his belt, Summers should expect those averages to drop considerably.
He also has the aid of familiarity. Nine defensive starters return in 2014, as the Knights lost only DL E.J. Dunston and DB Sean Maag to graduation.
Leading the way is the linebacking corps, led by senior MLB Terrance Plummer. The first team all-conference selection led the team with 110 tackles in ’13, doing exactly what a middle linebacker is supposed to do: find the ball and stop it.
Plummer is joined by the aforementioned fellow senior Gray and promising sophomore Justin McDonald on the outside, although Willie Mitchell‘s return from injury should make the depth chart battle interesting.
But the real experience is in the secondary. Seniors Jordan Ozerities, Clayton Geathers and Brandon Alexander all return, and the lone non-senior in the group, Jacoby Glenn, broke up 15 passes in considerable action in 2013. The Knights’ secondary missed out on some big plays last year, partially due to bad luck. They should cause considerable havoc for opposing quarterbacks this season.
Up front, the Knights have big people who can do big things. UCF expects to start four juniors on the D-Line, including Demetris Anderson and Lance McDowdell, who both tip the scales at over 300 pounds. Thomas Niles and Miles Pace are both expected to provide speed and pressure on the outside as well.
With all that experience returning, the newfound emphasis on the defense is well-founded.
“I feel that we’ve been together so long that the chemistry on the field is what’s going to push us forward to getting to the next level,” said Gray.
If expectations have been lowered for the Knights’ offense in 2014, they have been raised for the defense, even under new management. If the Knights are to successfully defend their conference title from 2013, the center of gravity for the team may very well end up on that side of the ball.