Uptempo Herd will test UCF defense
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It all goes back to 2002, when Central Florida traveled to Marshall for a trash-talkin', forearm-shiverin' Friday night game at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
It was their first meeting and the Thundering Herd defeated its new, brash Mid-American Conference rival 26-21. The fact that the score was so low in Byron Leftwich's senior year should drop a hint.
Leftwich threw for 340 yards, but was held in check in the second half and fired a potentially critical interception to cornerback Asante Samuel. Yes, the same one who has 46 career picks with the Patriots, Eagles and Falcons.
Atari Bigby, a strong safety who has played 223 career games for the Packers, Seahawks and Chargers, was on that team, too. And the Knights have contributed a number of defensive backs to the pro ranks, before that 2002 game and since.
The best of recent vintage was cornerback Josh Robinson, a third-round pick in this year's draft by the Minnesota Vikings. He played a critical role in preserving UCF's seven-game winning streak against Marshall in 2009, recovering that late fumble turned the game so quickly.
The Herd didn't exactly torch the Knights through the skies three games against Robinson. The combined numbers of 2009-11: 41 of 94, 550 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a few other near-picks. That computes to an NCAA passer rating of 99, which simply isn't good.
The Knights have had excellent pass rushers such as Paul Carrington, Bruce Miller and the current team's Troy Davis, but fast-closing safeties and corners who thrive on man-to-man coverage are the program's most common denominator.
"Anytime you're in the state of Florida and you've got a good school like UCF, you've got good players," said MU coach Doc Holliday. "You can draw a circle within a three-hour radius of that campus and find corners and safeties who can play for anybody."
And now, the Knights face their toughest Marshall passing attack since Leftwich, maybe even tougher. As accomplished as the current Pittsburgh Steelers reserve was, he didn't lead an offense that averaged 90 plays a game, one that consistently tries to inflict 60 minutes of hurry-up hell on shell-shocked defenses.
The Knights defended 81 plays from Akron in their season opener, but haven't seen that many since. George O'Leary calls the MU scheme "fastball," and veteran free safety Kemal Ishmael says his fellow defensive backs are ready for everything.
"Akron, they're a pretty fast tempo," Ishmael said. "Ohio State state had a pretty good tempo. I mean, every team has their own tempo, but Marshall has a pretty good tempo. We're just going to have to play with them."
Ishmael has 303 career tackles, eighth on UCF's all-time list and second among DBs behind Jason Venson, who plagued the Herd from 2005-08. Ishmael gave UCF the double-overtime victory against Southern Mississippi, rising into the passing lane to snare an Anthony Alford pass.
"I remember when Kemal was coming out of high school, we tried to recruit him [at Purdue]," said Bill Legg, MU's offensive coordinator. "I thought that was a real steal for them when he came out of high school, and he hasn't disappointed."
A.J. Bouye is the veteran cornerback, named C-USA defensive player of the week for forcing two critical turnovers last week in the Knights' 35-17 win over Memphis.
Clayton Geathers, cousin of former UCF defensive end Jarvis Geathers, is the starting strong safety, while Jordan Ozerites is the other starting corner. Both are sophomores.
UCF's defensive coaching staff is brand new, coming in after heard man O'Leary fired defensive coordinator John Skladany after the 2011 campaign slid to 5-7. Jim Fleming is the new coordinator, and his secondary coach is Kirk Callahan, a reserve for the Knights from 2003-06 who is in his first full-time job.
So far, that staff has UCF leading Conference USA in scoring defense, total defense and, yes, pass defense efficiency. In the last six years, the Knights have led C-USA in the latter category four of the last six years.
One figures the Herd will gain much more than the 130 total yards it managed last year in a drenching rain, but coaches and quarterback Rakeem Cato face many of the same issues.
"I think it gets lost in the shuffle at times that there are strengths to every call, offensively and defensively," Legg said. "There are also weaknesses to every call. When you have a mature team, they understand both strengths and weaknesses. They understand how to play to the strengths and cover up the weaknesses.
"[O'Leary] has been there for a while and they've run the same system for a while, and you can see [the results]."
Marshall running back Kevin Grooms has made the College Football Performance Awards National Freshman Performer of the Year watch list, the CFPA organization announced Thursday.
Grooms and Alabama-Birmingham quarterback Austin Brown were the C-USA candidates.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.