A number of fans and pundits point to Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost’s hybrid Chip Kelly-style offense as a big reason UCF did so well during his short tenure. As a result, Erik Chinander’s work as defensive coordinator gets overlooked in some respects.
That’s somewhat easy to understand as your mind doesn’t necessarily go to the idea of quality defense when UCF was winning shootouts. However, to appreciate what Chinander did while leading the Knights' defense and what he can do to return the Blackshirts to prominence, we have to dig a little deeper into the numbers on that side of the ball to get an idea as to why UCF's defense improved so quickly.
In 2015, UCF was a team that seemed to eventually give in, shrug its shoulders and go through the motions. Understandably so as 12-year head coach George O’Leary clearly didn’t enjoy his role as interim athletic director and head coach anymore, and it carried over on the field in the form of an 0-6 start.
His resignation following a 49-point loss to Houston during homecoming would kick off a downward spiral that saw the team post a winless season under interim head coach Danny Barrett.
For Chinander to overhaul UCF’s defense, he would have to take a dejected group of players and completely change their mindset. Not only must they believe they can be winners, but effective defenders who would have reason to celebrate.
Think about this: He had to look a bunch of guys who surrendered an average of 38 points and 464 yards per game in the eye and say, “You can make offenses fear you.” That’s one heck of a pitch to sell, but he did it and the proof is in the details.
In 2016, UCF rebounded to win six games and reach a bowl game. Sure, the Knights were dismissed by Arkansas State in the Cure Bowl, but that’s not the point. That’s a notable turnaround in one year. As previously mentioned, Frost’s offense was important, but Chinander’s aggressive culture on defense was already taking hold.
Football Outsiders a group of X’s and O’s nuts/brilliant football statisticians have created some amazing metrics to study game efficiency. Their research shows us that players immediately bought into what Chinander was selling. It’s right there in the numbers.
You can be lazy and look at the basic stats. Sure, UCF went from being 118th out of 128 FBS teams in scoring defense and 114th in total defense during 2015 before those numbers jumped to 39th and 41st respectively, but let’s go beyond that to truly appreciate the effort.
According to metrics supplied by Football Outsiders (hereon referenced as “FO”), UCF’s defensive efficiency in 2016 surpassed the likes of LSU, Stanford, Washington, Wisconsin and Colorado. To put that in comparison, those five teams combined to win 51 games, included three division winners (Colorado, Washington, Wisconsin) and each finished ranked 17th or higher in the final AP Top 25 poll that season.
First, we look at how many yards UCF gave up divided by the number of yards available to be earned based on starting field position. FO refers to this as DAY (Defensive Available Yards Percentage). The Knights were giving up 37.3 percent of what they theoretically could using that metric. West Virginia couldn’t say that nor could BYU, Iowa or TCU.
The next most significant stat we’re going to examine is DTF or “the percentage of touchdowns surrendered on opponent offensive drives that earn at least one first down.” UCF put up a valiant effort giving up scores only 33 percent of the time. Yes, that does sound like a lot, but keep in mind that we’re talking about the culmination of high-scoring games mixed with an unfortunate blowout at Michigan.
Despite that, the Knights did turn in the 36th-best performance in the nation.
The most important statistic for a Chinander defense is DTO: “the percentage of opponent offensive drives that result in a fumble or interception.” I say it’s important because the man implementing the defense makes no bones about that being a key cog in how his units excel.
“We got a couple (interceptions) in practice the other day. It was very, very cool to watch those guys get excited and get on each other’s hats and understand that’s what this thing’s about. We’re going to be some ball hawks back there,” Chinander said after Nebraska’s practice on Saturday.
Opponents gave the ball back to UCF by way of a fumble or interception more than13 percent of the time in 2016, good for a ranking of 42nd overall. At first glance, that might not seem impressive, but don’t stop at taking into account where the Knights were one year prior. Also consider the fact that Stanford (10-3) and Michigan (10-3) didn’t perform as well (49th and 98th, respectively).
Frost and his staff love their offense. However, they also love the defense by proxy because the whole idea is for those 11 guys to get extremely excited about getting the ball back in the hands of their offensive counterparts to light up the scoreboard. This seems like an obvious concept, but the difference in emphasis between this staff and so many others is rather stark.
UCF made a great jump in 2016, however, once the Knights not only fully bought into Chinander’s system but had a year’s experience in it, they showed how deadly it can be during the following season.
While the Knights' defensive efficiency did dip a bit (DAY increased to 42 percent), DTF was cut from 33 percent to 30. What impacted UCF's season the most from a defensive standpoint was turnovers. The Knights took the ball away from their opponents 19 percent of the time.
The Knights also had an insane plus-17 turnover margin. They tied for second overall in interceptions and returned three for touchdowns along with recovering 71 percent of all opponent fumbles.
Here you had a team that gave the ball away like Santa on Christmas with a negative-20 turnover margin in 2015 (besting only Hawaii) now causing offensive coordinators to tear their hair out in the span of two seasons. In fact, the Knights sealed their classic American Athletic Conference Championship Game rematch versus Memphis last year on an interception by senior defensive back Tre Neal.
For comparison’s sake, Nebraska had a negative-seven turnover margin of its own in 2017 while giving up 436 yards and 36 points per game. Could the Blackshirts return to a form even vaguely reminiscent of their 2009 or '10 seasons in the span of two years? It’s a tall order, but Chinander’s going to do everything he can to make it happen.
The numbers are definitely on his side.