Season openers tend to induce a fear of the unknown to football coaches, and Saturday’s opener for UCF brings a first in the 43-year coaching career of George O’Leary.
When the Knights host South Dakota at 6 p.m. Saturday at Bright House Networks Stadium they will start two freshmen – E.J. Dunston and Victor Gray – at defensive tackle. Gray is a redshirt freshman and Dunston graduated from high school early and enrolled at UCF in January, but still it’s the first time in all of O’Leary’s years of coaching that he’s opened a season with two freshmen defensive tackles.
Gray and Dunston, both Orlando natives, will be making their first collegiate starts. They are the first UCF freshmen to open a season as starters at defensive tackle since Fred Harley in 1997.
And naturally there’s a bit of trepidation with the unknown. O’Leary is plenty pleased with the promise of his two freshmen tackles, but he’s also planning to play senior Wes Tunuufi Sauvao and junior college transfer Barry Snider to lighten the load.
“I’m concerned about that, I really am,” admitted O’Leary, referring to UCF’s inexperience along the defensive line. “But we still have to play four guys in there, which we’ve done anyway since I’ve been here. I expect to see those guys rolling in and out every series. We’re fortunate to have enough ends to help out in situations. But it’s one of my concerns how much we can sustain and control the line of scrimmage. That’s what I look at because that’s where the game is played.”
UCF still has anchors Bruce Miller and David Williams at ends, and junior Darius Nall is expected to see significantly more time this season as a pass rush specialist. Miller is college football’s active leader in sacks and tackles for loss and won the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year last season. Williams was UCF’s top performer in the offseason weight-lifting program and his added strength has made him much more of a force as a pass rusher.
“I definitely feel the strength. That with the combination of gaining a little bit of weight, which is something that I was really trying to do, have helped give me an edge out there,” Williams said. “I’m not getting knocked around as much and I can hold the point like I’m supposed to. I can feel a big difference out there.”
Gray knows a thing or two about adding weight, bulking up from 230 pounds to 263 pounds in a year’s time so that he could move inside from end to tackle. He and Dunston are attempting to replace former UCF standout tackle Torell Troup, who was selected in the second round of the NFL Draft (41st overall) by the Buffalo Bills.
Added Williams: “Those young guys have given such great effort and we’ve all come together as a whole and I think our line is going to do great things this year.”
O’Leary also has his concerns about UCF’s special teams, especially with kicker Nick Cattoi, who had an erratic preseason. Senior Blake Clingan is entrenched as the starter at punter, but O’Leary said he plans to use junior transfer David Bohner at times because of his solid preseason.
“I feel like we have two legitimate (punters) who can help us in those areas,” O’Leary said. “And kicking-wise, I want to get Cattoi under the gun a little bit to see how much he’s improved from last year.”