"Band of Brothers" was a 2001 HBO Miniseries about World War II's "Easy Company" of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. The dramatic series portrayed this tight-knit group of soldiers as they went through training in the United States and participated in major actions in the European combat theater. Just like the intense experiences of military combat bonded these soldiers together in brotherhood, it's clear that the 2017 UCF Knights football team has a camaraderie that is helping them achieve a level of success unprecedented in program history.
A Culture of Excellence
It's easy to tell from watching the games that UCF's team enjoys playing together. Head coach Scott Frost is building a culture at UCF that appeals to student-athletes coming out of high school. And the players themselves deserve a lot of the credit for turning the potential of individual talent into team success. After all, some of the most talented teams in college and professional sports have experienced seasons of failure and futility because the locker room wasn't big enough for all the egos who wanted to be the center of attention. At least for now, that doesn't seem to be a problem for UCF. The roster has dozens of players that exemplify the culture and chemistry of UCF football. But with a couple of examples, it's easy to show why the team is having such success.
Two players that reflect the kinds of recruits UCF is attracting are Redshirt Senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin and true freshman wide receiver Otis Anderson. Shaquem Griffin was recruited along with his twin brother, Shaquil (now a starting defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks). Shaquil was the real target of college recruiters, but he refused to play for any school that wouldn't also take his twin brother, Shaquem. The Griffin twins had played together on every team since the boys began organized football.
The Unstoppable Shaquem Griffin
The thing you notice first about Shaquem--and what made most colleges dismiss him--is the fact that he is missing his left hand. Griffin was born with amniotic band syndrome, which caused the fingers of his left hand not to fully form and also caused him intense pain. By the age of four, the pain was so great that he had to have his left hand amputated. But he continued competing in sports alongside his twin brother Shaquil all the way through high school.
Under former head coach George O'Leary, Shaquem was a member of the scout team, as the coaching staff was unable to see past the nonstandard form of Shaquem's physique to put him on the active roster. But when Scott Frost arrived after the winless 2015 season, he immediately noticed the heart and hustle Shaquem showed in practice. This drive and desire helped Coach Frost recognize Shaquem as one of the better players on the team. During the 2016 season, Shaquem first earned a starting role, and then went on to win Defensive Player of the Year honors in the American Athletic Conference.
And earn the honor he did: Griffin registered 85 total tackles, (19 tackles for loss), two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, six pass breakups, and an interception. He also led the entire conference by recording 11 sacks on the season. Offenses in the American soon realized that when you lined up across from Shaquem Griffin you were going to be in for a very long day in the trenches.
As 2017 has unfolded, Griffin's individual numbers have not quite been the highlight reel of 2016. This is mostly because every offensive coordinator knows to double-team or triple-team him now. And this extra attention has only made opportunities for Griffin's teammates, a fact that he proudly crows to offensive players during trash talk between plays. This season has seen one new career highlight for Griffin: during the historic 73-point scoring frenzy against outmatched Austin Peay on October 28, Griffin picked up a fumbled football and ran it into the end zone for the first touchdown he had ever scored in any organized competition.
For 2017, Griffin has been named a team captain, and it's clear that his results on the field as well as his attitude in attacking the game mean this is an honor he has well and truly earned. Griffin is an inspirational and emotional leader on the team. It's easy to see when he flashes his grin and starts dancing around with teammates that his energy infuses through the rest of the team, regardless of the score or the circumstances.
If Griffin's heart and hustle reflect the passion of UCF's football roster, then freshman wideout Otis Anderson reflects the team's football IQ.
The Uncanny Otis Anderson
When you think of underclassmen at skill positions, you tend to think of players that attempt to succeed on the basis of their physical gifts. They either outrun opponents with superior speed or bowl over defenders that stand in their way with superior strength. Often it takes players at these positions well into their pro careers to begin to develop the mental aspect of their game. This usually happens when they are faced with younger and faster opponents fresh out of college. But Anderson is typical among his underclassmen teammates at UCF by already displaying an uncanny understanding of how teams--not only individual players--score touchdowns.
In a recent game against UConn, Anderson lined up in the backfield as a running back next to quarterback McKenzie Milton with the ball on UCF's own 35-yard line. Anderson broke through the line and got into space in the second level. As he scampered down the sideline, he recognized the blocking set up before him and slowed down. This gave Tre'Quan Smith just enough space to secure a block on the final defender before Anderson juked back inside and took the ball all the way to the end zone. Even in the NFL, it's rare to see running backs who possess the football intelligence to understand that sometimes slowing down can allow a play to develop. Meanwhile, Scott Frost is recruiting players that are grasping this in their true freshman season. In fact, Anderson is only one of six true freshmen who has scored touchdowns for UCF on the season.
Teammates Coaching Teammates
And the team's football IQ is on display even when plays don't go well. It's quite common after bad plays by the offense or defense to see players go into informal post-mortem conferences on the field. Another player will explain to his teammate what he saw that blew the play up and offer encouragement on how to avoid the same mistake the next time.
It's easy for players to tire of being yelled at by coaches. When you see teams where the players take it upon themselves to help coach each other up during a game, you know that they are all buying into the same team philosophy and goals.
The 2017 UCF Knights football team truly seems to be playing like a band of brothers. With a start of 10 - 0, they've already achieved program history. If they can maintain that unity they've displayed to this point in the season, there's no reason to believe that they can't complete a dream season and prevail over every opponent that is set before them. But never doubt their biggest test is yet to come.