NCF Nation: Clayton Geathers

UCF defense relishes underdog role

December, 29, 2013

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The film can be a bit intimidating, UCF safety Brandon Alexander said.

Baylor’s quarterback, Bryce Petty, is fast. He makes quick decisions, has a quick release and he can run.

The receivers are fast, too. They stretch the field, and the Bears' big-play potential is immense.

The running backs are quick, juking through traffic and breaking tackles for huge chunks of yards.

"Their offensive linemen are even fast,” Alexander joked.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Alexander
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsDefensive back Brandon Alexander says the Knights are ready for Baylor's high-powered offense.
This is the challenge for UCF’s defense, perhaps the most overlooked unit playing in a BCS bowl game this year.

Baylor’s offense is a whirlwind of precise execution, breathtaking tempo and dizzying speed. Central Florida’s defense is young, unheralded and, after Jim Fleming left to take over at Rhode Island, without its coordinator.

It’s no surprise then that the Knights’ defense isn’t getting much pre-game love or that they’re feeding off the litany of doubters.

“It’s an opportunity,” cornerback Clayton Geathers said. “We come with a chip on our shoulder, and we’re out to prove a lot of people wrong.”

They may be largely anonymous on a national stage, but the Knights have been solid defensively all season. UCF ranks 12th nationally in scoring defense, allowing less than 20 points per game, despite having just two seniors on its two-deep. It’s an athletic group that plays sound fundamentally, and if the rest of the world is overlooking the unit, Baylor isn’t.

“They’re very disciplined and have a lot of guys that can run sideline to sideline,” Petty said. “Just because we haven’t heard too much about them doesn’t mean they don’t have talent. It pops out on tape. They’re tough.”

Still, there’s no question the test UCF faces in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is unlike anything it has seen before. Coach George O'Leary said Baylor’s tempo is something the Knights are used to from their days in Conference USA, but the skill with which the Bears execute is at another level.

“We ran a play every 18 seconds in practice the last two weeks, but it’s the quality of play you can’t simulate,” O’Leary said. “It’s quantity, but the quality isn’t there that Baylor is going to have.”

Baylor leads the country in scoring offense (53 points per game) and averages 50 yards more per game than any other team in the nation, while running nearly 83 plays per game -- a frenetic pace that will test the young UCF defense.

From a conditioning standpoint, Alexander said he’s confident the Knights are ready. The extra time to prep for Baylor has helped with the film study, too. Both will be key to slowing down the big-play Baylor offense, but the secret weapon, defensive lineman Thomas Niles said, will be UCF’s physicality, which he hopes will offset the Bears’ up-tempo style.

"You've got to disrupt their rhythm," Niles said. "You can't let [Petty] stay in one spot and be comfortable. If you let him sit there, he'll pick you apart."

Baylor gets healthy: As if UCF’s defense didn’t have enough to worry about, Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk said the offense is about as healthy as it has been all season.

Seastrunk said the extended downtime between the regular season and the bowl gave him a chance to get heal a groin injury that cost him nearly three full games late in the year.

“I needed the break to make sure my groin was all together and sealed up tight,” Seastrunk said, adding that he’s now 100 percent healthy.

Meanwhile, senior receiver Tevin Reese is set to return to the lineup, too. A wrist injury cost him the final four games of the regular season, but he’ll add another dynamic downfield threat, along with Antwan Goodley, for the Bears in the Fiesta Bowl.

“When you have two guys that can vertically stretch you, it’s tough [for the defense] and makes our job easier,” Petty said. “It adds another dynamic to an offense that’s already pretty explosive. For us, it’s like having a new toy.”

Easy intro for Ferraro: UCF’s new defensive coordinator is taking a hands-off approach to his first few days on the job.

Paul Ferraro was hired earlier this week to replace the departed Fleming, and while he’s in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, he’s working from a distance during practice.

“I’m really just observing, letting them do their thing and getting to know them a little bit,” Ferraro said. “It gives me a little bit of a jump [on 2014].”

UCF team preview

August, 13, 2013
Today we're looking at the University of Central Florida as the Knights look to improve on their bowl win last season.

Coach: George O’Leary (112-88 career, 60-55 at UCF)

2012 record: 10-4

Key losses: RB Latavius Murray, DB Kemal Ishmael

[+] EnlargeJamie Collings, Blake Bortles
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports Blake Bortles leads an experienced offense in The American Athletic Conference's inaugural season.
Key returnees: QB Blake Bortles, S Clayton Geathers, LB Terrance Plummer

Newcomer to watch: WR Breshad Perriman

Biggest games in 2013: at Penn State (Sept. 14), South Carolina (Sept. 28)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Knights have one of the strongest nonconference slates in the American Athletic, playing Penn State and South Carolina in September. Needing to replace seven of their top 10 tacklers from last season, a challenging schedule early in the season could be too much for Central Florida by the time it gets to its conference opponents. The Knights will lean on Geathers, Plummer and cornerback Brandon Alexander on a young defense that led Conference USA in scoring defense and pass defense last year.

Forecast: In its first year in the American Athletic, Central Florida will have the benefit of an experienced offense. Bortles was named to the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award, which goes to the nation’s most outstanding player. Passing for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, Bortles will have his two top receivers from last year in J.J. Worton and Rannell Hall. Though last year’s leading-rusher Latavius Murray is with the Oakland Raiders now, junior Storm Johnson had 507 rushing yards and four touchdowns last season, expect to step into the No. 1 running back role this year.

Winning its appeal of the NCAA’s one-year postseason ban, UCF will be eligible for the postseason in its inaugural American Athletic season. The Knights were originally issued the ban as part of sanctions levied last July for recruiting violations in football and basketball. “I was very happy that we got the ban rescinded,” O’Leary said. “I always laugh with Coach O'Brien at Penn State; I blamed him, because our case came up right after the Penn State case. I still think the NCAA had their guns blazing at that time.”

The Knights’ difficult nonconference slate will be telling for when UCF plays AAC-favorite Louisville on the road. Picked to finish fourth in the American Athletic in the preseason media poll, the Knights have the benefit of playing South Carolina, Rutgers, UConn and South Florida at home. O’Leary hopes UCF’s nonconference schedule will help to bolster the new league’s profile.

“I think the key thing with this conference is not the conference playing themselves but the nonconference games,” O’Leary said. “You've got to get your share of wins there if you're going to take notice. That's how I look at it.”
UCF safety Clayton Geathers is adjusting to two different roles this spring. He has switched to the free safety spot, replacing standout Kemal Ishmael.

But perhaps bigger -- he is now the leader of the secondary, a role he is starting to fully embrace. For a quiet guy, becoming a more vocal leader has been a big adjustment, especially since he always relied on Ishamel to be the one to speak up.

"It’s a new role for me," Geathers said in a recent phone interview. "I’m not a verbal guy. I lead by my actions. But all the young guys, they’re looking at me as a leader. I don’t know how it feels to be a leader, but I am helping the young guys, and I’m starting to be more verbal. I learned a lot from Kemal, and I'm starting to follow in his footsteps."

So what did he learn from Ishmael that he is doing now?

"I have taken the young guys under my wings. We schedule meetings, go over plays, watch film without coach," Geathers said. "If I see a young guy down, I go and motivate him. I want to be a big brother to the young guys. Just opening my mouth more, getting my opinions out there, speaking up in the room. Last year, I had Kemal. Kemal did all the talking. I showed my leadership from my actions."

Those actions certainly are ones to follow, as Geathers started every game last season and finished second on the team with 117 tackles, also breaking up five passes and forcing two fumbles. Though he is a junior, Geathers has started every game of his career, and is the most experienced player in the secondary.

Not only does UCF have to replace Ishmael, starting cornerback A.J. Bouye is also gone. Brandon Alexander does return, but the Knights will be relying on younger guys like sophomore, Nicco Whigham, freshmen Jeremy Davis and D.J. Killings, and converted receiver Drico Johnson (also a freshman).

"We’re still growing up," Geathers said. "We’ve got a lot of guys we have to replace, and we’re working together to get better each day. It’s a slow process. I feel like it’s going well. We’re trying to build this chemistry the defense had last year, so we're taking it one day at time and getting better."