From winless to competitive, the last calendar year has been quite the ride for the UCF Knights (5-4, 3-2 AAC), who the Cincinnati Bearcats (4-5, 1-4) will face on Saturday in Orlando. To get some insight into the turnaround taking place we spoke with Chas Short of Underdog Dynasty. He tells us about UCF’s defensive strength, first-year head coach Scott Frost and why Shaquem Griffin is awesome.
DTD: Through eight games, what are your impressions of Scott Frost as a head coach? What has he done well and what needs to be improved still?
CS: I’m very pleased. He started out by bringing in a recruiting class far better than it had any right to be under the circumstances (and a number of those recruits have contributed this season, including starting QB McKenzie Milton, “co-starting” RB Jawon Hamilton and perpetual home run threat Adrian Killins). I hate fuzzy terms like this, but he has also brought a tremendous energy to the team. I’m mostly happy with how the defense is playing and this team already has more wins than I predicted preseason. So that’s the done well.
I want to see better execution on offense. The Knights move the ball in fits and starts. They get hung up on third down often. They hurt themselves with penalties. For an “offense guy,” Frost does not have his Knights rolling like one would want to see yet.
That being said, the architecture is there. I’m loving the aggressive fourth down philosophy and much of the play calling philosophy. I mean, against Tulane we saw three fake pass plays, all of which were successful (two statute of liberties and one fake statue of liberty where the QB kept it and ran).
DTD: Why do you think the team crashed so hard last year and why has it been able to climb back and be competitive this season?
CS: The injuries were a nightmare last year. I’ve never seen anything like it. When then-starting QB Justin Holman was injured early in the year against Stanford and missed a bunch of time, the back-ups were horrendous. When he returned, he played horribly (and never played as well as he did in 2014 form). I tell you this, and I’m barely scratching the surface of the injury nightmare.
So one aspect is the Knights avoided the injury bug. Mostly.
Last year, the team looked as though they had quit. The coaches did too. O’Leary resigned during the season.
Scott Frost and his staff have the players invested this year, and excited about football.
DTD: Clearly the Knights’ success has been built on defense, ranking 21st in defensive S&P+. What has changed from last season when they were third worst in the American Athletic Conference in total defense?
I’ll start with the obvious and point out that UCF is now a base 3-4 defense rather than 4-3. Linebacker play has also improved. The secondary has improved. I think the Knights have benefited both from the change of scheme and the player development.
DTD: Part of the defensive success has to be coming from the team’s pass push, which has racked up the second-most sacks in the conference (28.0). It appears to be a return to form for the program, which led the league in sacks in 2014. Has there been a change in scheme that has led to this improvement?
DTD: Shaquem Griffin is tied for the conference lead with 8.5 sacks. Can you tell me about his season and what you’ve seen out of him in his junior season?
CS: Let me address these two questions together, because I’m going to flow from one to the other. The Knights are now in a base 3-4. Shaquem Griffin has flourished in this defense.
As I have no doubt the broadcasters will point out on Saturday – Griffin has one hand. And he’s awesome.
His emergence at LB has been a revelation. Shaquem did not receive much playing time under O’Leary. He played in one game in 2014 as a redshirt freshman. He played mostly on special teams in 2015 and a bit at safety (his twin brother, Shaquill Griffin, is a starting DB).
Switching Shaquem to LB was clearly a great move. He leads the team in tackles (54). And with tackles for loss (12). And with the 8.5 sacks you mention. He is tied for the third-most pass break-ups on the team. He’s the only player on the team to have forced multiple fumbles. He’s the only LB with an interception.
The losing effort against Houston has been his personal best so far: 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks, a fumble recovered and the interception.
Did I mention how beautiful it is to see a dude with one hand get an interception?
DTD: Even in success, UCF has already eclipsed its penalty total from last season. Is it bad luck or is there something to this?
CS: I can only shrug. Penalties have come from some of the more experienced players and some of the less experiences players. I’ll attribute some of it to variation from year to year, and some from a need to focus in practice on minimizing these mistakes.
DTD: Additionally, UCF has had a lot of trouble on third down (29.4 percent conversion rate). Why has the team struggled in that area and do you think there is a fix?
CS: UCF is a spread to run team, and so has suffered when early plays are botched and the Knights are in third and long situations. The Knights need to be picking up yards on first and second down, and struggle when they don’t.
Some of this can be addressed with the playcalling on first and second down. I think we’ve seen more than our share of incomplete pass on first down, incomplete pass on second down, now we’re in a deep hole for third.
And as I noted above, penalties on offense have hampered UCF here as well.
DTD: Under Frost, what has been the strength of the offense, if any?
CS: The running game is the team’s strength, though still inconsistent. “Co-starting” senior RB Dontravious Wilson is the power runner (he leads the team in rushing touchdowns with eight). His fellow “co-starter” Jawon Hamilton is a bit faster. And freshman RB Adrian Killins is exceedingly fast and is a threat to break one lose any time he touches the ball. Really an explosive guy. He has three touchdowns on 34 carries, two touchdowns on 15 receptions and a kickoff return for a touchdown.
DTD: After Justin Holman was the quarterback the last few years including the beginning of this one what has freshman McKenzie Milton brought to the position?
CS: Milton is more of a dual threat than Holman, and a better fit for Frost’s offense. He has also taken care of the football better than Holman as a general matter (his first game, against Maryland, and his game against Houston being outliers).
Holman just has not looked comfortable running this offense for any sustained length of time. It was obvious from the first game of this season against South Carolina State, when Holman struggled in the first half.
DTD: Who are other playmakers to watch on the offensive side of the ball?
CS: Take a look at redshirt sophomore Tre’Quan Smith, who leads the Knights in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. He makes some incredibly difficult catches, and was the AAC Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2014.
DTD: Lastly, who wins and why?
CS: I foresee a Knights win on the strength of their defense.