March 8, 2010
By John Denton
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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - When Jim Panagos came to UCF in 2007 to coach the defensive line he inherited a group that was anchored by upperclassmen Keith Shologan and Emeka Okammor, but also teeming with promise because of young players Torell Troup and Bruce Miller.
Troup ultimately blossomed into one of the nation's best defensive tackles and a likely high NFL Draft pick in the coming months, while Miller became Conference USA's Defensive Player of the Year this past season.
Now, Panagos sees a similar mix with the UCF defensive line as the start of spring practice approaches on March 19. In Miller, David Williams, Darius Nall, Rashidi Haughton and Wes Tunuufi Sauvao, the Knights have a strong core full of superstar potential. And in Troy Davis, Victor Gray and E.J. Dunston and some elite recruits, the Knights have a group of young players capable of making an immediate impact.
``Our nucleus is there, and this group kind of reminds me of when I first came here to UCF. Torell, Bruce and Travis (Timmons) were freshmen, but we also had good older players too,'' said Panagos, who was voted the Defensive Line Coach of the Year by FootballScoop.com last season. ``We had the core guys and the young guys. Now, we need our core guys to play at a high level and then we need those young kids to step up and show us they are ready to play.''
With arguably UCF's most anticipated spring practice ever quickly approaching, UCFathletics.com will bring you a position-by-position breakdown over the next 11 days. Today's focus is on a defensive line that was unquestionably the strong suit of last season's 8-5 team that reached the St. Pete Bowl.
UCF ranked fourth in the nation last season against the run, trailing only BCS powers Alabama, Texas and TCU. That group, of course, featured the 314-pound Troup, a player so strong he often necessitated double-teams that freed up others to make plays. Finding a replacement for Troup is now at the top of Panagos' to-do list this spring.
``You don't really replace Torell Troup, but we do have a lot of young guys in the program who have come on and hopefully they will show us now that they can play,'' Panagos said. ``The biggest thing with losing Torell is that we almost need to find two nose guards who can rotate and stay fresh and be as effective as he was.''
Panagos certainly has a solid building block in Miller, who dominated C-USA foes last season while recording 13 sacks, 18 tackles for losses and seven quarterback hurries. Miller authored the biggest play of the season when he stripped Marshall's Darius Marshall in the final minutes, allowing UCF to rally for a defeat of the Thundering Herd.
Miller, who will be watched closely this spring by NFL scouts, has worked hard to add size and strength this spring. UCF's coaches have talked to him about how much attention will be focused his way after a season in which he became C-USA's most dominant defender.
``I'm constantly in his ear, letting him know that he's the focus point of teams now and he'll have to be a better technician, in better shape and everything has to be 10 percent better,'' Panagos said. ``Our team respects him, other players fear him and he's done a good job as a leader.
``Part of my job is to make sure (Miller) gets singled-up, but the best thing about Bruce is his flexibility,'' Panagos continued. ``He can play (inside), he can play end, he can rush and he can play the run. We have to also get the other three players going at a high level so they can't double-team Bruce.''
Williams is one of UCF's best run-stoppers and a player that Panagos said he can depend on because of his smarts, dependability and grit. And then there's Nall, arguably the most inspirational story in college football last season.
Nall returned last season after missing all of 2008 because of a cancerous tumor attached to one of his lungs. He played primarily on passing downs last season and made quite an impact as his strength and stamina slowly returned. He registered four sacks, seven quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery. Now, UCF is hoping the All-Freshman performer from two seasons ago can become a dominant pass-rusher opposite of Miller.
``With Darius, people forget that last season was his first time playing defensive end. He had the cancer, then came back to a new position with new responsibility, and he did great with it,'' Panagos said. ``Darius has got to step up his game this season. He has to take the Jarvis Geathers role and become a dominant pass rusher.''
If it's not already apparent, Panagos is raising the bar for the defensive line this spring. He said the younger players will be given every opportunity to fight for playing time and he is trying to promote competition at each position come the spring drills in two weeks.
``I want competition at all positions,'' Panagos said. ``No one is guaranteed a job here up front. Besides Miller, they're fighting for their job. I want to see who we can win with and who we can depend on - those are the most important things with spring ball.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFathletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.