The team’s passing game has gone from pedestrian to proficient, as sophomore Rob Calabrese has improved tremendously from a year ago. His wide receivers have also grown by leaps and bounds, and so have the linemen blocking for him.
The offense will continue to be a focal point this offseason amongst fans and media alike, but as the passing game continues to blossom, many are wondering if the Knights are finding more offensive success because the unit has ripened with age or if it’s because the defense is lacking the presence of all four starting defensive backs from last season.
While the answer likely is somewhere in between, the secondary has definitely become a hot topic early in camp. With four new starters back there, it’s the one question mark on an otherwise stellar defense but UCF’s staff isn’t too concerned.
“The secondary is a (group) where you’ll know more when they get pads on,” said Coach George O’Leary. “I think athleticism wise, there are some good athletes that played ball for us last year in some situations, so I’m pleased in that area.”
The one player slated to start for the Knights in the defensive backfield who has some starting experience is junior Derrick Hallman, who will line up at free safety. Last year, Hallman accumulated 57 tackles, eight of which went for a loss, but all that production came from the linebacker spot. Moving to safety will be a transition for him, but after a strong spring, Hallman proved to his defensive coaches that he’s more than capable of making an impact in the secondary.
“I think the move with Derrick Hallman, putting him back to free safety, was a good move for us in the spring,” said defensive coordinator, Dave Huxtable. “I think Derrick had a really good spring.”
O’Leary also felt that Hallman’s move to the secondary was vital for the defense.
“I think the key to the defense last spring was the move we made with Derrick Hallman to safety. I think that really solidified that position back there.”
Hallman has built on his strong spring early this summer but he’s not the only projected starter in the secondary that has elevated his play. Cornerback Justin Boddie, a 6’2”, 200 lb. junior, wasn’t on the radar for too many casual fans heading into the offseason, but after a spring in which he steadily improved every day and a quick start this summer, Boddie is looking like he could fill the void left by graduating seniors Joe Burnett and Johnell Neal.
“Justin Boddie has some game experience underneath him and came on really strong in the spring time, so I’m looking forward to him having a good year for us,” said Huxtable.
The two other potential starters for the 2009 season are Reggie Weams and Emery Allen. Weams has developed a reputation for being a big hitter on special teams and now he’ll get his chance to make a similar impact from strong safety. Allen is an undersized (listed as 5’9”) corner with stellar technique and a non-stop motor, but he missed most of the spring and the beginning of the summer with an unspecified foot injury. Darin Baldwin has filled in for Allen for the time being and has been productive this summer.
The Knights might also look to true freshmen Josh Robinson and Jarrett Swaby, both of whom enrolled at UCF this winter, to bolster the secondary. Robinson has especially lofty expectations, already being dubbed as the next Joe Burnett by some.
“Of the kids that came in last January, there were seven of them, Josh Robinson has a great opportunity to play,” said O’Leary. “Jarrett Swaby also has an opportunity to play there.”
With other freshmen such as A.J. Bouye and Kemal Ishmael getting reps at cornerback this summer, as well as Michael Greco moving from quarterback to safety, the Knights have the overall depth and athleticism to keep opponents at bay. If these young players can continue to progress and develop consistency, it might mean that the most notable concern for UCF’s defense is no longer an issue.