Welcoming Culture Change Leads to On-field, Defensive Success

University of Central Florida defensive back T.J. Mutcherson runs with the ball after an interception during a 47-29 victory over East Carolina University at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (Photo by Victor Tan / New Day Review)

ORLANDO, Fla. – When Scott Frost was hired as the University of Central Florida’s next head football coach, his history as an offensive coach at the University of Oregon excited casual and die-hard Knights fans alike. Though, the conversation surrounding a potentially improved defense was mostly overshadowed by generic talks of what new offensive scheme Frost was going to introduce to a Knights program that had just suffered an 0-12 season.

Now, after five weeks of play, it is perhaps UCF’s defense that has proven to be the Knights’ biggest area of improvement. That all began with a fresh start under a new coaching staff that includes defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.

“Coach Chin is a great guy. He loves us like we’re his kids,” Knights defensive back T.J. Mutcherson said at the team’s game-week presser Monday. “He tells us [he loves us]. We love him. And he shows a lot of passion.”

But it’s not only this newfound familial, father-son bond that makes this defensive unit tight. There’s also a certain level of confidence this first-year coaching staff has in its players, something linebacker Demeitre Brim noted as not being their last season.

“Just the coaches having confidence in us to go out there and make plays, and trusting us with running their defense going out there having fun,” Brim said after practice Tuesday. “We kind of lacked that last year with the previous staff.”

That trust Brim mentioned isn’t something that’s just all talk, either; it has tangible meaning in game-time situations. Chinander, who nontraditionally coaches from the sideline, welcomes his defense to suggest changes based on what the players see in real time, on the field.

The University of Central Florida defense lines up against the East Carolina University offense during a 47-29 UCF victory over East Carolina University at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (Photo by Victor Tan / New Day Review)

“Any time you have a coach that asks a player, ‘Are you okay with this call? Do you want to change it up?’ He get our opinion,” Mutcherson said. “So he’ll coach us, and then he’ll get our opinion on it, and if we don’t like it, he’ll take it out. He can just see eye to eye just like we can.”

The culture change at UCF has led to drastic improvements for a Knights defense that allowed 37.7 points per game in 2015. So far in 2016, the Knights have allowed 24.8 points per game and rank in the top 25 in rushing defense (No. 25, allowing 112.6 yards per game), sacks (T-No. 7, 18.0) and forced fumbles (T-No. 12, 7.0). Though, for Chinander, it’s not about the stats; it’s about the recognition he feels his players deserve.

“I think the kids should be recognized for the effort they’re playing with and just their love of the game, and how they’re going about their business,” Chinander said after practice Tuesday. “Stats and all that kind of stuff is great, but I think the kids should be recognized for how hard they play.”

East Carolina University quarterback Philip Nelson gets hit after throwing a touchdown pass during a 47-29 loss to the University of Central Florida at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (Photo by Victor Tan / New Day Review)

And while his team’s offense looks to find its footing, as it struggles finding a consistent starting quarterback among a series of injuries, Frost has been happy with what the defense has done and the improvements they’ve made. UCF is ranked the 67th-best offense when it comes to total yards, as they’ve managed 424.4 yards per game so far.

“The defense has been keeping us in games and allowing us to break them open,” Frost said after a 47-29 win over East Carolina University in which his team notched three interceptions and recovered two fumbles. “Our defense has done a wonderful job. Our defensive staff and Coach Chinander have done a great job.”

On Monday, Frost spoke about how the relationship between Chinander and the players has contributed to the team’s defensive success.

“The great thing is when players have input, that means they’re understanding the system,” Frost said. “They’re understanding the answers within the system, and there’s a good relationship between coaches and players. The more we communicate with the players on the field with what’s going on, the better we’ll be.”

University of Central Florida head coach Scott Frost looks over his notes during a 47-29 victory over East Carolina University at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016. (Photo by Victor Tan / New Day Review)

UCF’s defense is a far cry from what it was in 2015, but that’s a good thing. Now, players are in a new environment under new coaches, and they’re just having fun.

“They pretty much trust us to go out there and just have fun,” Brim said. “We all trust each other. Like, it’s a real team bond around here.”