Heading into the 2012 season, the Central Florida football team is an interesting bunch to say the least. The 2010 season was one of the most gratifying in school history. 11 wins, a conference title, and the upset of SEC foe Georgia in the first bowl game victory for the short history of Knights football.
That was followed up with a disappointing season that saw a good football team lose close football games. Despite going 5-1 at home, The Knights struggled to find ground on the road, going 0-6 on the road. Plain and simple – this team was playing for a coach that once lied on his resume.
But they are the ones that didn’t live up to expectations.
Despite that fact, an argument could be easily made that Ohio State’s Week 2 opponent will be the toughest non-conference competition this season, especially as UCF comes off of their week one, 56-14 thrashing of the Akron Zips . The Knights return 16 total starters from an underachieving team that lost a total of six games by seven points or fewer. They are the favorites of various media outlets and the coaches of Conference USA to win the conference. Offensively, they have three running backs that could start at nearly any division 1 institution. They have depth at quarterback with two starter quality signal callers. And most importantly, they have a ton of depth on the offensive and defensive line. At first glance, week two at the horseshoe might seem like an automatic win for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
After a closer look though, it’s clear that despite being in the offensive happy C-USA, this team can play some defense. Phil Steele ranks them as a top 30 unit in the country. And any team that has depth at any position has a chance to really improve drastically before and throughout the season.
Head Coach: George O’Leary (50-51), 9th Yr – A lot can be said about George O’Leary, (Hell, even the Irish have jokes after years of mediocrity) but he has done a good job of bringing talented football players to a less desired program, and at times putting together winning style football. When the “Resume Killer” Notre Damned the Irish, nobody would of ever thought he would of gotten a chance to lead a program again. Fast forward three years later, and the former Vikings assistant endured an 0-11 season with one of the worst rosters in Division 1 football. After getting some of his own recruits, the Knights bounced back during the 2005 season to win 8 games and make their first bowl in school history. That was followed by yet another down year in 2007 that saw UCF go 4-8. And of course, in true O’Leary fashion, the 2008 squad bounced back to record 10 wins on the season. Since then, the Knights have had two winning seasons – back to back in 2009 and 2010. Despite a letdown season, the leash seems to be quite long in Orlando for the former Georgia Tech coach. Even after racking up violation scare after violation scare. You never know though what pressure could be on O’Leary. The fact of the matter is that this team is moving on to the Big lEast next season. And in order to play with the big boys, the athletic program might deem it fit to bring in younger guys with high level resumes (see what I did there?). In the last few years, O’Leary has also struggled with team chemistry issues, keeping players on the roster, and connecting with coaches as a whole. But of course, winning fixes all problems. Even if it is on a season by season basis.
WR A.J. Guyton (Career 122 CAT 1,582 yards 7 TDs) –Though not the most flashy receiver you are going to find in gold and black, Guyton was a consistent #2 or # guy in his time at UCF. Last season, he returned as one of the few receivers with experience, and tallied his best yards per catch numbers of his career (15.0). His monster ballgame came against BYU in week 4, where he had 9 catches for 163 yards and a touchdown. Other than that, the fleet footed Guyton only had two games where he had 4 or more catches. Like many players that have come through George O’Leary’s program, Guyton had a ton of promise heading into his college football career. But for some reason, continued to lack the production expected from him. The Knights shouldn’t miss him too much on the field though, as many playmakers still exist in the corps. A position that is about to get real interesting really quick. (More on that later)
TE Adam Nissley (Career 38 CAT 465 yards 2 TDs) – Looking at his career numbers, you wouldn’t think that Central Florida would miss their leading tight end. Last season became his breakout year, as he caught 21 of his 38 career receptions, totaling 235 of his 465 career yards. In a sense, he was the security blanket that quarterbacks Jeff Godfrey and Blake Bortles needed. Now they Knights go into the 2012 season with hardly any experience at very key position on the field.
RT Nick Pieschel (2nd Team All-Conference, 4 Yr Starter) – Though Central Florida returns three of it’s five starters up front, running backs and quarterbacks alike will miss Nick Pieschel protecting them and opening up running lanes up front. The current Chicago Bear started all but the season opener last year. It will be hard to replace such a stud competitor, but the Knights surely have the depth to do so.
DE Toby Jackson – A lot of folks believed that Jackson could start at defensive end this season. Despite that fact, Jackson has transferred out of the program. Last year he started two games and played in nine. He had 14 tackles and 3 for loss a year ago.
LB Josh Linam – Third on the team last year in tackles, Linam really found a groove his senior season. His 66 tackles, 10 for loss, 2 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles were among the tops on the team in 2011. Despite losing a ton of talent last season at the position, Linam really took the bull by the horns in teaching his defensive teammates the position. His game was full of consistency. Only once did he not eclipse 6 tackles in a game (5 against Charleston Southern). His leadership will be missed as well.
CB Josh Robinson – On a team stacked with talent at the cornerback position, Josh Robinson’s coverage ability really stuck out in 2011. There is a reason he jumped early to the NFL. His blazing speed (4.33 40 at the combine) and ability to knock down passes (lead the team in PBUs with 15) were unmatched in Conference USA. 36 starts, 10 interceptions and a whole lot of receivers shut down over the last few years. It will be interesting to see how fast he picks things up with the Minnesota Vikings. Despite returning their two best tackling corners, there is no doubt that Robinson will be missed.
Players to Watch:
Blake Bortles, QB – Despite having three or four guys that could start on this team, head coach George O’Leary has made it clear that this is sophomore Blake Bortles’ team. After starting ten games last season, the coaching staff finally saw a complete package signal caller that can not only open up the offensive game with his legs, but with his arm. Bortles completed passes at a solid 68% clip in his first year on campus, compiling 958 yards, 6 TDs and just 3 interceptions. Coach O’Leary is so sold on Bortles as the starter, he has moved former starters Jeff Godfrey and Rob Calabrese to wide receiver. Calabrese could spell Bortles in the Wildcat at times, but other then that this is Bortles’ team. Unless former Mizzou QB Tyler Gabbert can snag it from him by stepping up if given the opportunity through injury or inconsistency.
Latavius Murray, RB – Injured – Will Not Play
Quincey McDuffie, WR – There is no doubt he is one of the top five fastest receivers in the game, the only question is if he is ready to break out in true playmaker fashion in 2012. The offense might not give him a chance, since he has so many great players around him, but he has the ability. It will be interesting to see if the speed can correlate to more quick points offensively for the Knights. Last year he totaled 482 yards on 43 receptions.
Clayton Geathers and Kemal Ishmael, S – I packaged these two together because as a unit, they are ever more fun to watch in the secondary. Both complement each other really well. Ishmael really gets to the football well and Geathers is a solo tackle machine. This year it looks like both will have improved coverage skills as well.
Jonathon Davis, LB – “From Starting Running Back, To Stopping Them in Their Tracks: The Jonathon Davis Story.” It’s been one hell of a run for the former tailback, who moved to linebacker last season. He finished fifth on the team in tackles, first in tackles for loss, and totaled three sacks. Not bad for a guy that started the pre-season on the third and fourth teams. But the fact of the matter is you can keep a guy off the field who has a knack of finding the football. Look for a ton more blitz packages for Davis in 2012, and a ton more forced fumbles and turnovers created.
UCF might be one of the few teams in the nation at their level of competition that is set at practically every position. That being said, there is still going to be competition between starters and 1a players across the roster at nearly every position. That is what makes this team so good. If someone gets injured at the skill position, there is another VERY talented player that can fill in. Defensively, there is still some work to be done, but overall it the battles are more like competing for reps at this point.
Tight End – Replacing Adam Nissley is going to be tough, considering UCF tight ends have a lack of experience in offensive packages. Kevin Garvy saw time in six games, but mostly in special teams work. Slated starter Justin Tukes made one start as a freshman. Junior DJ Brown played in two games. Redshirt Freshman Kevin Miller has yet to take to the college gridiron. None have the blocking prowess of Nissley. In the UCF system, that could lead to the use of the H Back and Fullback a ton more if needed.
Quarterback – This is Blake Bortles’ job, but the competition is there with Tyler Gabbert. Both are sophomores. Gabbert comes from a family of quarterbacks and has been slated by some experts, such as Phil Steele, to ultimately be the starter sometime this season. In fact, Steele selected Gabbert as his first team Conference USA quarterback this pre-season. The coaching staff keeps hammering home the point that Bortles is their guy, but in this type of offense Gabbert is a perfect fit. It should be good competition at the position every single week. As long as it doesn’t create controversy.
Running Back – The two-headed monster remaining, with Latavius Murray officially on the shelf this weekend, is Brynn Harvey and sophomore Storm Johnson who could both start for various teams across the country. Now both will be used at different points of ballgames to move the chains. Jackson brings a ton of downhill power to the mix. Harvey has a 1,000 yard season to his name already. Jackson could see a heavier load of the carries on Saturday if O’Leary wants to play possession football. It wouldn’t surprise me if this team has two 1,000 yard rushers at the end of the year. And at the very least, 2,500 yards total.
Wide Receiver – There is so much talent, and so little room on the field. From Quincy McDuffie to Josh Reese, as well as last years’ leading receiver JJ Worton. Now throw the H Backs Dontravius Floyd and Rob Calabrese in the mix. Both speedsters that can find open space in a hurry. Combine that with former QB Jeff Godfrey and you have some nervous defensive coordinators. How in the hell do you scheme against that many play makers? More importantly, how do you involve them all in your game plan? That is the question that must be answered before tomorrow at Noon.
This UCF team has the talent to give Ohio State and Missouri a run for their money. Those are the only two games on the schedule that I can see the Knights losing. They have an easy draw in Conference USA, with all of the tougher teams (SMU, USM, UAB) at home. This is a team though that has not lived up to expectations the last few seasons. But in the George O’Leary pattern, a bad year is always followed by a spectacular season. With the talent on the field, there is no reason the Knights shouldn’t win Conference USA. Even with select injuries, they have the depth to overcome adversity.
I see this team going 10-2, with a good chance of beating Mizzou and giving Ohio State quite a scare at Ohio Stadium tomorrow afternoon. If we don’t see those things, it’s time for the coaching staff to go. They’ve brought in way too much talent to let it go to waste.