Behind enemy lines: UCF Knights

Sept. 10, 2015, 2:19 a.m.

In preparation for Stanford’s upcoming home opener against UCF after a tough loss on the road at Northwestern last weekend, The Stanford Daily’s Do-Hyoung Park (@dohyoungpark) talked to Tyler Graddy (@tgradd), the sports editor at Knight News, to get an insider look at where the UCF Knights stand coming into their matchup with Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Despite having the largest undergraduate enrollment in the United States, UCF hasn’t traditionally been among the top teams in the nation in most sports and isn’t even in a Power Five conference for football. Why do you think that discrepancy exists? Is there a strong support base for football among students regardless of those circumstances?

Tyler Graddy (TG): The UCF football program hasn’t quite kept up with the explosion of the student population — it wasn’t until 2005 that the Knights played in their first bowl game.  Even with a massive undergraduate population of 52,532, it has long been seen as a commuter school, especially true considering just shy of 12,000 of those students actually live on campus.

Being shadowed by power programs like Miami, Florida State and the University of Florida all within a few hours’ drive has only slowed the expansion of the UCF football program in regards to both recruitment and a die-hard fan base. Only recently under the careful construction of George O’Leary has the program begun to stand on its own legs, playing in bowl games every year since 2009. The conference’s agreement with ESPN to play more Thursday and Friday night games on national television has done wonders for the notoriety of the program as well, something O’Leary never fails to mention in the days leading up to a weekday game.

The support of the fanbase has never quite lived up to its potential. Bright House Networks Stadium was opened in 2007 and has the potential to seat around 45,000, but it hasn’t sold out since South Carolina came to visit in 2013. The student section is almost always packed, but it has been difficult for the program to fill the rest of the stadium.

TSD: This is going to be the first regular-season game the Knights have played in California in program history. What does this game mean for the program?

TG: Traveling to California continues the recent explosion of UCF onto the national stage. It is another excellent chance to expand the brand of Knights football, working hand-in-hand with the TV exposure brought about by the weekday games. O’Leary has said on multiple occasions that one of the largest benefits of this exposure has been in the recruiting game. High school athletes are hearing about the Knights early on, establishing a desire for players to want to travel to a program on the rise — somewhere they feel there is an opportunity to make a significant imprint.

TSD: A lot of people expected this program to drop off the radar after Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson left, but the team proved its doubters wrong by winning the AAC again last year (albeit on a Hail Mary, but still, a title is a title). Can UCF continue to be a good team, even further removed from that Fiesta Bowl-winning squad?

TG: Ah yes, the Hail Perriman. What people on the outside of the program looking in don’t realize is that O’Leary has built this team to last beyond its stars. There is an attitude deep within the culture of the program that has established the belief that it doesn’t matter who it is playing on Saturday — focus and persistence will prevail over all other elements.

It is part of the reason you’ve seen so many games come down to the wire, including the FIU loss this past week and the season opener against Penn State in Dublin last year. This team can continue on the run of conference success but it will take more effort than was displayed last week. I believe that with so many new starters the speed of the game may have been somewhat of a shock, especially against a program that not many people thought would put up a fight against the Knights.

In short, yes they can continue to find success on a large scale, but it will take some quick learning from this new team.

TSD: UCF is, in many ways, almost a mirror image of Stanford: An excellent defense combines with an offense that does just barely enough to keep winning games. Quarterback Justin Holman looks like he has potential, but without his top four receivers from an offense that already struggled last season, can UCF’s offense keep doing enough to adequately support its defensive efforts?

TG: This has been the question all through the offseason programs and into Saturday’s game. I think the UCF receiving corps may catch people off-guard this year. Jordan Akins is an absolute monster as a receiver and Tre’ Quan Smith has already started to flash the talent that made him the scout player of the year during his freshman season. They combined for 208 yards, 18 receptions and two touchdowns in a game where not many things went right for UCF.

The biggest question on offense will be the running game. For the second season opener in a row, William Stanback, the presumed starting running back, was unseated by Dontravious Wilson. Wilson struggled to move the ball against FIU on Thursday before leaving around halftime with an injury, but Stanback was abysmal in relief. He managed only 0.6 yards per carry behind an offensive line that struggled to create much room and seemed unable to make anybody miss.

Justin Holman is coming into his own in his second year after a sophomore season that saw him move into the top 10 in most UCF career quarterback records. His 24 touchdowns are eighth all-time in school history, and he has thrown for touchdowns in 14 straight games now. The 14 interceptions from last season leave room for improvement, but he should keep this offense alive if he continues to develop.

TSD: Speaking of the defense, that unit didn’t look like a sure thing going into the year either, seeing as how the Knights lost 148 career starts in the secondary after last season. How well do you expect the new players to step up? Are they capable of defending Stanford’s deep stable of large tight ends and wide receivers?

TG: It will be baptism by fire for the young secondary. They have never been tested by an offense like Stanford’s, having really only one game as starters together against FIU. There will be a steep learning curve on Saturday in my opinion, but I think you will see improved effort and a fairly quick transition period for this inexperienced group of defensive backs. With that in mind, it is more likely than not that the secondary struggles mightily in the early stages of the game.

TSD: If you’d told people on both sides of this matchup that both Stanford and UCF would be going into Saturday as 0-1 teams, you’d have gotten more than a few funny looks. What went wrong for the Knights last weekend? Can the loss be attributed to Week 1 shakiness or are you worried that it’s a sign of things to come?

TG: Last week it was clear that FIU came out with a deeper desire to win at all costs. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin even admitted to not taking the Panthers as seriously as he should have, vowing to take an entirely different attitude into practice this week. They were outplayed in almost every facet of the game, but do not expect effort to be a problem this week. The energy and motivation will be there.

I do think that it will get better for a team in transition, but certain aspects of the game were absolutely worrisome to observe. The running game was almost nonexistent and the defense was the definition of inconsistent.

TSD: Where on the field is UCF’s greatest strength? How about potential weaknesses?

TG: The passing attack may actually be the squad’s greatest strength, as even with inconsistent play from most other units in the home opener, the explosive plays kept UCF in the game. As I mentioned earlier, I believe this year’s receiving corps — and the versatility of the weapons — will be the surprise success of the Knights.

Inexperience with both the secondary and the linebacker rotation was exposed against FIU, and could lead to a long day against the conservative Stanford offense. I expect Stanford to attack UCF early and often with passes over the middle and whenever single coverage presents itself.

TSD: Stanford has a decisive talent advantage on both sides of the ball (on paper, at least) but we saw Stanford’s offense get soundly outplayed by Northwestern last weekend, raising a lot of red flags among Stanford supporters. Can UCF’s defense continue to keep Stanford’s offense down?

TG: In all likelihood there is a great chance that the defense will be outmatched against the Stanford offense. However, if the secondary can hold its own on the field, the run defense should be good enough to contain the Cardinal’s ground attack. It is an O’Leary tradition to be strong against the run; the FIU game was an enigma to most fans watching. The new players on defense will adjust quickly enough under his tutelage.

TSD: What does UCF need to do to win the game on Saturday? What’s your prediction for the game?

TG: If the defense can keep things close and if the running game is a real factor in the battle for field position, UCF is poised for an upset. The ground game will need to generate at least 130 yards, the Knights cannot allow Stanford to score more than 30 points and Justin Holman cannot afford to turn the ball over in any manner. I think it will be a close, competitive game, but ultimately Stanford walks away on top 31-24.

Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Do-Hyoung Park '16, M.S. '17 is the Minnesota Twins beat reporter at MLB.com, having somehow ensured that his endless hours sunk into The Daily became a shockingly viable career. He was previously the Chief Operating Officer and Business Manager at The Stanford Daily for FY17-18. He also covered Stanford football and baseball for five seasons as a student and served two terms as sports editor and four terms on the copy desk. He was also a color commentator for KZSU 90.1 FM's football broadcast team for the 2015-16 Rose Bowl season.

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