Knights defense looks to improve in 2021

The Knights' defense makes a big stop in last year's game against Brigham Young University on Dec. 22, 2020. UCF Football's defensive unit was ranked No. 123 in total defense by the NCAA last year.

As UCF approaches its first ever matchup with Boise State University, fans will understandably be excited by the offensive potential the Knights possess.

With big names like Dillon Gabriel and Jaylon Robinson returning, and Gus Malzahn taking the reins as head coach, there is little doubt the Knights can improve on an offense that was already ranked first in the American Athletic Conference last season.

A more pressing concern for fans will be what changes the team has made to its defense, a unit ranked at No. 123  in total defense by the NCAA last year.

Returning lineman Anthony Montalvo said in a press conference Monday that players in the defensive unit have discussed their goals and expectations for the season with each other.

“Defensively, we wanna be all-conference everywhere," Montalvo said. "We wanna do everything right. We wanna be the No. 1 defense.” 

This will be a tall order for the Knights. The team finished the 2020 season with losses of 491.8 total yards and an average of 33.2 points per game, according to UCF Athletics. In total, the Knights' in-season losses came down to a margin of eight points.

Fans will also remember the blown double-digit leads against the University of Tulsa and the University of Memphis, with the latter becoming U of M's first win against UCF since 1990

With the departure of defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and the hiring of Travis Williams, the Knights' defensive unit will enter 2021 with a chip on its shoulder and a brand new defensive scheme.

Williams signed a two-year deal to become UCF’s defensive coordinator back in February and had previously spent time working under Malzahn as a linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator. Williams said in a press conference Wednesday that it's all about putting the players in the right seat and in the right situation.

“There (are) so many guys who are trying different things in different areas," Williams said. 

The defense will be running a 3-3-5 defense, a scheme suitable to its roster's versatility. The scheme allows for different players to play several positions and is particularly useful against spread offenses or pass-happy teams. 3-3-5s allow for an extra defensive back, causing confusion for opposing quarterbacks that leads to turnovers.

Linebacker Eriq Gilyard said in a press conference last month that he feels his team has done a good job at adapting to the new scheme.

"Whenever you're doing something new, it's always kind of hard to grasp," Gilyard said. "It takes practice." 

Gilyard is one of six starters returning to the defense. The other five include linemen Anthony Montalvo and Kalia Davis, defensive backs Corey Thornton and Davonte Brown, and linebacker Tatum Bethune.

Eyes will be locked on the six to see if they can make up for the departures of Tay Gowan, Richie Grant and Aaron Robinson, who all heard their names called in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Thornton and Brown will be under the most pressure to compensate, as all of UCF's defensive draftees were defensive backs like them. The two were both freshman last year, forced into roles as starting corners after several injuries and COVID-19 departures. They collected 53 tackles together and will look to take the next step this season with more experience and new competition.

Kalia Davis chose to opt out last season due to COVID-19 but is expected to make a major impact with his return. He played in all 13 games for UCF in 2019, recording 27 tackles and tying for third on the team with three sacks. 

“He has so much raw talent that it’s unbelievable," Montalvo said. "I think he’s only 22. You know, just look at him: he can make it. I think the coaches know that he can make it.”

The defensive unit also saw reinforcements come in through the transfer portal, highlighted by defensive end Big Kat Bryant. Bryant, originally from Cordele, Georgia, started his career with Auburn University under Coach Malzahn, where he finished with 56 career tackles and was named second team all-SEC in 2020

Bryant has already made an impression on the group since his transfer, being named a team captain, a position he also held at Auburn.

“For him to be here three or four months and earn the guys’ respect, it says a lot about him,” Williams said.

Other veteran transfers include tackle Ricky Barber from Western Kentucky University, linebacker Bryson Armstrong from Kennesaw State University and defensive back Marco Domio from Auburn.

In addition to the Boise State game, some important games for the defense will be against the high-powered offenses of teams such as the University of Memphis Tigers and the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, both ranked third and fourth respectively in the AAC last season in total offense. 

In last season's game, the Tigers scored 50 points in their win against the Knights, a feat the Knights' defense is confident won't happen again. 

UCF redshirt junior Divaad Wilson said in a press conference last month that this 2021 defense is scary.

“It’s gonna be one to watch," Wilson said. "I don’t really wanna say too much, go too overboard. I just want everybody to sit back and watch, open up their popcorn, kick their feet up and enjoy the show.”

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