Walk This Way
By Joey Nelson
Tipping the scales at just 150 pounds his freshman season, Brandon Alexander had much to gain and a lot to prove as a walk-on in 2011. Fast forward to 2014, and the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder has made a name for himself not only with the Knights, but nationally, as well, as a 2013 nominee for the Burlsworth Trophy, which is given to the most outstanding collegiate football player who began his career as a walk-on.
The Orlando native credits his success to hard work and perseverance, making him a perfect fit for the blue-collar persona of the UCF football team.
“I’ve been competing since I was young. That’s what my parents taught me to do,” the senior safety explained.
Alexander actually grew up as a basketball player, dribbling and shooting since the age of 2. He didn’t tackle organized football until the 11th grade at his father’s suggestion.
“At first I was like, `I don’t know. It’s not my thing,’” Alexander said. “I [went] out there and I played defensive end for two years. That’s ridiculous [and] it’s crazy, but I played defensive end.”
Alexander loved running around and making plays, but what drew him closer to the game was the team. The back-and-forth communication, the relationships built through trust and the ultimate feeling of camaraderie made football all the more enticing.
“It’s a lot different from basketball and it’s more of a team game. You could have someone mess up and when that one person messes up, somebody else can come in and help you out,” Alexander said. “In basketball, if one person messes up, that player could mess up the whole squad, the whole team. The camaraderie in football, everything coming together is just unique and that’s what I love about football. It’s a unique sport.”
Alexander carried his love for football 20 miles up the road from Evans High School to UCF, where he joined the program as a walk-on. He appeared in 10 games, with five starts coming at corner in the final five games his first season in 2011, amassing 43 tackles and five broken-up passes.
“I just came in with a mindset saying, `I’m going to come in and work.’ I have to get my education first, but as far as going on the field, I didn’t let anything get me down,” Alexander said. “I know I’m going to have to come out and bust my behind out here to make sure that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. If you do what you’re supposed to do, then everything will come.”
Alexander’s outlook and work ethic tends to go against the grain of the Millennial stereotype, those who often crave instant gratification and operate with a sense of entitlement.
“I’ll tell every walk-on here now, I’ll tell every scholarship player now that you don’t just come here and expect something to be given to you,” Alexander said. “You have to come out here and earn it, regardless of what you did in high school or anything that you have done. You have to make sure you come out here and do what you’re supposed to do in order for you to succeed.”
Alexander’s message translates to the comeback success the team experienced in 2012 after a disappointing 2011 season. Led by then-sophomore quarterback Blake Bortles, the Knights came up just six points short of closing out their Conference USA tenure as champions. Finishing 10–4 with their second bowl win in program history, UCF seemed to be gaining steam.
A freshman recruiting class that featured the likes of Alexander, linebacker Terrance Plummer and wideout Rannell Hall was no longer an inexperienced group of starters. They were dynamic in their play and took on varying roles of leadership for the team. Starting in 12 games for the Knights, Alexander totaled 62 tackles, snagged his first-career interception and led the team with nine break-ups.
Alexander’s stay at corner was brief, however, with the departure of Kemal Ishmael, pressing the need for Alexander’s eventual transition to safety. The move was a bit easier than expected.
“My first two years playing cornerback I had the luxury of having Kemal Ishmael back there, so I knew a lot about safety before I got up there,” Alexander said. “Kemal would just talk to me during the play and say, `You got this.’ If you know corner, you have to know the safety on your side. You always have to know the other side of the corner. So, it’s four different positions on the field as far as DBs, but at the same time everybody’s kind of doing the same thing. In order for you to [succeed], you have to know all four positions.”
Just as Alexander had made a change, the Knights were moving to an unfamiliar frontier: the American Athletic Conference. Some experts did not view the new member as a force to be reckoned with and outlined the Knights as a middle-of-the-pack competitor.
The Black and Gold made the most of their opportunity, upsetting the likes of Penn State and No. 8/6 Louisville on their way to becoming the inaugural American champions. The Knights capped their memorable season by shocking No. 6/5 Baylor, 52–42, to become the BCS Tostitos Fiesta Bowl champions and the No. 10-ranked team in the final Associated Press rankings.
Alexander played a pivotal role in 2013 at safety, starting in all 13 games with 63 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, one recovery, three interceptions and seven break-ups. In arguably the best game of his career, Alexander collected seven tackles, two break-ups and an interception, with one of his break-ups coming in the endzone on fourth down with less than 30 seconds remaining to secure the win over Houston. Later that week, Alexander was named American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week.
Even as the bar for success is raised through the spring, Alexander remains humble. The Knights play to compete, to win, without the need to prove anything to anyone but themselves.
“For us as a team, I feel like nothing’s changed,” Alexander explained. “We’ve always been good, and we always felt like we’ve done well. It’s just the fact that we don’t come out here to prove to other people that, `Hey, UCF should be on the map.’ It’s all about us; it’s all about our struggle. We know that we’re good and we’re going to keep playing day in and day out to make sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to do. We don’t need everybody else on the outside to be like, `Oh, UCF’s just good now.’ We show it by our actions and not by our words.”