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July 5, 2011
OVERVIEW: UCF is one of the few Conference USA teams that places a premium on defense, and George O'Leary is one of those "run the ball and play good defense to win" coaches. But he loosened the reins last season because of the arrival of QB Jeff Godfrey, a dual-threat guy who has enabled the coaches to add a few wrinkles to the offense. UCF is going to remain a run-first team, with heavy use of two tight ends and a fullback at times, but Godfrey's presence means the Knights will take more chances than usual on offense.
BACKFIELD: Godfrey arrived from Miami Central with a lot of hype, and he lived up to billing. He's not a big guy (5 feet 11/182 pounds), but he's extremely quick and he also has a good arm. He is a running threat (566 yards and 10 TDs last season), which makes this an extremely dangerous backfield. Ronnie Weaver led the Knights in rushing last season with 890 yards and scored 11 TDs; he was a second-team all-league performer. By the end of the season, Latavius Murray (637 yards, 11 TDs) was the starting tailback, and he held on to the job through spring practice. Returning from an injury that sidelined him last season is Brynn Harvey, who ran for 1,109 yards and 14 TDs in 2009. Weaver is the least-talented of the three tailbacks, but he obviously still has some skills, as evidenced by his performance last season. O'Leary and his offensive coaches can mix-and-match to their heart's content at tailback.
RECEIVERS: While tailback is a loaded position, there are some questions at wide receiver. The top three receivers are gone, meaning senior A.J. Guyton - who has 95 career catches - is the likely go-to guy. He had eight catches in the opener last season against FCS member South Dakota, but had only 20 more receptions all season. He had three 100-yard games as a sophomore in 2009, and that's what UCF needs this fall. Senior Khymest Williams has 23 career catches, and that's second-most among the receivers on the roster. The Knights need speedy junior Quincy McDuffie to make a mark this season; he has excellent speed and could become a dangerous deep threat. There appears to be some good young talent on the roster, but it is inexperienced.
LINE: All those tailbacks need room to run; is the line going to be up to the task? It should be. Both starting tackles are gone, but Nick Pieschel - who started at guard last season - will move to right tackle this season. Cliff McCray and Theo Goins split the 14 starting assignments at the other guard spot last season, and both earned starting nods in spring ball. C Jordan Rae was solid as a starter last season, and he returns as well. The lone truly new starter is LT Chris Martin, a physical sophomore who was a defensive tackle in high school. Depth looks OK in the interior, but both backup tackles are redshirt freshmen, so an injury to Martin or Pieschel could be tough to overcome.
OVERVIEW: Veteran assistant John Skladany was promoted from linebacker coach to coordinator in the offseason after Dave Huxtable left for Wisconsin. Skladany has spent a few seasons with O'Leary, so don't expect anything but tweaks to a defense that has been one of the best in the league for the past few seasons. UCF is physical and aggressive with its front seven and athletic in its secondary, and coaches aren't afraid to take chances because of that athleticism in the back.
LINE: Both starting ends are gone, and all-league E Bruce Miller is going to be impossible to replace. The good news is that the tackle tandem of Victor Gray and E.J. Dunston should be a good one, and E Darius Nall saw a lot of time as a reserve last season - enough time, in fact, to come up with 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss. Nall will contend for all-league honors this season. The other starting end will be Troy Davis, who had 5.5 sacks last season for a team that led the league with 32. Touted JC transfer Toby Jackson enrolled early and put himself in position to earn some playing time at end this fall. Depth at tackle is iffy unless a youngster or two makes a mark.
LINEBACKERS: Only one starter returns here, MLB Josh Linam, who had 78 tackles last season. Still, UCF should be fine. UCF signed six linebackers, including three JC transfers; two of those, Terran Buck and Ray Cottman, went through spring drills, and both will see time this fall. One newcomer to watch is Ray Shipman, a junior who transferred from Florida. But he was a basketball player for the Gators and is a former "Mr. Basketball" in Florida. He's also 6 feet 5 and 237 pounds, and coaches think he can be a playmaker on the outside. The other projected starter at outside 'backer is junior Jonathan Davis, who is just 5-9 and 199 pounds. But Davis is a converted tailback who has good speed and showed a nose for the ball in spring practice.
SECONDARY: Junior CB Josh Robinson will be a three-year starter and the leader of the secondary. He's an extremely talented guy who can play for anybody. He had six interceptions as a freshman but just two last season. Part of that was because opposing teams shied away from him, and Robinson still had 14 pass breakups last fall. He and FS Kemal Ishmael will contend for all-league honors. Ishmael led the Knights with 93 tackles last season and is an active force; he added two interceptions, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman SS Clayton Geathers, a big kid (6-3/200) who had a strong spring. Depth is untested throughout the secondary, but coaches are confident in their young players; UCF has recruited well in the secondary and that will pay off this season.
K Nick Cattoi returns after a shaky season. He was 11-of-19 overall and just 1-of-6 from beyond 40 yards. There will be a new punter in David Bohner, who averaged 37.6 yards on eight punts last season. While those two guys are questionable, the rest of the special teams are quite good. McDuffie is one of the best kick returners in the nation; he averaged 32.2 yards on 27 returns, including two for TDs. Robinson is a big-time punt returner and averaged 15.2 yards on 20 attempts. The kickoff coverage was outstanding, not surprising considering the number of good athletes on the roster, and the punt coverage was adequate.
Let's go with Shipman, who has a great back story and the athletic ability to make an on-field splash. He hasn't played football since 2005, when he was a wide receiver and safety for a powerhouse Miami Pace program. But coaches like his toughness and athletic ability.
Other than the opener against FCS member Charleston Southern, the Knights have a tough non-conference schedule. The other three non-league opponents - Boston College, BYU and Florida International - went to bowls last season, and UCF has to visit BYU and FIU. The FIU game could be a trap of sorts; it's the biggest home game of the season for FIU and it comes between games against BC and BYU for UCF. The Knights meet two of the three main C-USA West contenders, playing host to Tulsa and traveling to SMU. UCF also must travel to play its toughest East Division competition - East Carolina, Southern Miss and UAB. The game against Southern Miss on Nov. 12 should be for the division title.
Despite some key personnel losses, especially on defense, UCF has the talent to repeat as East Division champs and even as the league champ. The Knights' emphasis on defense will serve them well again; even with those personnel losses, UCF has players ready to step in, especially along the defensive line. This has been a tough offseason for UCF, as the school last week was found negligent in the death of WR Ereck Plancher during a 2008 workout; Plancher's parents were awarded $10 million, though the school will appeal. O'Leary was one of the witnesses in the trial, and though Plancher's death came more than three years ago, the after-effects could linger. Still, young people generally are resilient and the majority of the players on this season's team were not around in 2008. Despite the trial, this season should be a good one for UCF. Expect eight or nine wins and a first-place finish in C-USA East.
For more on UCF now and throughout the season, check out UCFSports.com
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.