No. 37: U.C.F.
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 1, 2012
Now’s not the time for distraction. Beyond merely making a run for another double-digit win season, a quest waylaid last fall by injuries, youth and an utter inability to win close games, U.C.F. needs a strong 2012 season to springboard into the Big East on a high note. While the Big East is no longer the league it once was – and it was never a true power conference – it will test the Knights more so than any season in Conference USA ever did. Among the impediments in the Knights’ path include traditional Big East contenders like Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati, not to mention three current conference rivals with big plans on their own. Houston’s coming along, as are S.M.U. and Memphis – the latter can play basketball, at least – and so are Boise State and San Diego State, two Mountain West teams angling for a shot at an increased national foothold. No, this is not the time for distraction; it’s time for U.C.F. to take care of business. Now, about these N.C.A.A. penalties…
Conference USA, East
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 30
- Sept. 8
at Ohio St.
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 4
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
U.C.F. is loaded for another conference title run. [But] it’s going to be hard for U.C.F. to win another 11 games, thanks to a slightly tougher schedule and a few personnel concerns. You can’t control the former. As for the latter, the Knights do have some concerns at receiver and along the front seven, especially at linebacker. To be honest, this is me nitpicking. U.C.F. has loads of talent, a great young quarterback, an experienced coaching staff and solid depth nearly throughout: receiver, strong safety and outside linebacker notwithstanding. The Knights are really good — like second-best in Conference USA good, just behind Houston. Nine wins should be attainable even with a pair of tough non-conference games and road games against S.M.U. and Southern Mississippi.
In a nutshell This was a team that was simply unable to close late in games. In a way, last year’s team was similar to the program’s 2010 version – in its narrow margin of defeat, at least. Two years ago, each of U.C.F.’s three losses came by 10 points or less; last fall, six of the Knights’ seven losses came by a touchdown or less. Included in this bunch were four losses to teams that would win at least eight games – Florida International, B.Y.U., Tulsa and Southern Mississippi – by a combined 22 points. The question: How did U.C.F. lose three or four games, let alone seven games, let alone fail to make a serious run at another conference title? The Knights averaged 406.8 yards per game, the second-most over George O’Leary’s eight seasons with the program. The defense allowed 303.3 yards per game, the ninth-best total in the country and the program’s lowest average since 1990. In many ways, this team was statistically better than the one that romped through Conference USA en route to a league title two years ago.
High point A 30-3 dismantling of Boston College on the second Saturday of the season. It was complete and utter domination of an A.C.C. team most thought would earn a hard-fought victory – but a victory nonetheless. U.C.F. would go on to win only three more times all season, with only one win, over Marshall, coming against an eventual bowl team.
Low point Any one of the close losses. The Knights led B.Y.U. before a special teams breakdown in the third quarter propelled the Cougars to victory. Before the Golden Eagles become household names, U.C.F. took Southern Mississippi down to the wire in a 30-29 loss. The Knights scored with no time remaining to move within one point, but O’Leary opted to go for the two-point try rather than playing for overtime.
Tidbit Propelled by a story by Pete Thamel, then of The New York Times, the N.C.A.A. in 2011 began investigating U.C.F.’s relationship with Ken Caldwell, a Chicago man who had allegedly given more than $16,000 in impermissible benefits to 11 U.C.F. men’s basketball and football recruits. U.C.F. self-imposed penalties, putting its athletic department on three years of probation and placing recruiting limitations on both athletic programs – decreasing the number of official visits the men’s basketball and football programs could use during a given year. Yesterday, the N.C.A.A. added another penalty: U.C.F.’s men’s basketball and football programs will be ineligible for postseason play during the 2012-13 academic year. For the football team, a postseason ban includes the conference title game. The only silver lining for U.C.F. is that the penalties assessed by the N.C.A.A. do not extend into the 2013-14 year, when the university joins the Big East.
Tidbit (possession edition) Alright, so here’s one thing I know is true: it’s hard to lose when you control the clock. I thought that was true, at least – though Oregon wins games despite ranking at or near the bottom of the nation in terms of controlling the ball – until last fall, when U.C.F. finished sixth nationally in time of possession. That wasn’t the only weird thing about last year’s team. In addition to dominating on defense and fielding one of the best offenses in program history, U.C.F. was one of the best teams in the country when it came to third down. The Knights finished 32nd nationally in converting 44.3 percent of its third downs. The defense held opponents to a 31.6 percent conversion rate on third down, the eighth-best mark in the country and the third-best number in program history.
Tidbit (B.C.S. competition edition) U.C.F.’s win over Boston College was the program’s fourth overall against B.C.S. conference competition and its second in a row, joining the bowl victory over Georgia that capped the 2010 season. The 27-point margin of victory was by far the most in such games; the Knights’ previous three wins against B.C.S. conference teams – Alabama in 2000, N.C. State in 2007 and Georgia – came by a combined eight points. In all, U.C.F. is 4-47 all-time against B.C.S. conference competition: 2-12 against the A.C.C., 2-13 against the SEC, 0-5 against the Big 12, 0-6 against the Big Ten, 0-1 against the Pac-12 and yes, 0-10 against the Big East – though only 0-9 against teams that will still be part of that league in 2013.
Former players in the N.F.L.
17 WR Kamar Aiken (Buffalo), S Atari Bigby (San Diego), OT Patrick Brown (Minnesota), DT Leger Douzable (Tennessee), C Charley Hughlett (Dallas), WR Brandon Marshall (Chicago), FB Bruce Miller (San Francisco), WR Jamar Newsome (Kansas City), TE Adam Nissley (Atlanta), OG Nick Pieschel (Chicago), K Matt Prater (Denver), OT Jah Reid (Baltimore), CB Josh Robinson (Minnesota), CB Asante Samnuel (Atlanta), OG Josh Sitton (Green Bay), RB Kevin Smith (Detroit), NT Torell Troup (Bufalo).
Arbitrary top five list
Biggest M.L.B. deadline deals, 2008-12
1. Cliff Lee, Cleveland to Philadelphia (2009).
2. Manny Ramirez, Boston to Los Angeles Dodgers (2008).
3. Matt Holliday, Oakland to St. Louis (2009).
4. Carlos Beltran, New York Mets to San Francisco (2011).
5. Zach Greinke, Milwaukee to Los Angeles Angels (2012).
George O’Leary (New Hampshire ’69), 50-51 after eight seasons at Central Florida. Most famously, O’Leary compiled a 52-33 record at Georgia Tech from 1994-2001. O’Leary was named the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 2000, when the Yellow Jackets finished 9-3, second in the A.C.C., and earned a Peach Bowl bid. He was also a two-time A.C.C. Coach of the Year (1998 and 2000). O’Leary’s college coaching career began at Syracuse, where he coached the defensive line for seven seasons (1980-86). He then went to Tech, where he served as Bobby Ross’s defensive coordinator from 1987-91; the Yellow Jackets won the 1990 national championship. After following Ross to the San Diego Chargers (defensive line coach from 1992-93), O’Leary returned to Georgia Tech as coordinator in 1994, when he took over for the fired Tim Lewis with three games remaining in a 1-10 season. Of course, O’Leary’s post-Georgia Tech career was tarnished by the controversy surrounding his brief, one-week tenure as the head coach at Notre Dame, which ended after the university discovered a number of inaccuracies in his resume. After two years with the Minnesota Vikings (2002 as line coach, 2003 as coordinator), O’Leary was tabbed at Central Florida. It’s been a relatively up-and-down stretch, though the Knights’ 11-win finish in 2010 snapped O’Leary’s penchant for even-numbered failures, as noted a year ago. The Knights rebounded from an 0-11 initial campaign in 2004 to finish 8-5 in 2005, the biggest turnaround in the F.B.S. that season, but posted twin 4-8 marks in 2006 and 2008 surrounding their conference championship-winning team in 2007. After winning 19 games from 2009-10, it seemed as if O’Leary had done enough on the field to take him off the hot seat. But it’s been a terrible year and change: U.C.F. slipped on the field, sliding out of bowl play last fall; a jury found the university negligent in the death of Ereck Plancher, a former player who died following an offseason workout in 2008; and the N.C.A.A. just chided the school – both its men’s basketball team and football team – for a number of rules violations.
Tidbit (coaching edition) O’Leary made one staffing move out of necessity, replacing Illinois-bound Tim Salem, the Knights’ tight ends coach and special teams coordinator, with Allen Mogridge, who spent the last three seasons in the same capacity at North Carolina. But O’Leary made the executive decision to change the entire makeup of his defensive staff despite the fact that U.C.F., as noted, fielded one of the best defenses in program history a year ago. Defensive coordinator John Skladany is out, replaced for a time by Ted Roof, who spent a few months on the job before moving to Penn State; Roof’s replacement – the replacement’s replacement – is Jim Fleming, the former Akron assistant who was first hired as the Knights’ linebackers coach before getting a nice promotion.
Out is linebackers coach Al Seamonson, replaced by former U.A.B. assistant Tyson Summers. Gone is defensive backs coach Sean Beckton, replaced by Kirk Callahan, who spent last season as a graduate assistant at Florida. So long, Tim Panagos, the Knights’ former defensive line coach; he’s replaced by Blaise Winter, a 15-year N.F.L. veteran. What has Winter been doing since his career ended in 1994? Well, no coaching – this is Winter’s first coaching job. Instead, Winter spent much of his post-career days as a motivational speaker, a period that included several motivational sessions at U.C.F. since O’Leary was hired eight years ago.
Players to watch
Turnabout is fair play. Two years ago, then-freshman Jeff Godfrey came into September as the backup behind then-junior Rob Calabrese; by the seventh quarter of the 2010 season, Godfrey had leaped ahead of Calabrese, the incumbent, to put a stranglehold on the starting quarterback position. Fast-forward one year: Godfrey, the new incumbent, was pushed out of the starting lineup midway through last season by redshirt freshman Blake Bortles, who now enters 2012 as U.C.F.’s unquestioned starter – and let’s see if he can buck the program’s recent trend.
Bortles was likely going to start this fall either way, but Godfrey made U.C.F.’s decision a little easier by transferring over the winter; while he reneged on this transfer, eventually deciding to return to Orlando, Godfrey is no longer in the program’s plans at the position. In all likelihood – barring injury or a sophomore slump – Bortles will give U.C.F. its best passer in years. He’s a big, tall, strong-armed pocket thrower who, as shown against Southern Mississippi, can give this offense a different dimension. In nearly leading the Knights to victory, Bortles hit on 24 of 34 attempts for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While replicating that line on a weekly basis will be impossible – Bortles would be an all-American if so – do look for the sophomore to give U.C.F. an accurate passer in the intermediate game with the potential for quick, deep strikes down field.
Calabrese and Godfrey remain slight options, I suppose, though U.C.F. seems very, very hesitant to move the latter back into the mix. It’s more likely that Calabrese – now a redshirt senior; he didn’t play last fall – serves as an emergency option while former Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert serves as the Knights’ backup. While Gabbert was a well-regarded recruit as a high school senior, he doesn’t match Bortles’ arm and game experience. It’ll be interesting to watch U.C.F.’s new starter develop in this system.
Look for Godfrey to see the field at receiver, however – as well as Calabrese, who would be the team’s biggest target in the passing game. The receiver corps is immensely deep, starting with the returning threesome of senior Quincy McDuffie (43 catches for 482 yards) and sophomores J.J. Worton (41 for 531) and Josh Reese (30 for 461). Look for this group to lead the way, with McDuffie the team’s most proven, steady and reliable option on passing downs. But Worton and Reese are worth watching: both did a nice job as redshirt freshmen, filling a void along the depth chart and giving U.C.F. more big-play ability.
Look out for Godfrey, who could develop nicely, and Calabrese could be a nice alternative in the red zone. One receiver who could really break out is sophomore Rannell Hall, who went lightly used on offense last fall but was Conference USA’s most electric return man; as with other special teams standouts, he just needs to translate his speed and athleticism to the offensive side of the ball. Another youngster who could work his way into the mix is true freshman Breshad Perriman, an early arrival who had a very nice spring game.
The Knights are experienced across the board along the offensive line, though this staff must still decide on a starting five. Three players who will start, barring some unforeseeable development: senior Jordan Rae at center, senior Theo Goins at left guard and senior Phil Smith at right tackle – the latter a former Georgia Tech transfer who is immediately eligible. That leaves U.C.F. with multiple options at left tackle and right guard. It’ll be a McCray at the latter, whether Justin or Jordan, both juniors – and brothers, and solid performers as freshmen last fall; they’ll be jostling to replace yet another brother, Cliff, a multiple-year starter. On the blind side, U.C.F. is leaning towards sophomore Torrian Wilson ahead of junior Chris Martin. This line has a nice mix of experience and all-conference-caliber youth.
The Knights return their top two rushers from a season ago, but it’s the one new face, a former Miami (Fla.) transfer, that had this offense buzzing throughout the spring. U.C.F. knows what it’ll get from seniors Brynn Harvey (574 yards) and Latavius Murray (549 yards and 8 scores), two very experienced and accomplished backs who have carried this running game over the last three years – with Harvey a 1,000-yard rusher in 2009 and Murray capping last season with a 233-yard performance in the win over UTEP.
But sophomore Storm Johnson, formerly of the Hurricanes, could take this running game to another level: Johnson could give U.C.F. some major burst and speed outside the tackles, teaming with the bigger seniors as a quicker, big-play alternative on the ground. It will interesting to see how O’Leary and this staff delegate carries, but Johnson is too explosive not to get at least 125 carries this fall – and look for all three to combine to give U.C.F. the league’s best overall backfield.
I have a few concerns over the major staffing shakeup on the defensive side of the ball, especially seeing how well U.C.F. fared up front and in the secondary a year ago. The Knights remain very talented at both spots – needing only to replace a star cornerback – but the new coaches must continue to put together schemes and formations that best utilize this team’s overall talent; while coaching has played a role, the simple truth is that U.C.F.’s defense is quicker, stronger and fiercer than any in Conference USA – and if you want to look ahead, this defensive pedigree is one reason why U.C.F. is not going to get its doors blown off once it moves into the Big East.
There’s no question that Josh Robinson’s departure looms large. He gave U.C.F. an elite presence at cornerback, which in turn trickled throughout the secondary and along the front seven – so, in short, it’s not a stretch to say that Robinson’s play was what allowed U.C.F. to commit itself so heavily to stopping the run. The good news is that this secondary returns both starting safeties and a pair of cornerbacks that combined to start all 12 games a season ago. Last year’s leading tackler, senior Kemal Ishmael (81 tackles, 2.5 for loss), returns at free safety; sophomore Clayton Geathers (67 tackles) returns at strong safety, and he’s ready to challenge for all-conference honors.
So, cornerback. Senior A.J. Bouye (21 tackles, 2 interceptions) started the first seven games of last season before suffering a season-ending injury against U.A.B., when he was replaced by sophomore Brandon Alexander. A year later, it’s likely that this pair will be the Knights’ starters at the position – with Bouye an absolute lock and Alexander the favorite from among a group that includes senior Lyle Dankenbring, who can also swing to a spot at safety, and four or five freshmen and sophomores.
The key for U.C.F. is not necessarily to land another first-team all-conference pick at cornerback, but rather to land sideline-to-sideline and end zone-to-end zone steadiness from this entire group. If you’re looking for a star, it would be Ishmael, who earned all-league accolades as a sophomore. But Bouye, while not in Robinson’s league, did show some ball-hawking skills while in the starting lineup. Even without Robinson, U.C.F.’s secondary ranks among the top four in Conference USA – and could again be one of the two best if Bouye or Alexander locks down one side of the field.
Name the one team in college football to lead its conference in run defense in each of the last four years. No, it’s not Alabama. It’s not West Virginia. Nope, not U.S.C. or Stanford. And it’s not Louisiana-Monroe, which has done so for three years running. It’s U.C.F., which has over this span become defined by how its stifles opposing running games from tasting even the barest modicum of success – allowing more than 150 yards on the ground only four times over the last two years. It’s become a mentality, rendering the opposition’s ground game obsolete, and that U.C.F. has done so for this extended amount of time does highlight the idea that the Knights won’t suffer a downturn even with a brand-new coach taking over duties up front.
Winter will have some weapons to work with – and based on his job experience, will keep this group highly motivated. The one constant inside is junior Victor Gray (29 tackles, 5.0 for loss), an honorable mention all-Conference USA pick last fall who should earn greater postseason accolades in 2012. What U.C.F. can do alongside Gray is either go with some initial quickness, which would spell a starting role for junior E.J. Dunston (13 tackles), or go with sheer size and strength, which would spell more starts for junior Jose Jose, a 345-pound former JUCO transfer. This latter pair split starts last fall, with the backup still seeing extensive time, so look for this trend to continue in 2012.
Senior Troy Davis (29 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 5.0 sacks) is ready for a breakout season. He had his moments last fall, leading the team in sacks and giving U.C.F. some disruption off the edge, but Davis should find a bit more freedom thanks to the Knights’ strong trio of interior linemen. If he continues to hone his technique, Davis should battle for double-digit sacks as a senior – and will definitely be an all-conference selection. What was interesting to see during the spring was U.C.F.’s decision to try Gray outside, where he would team with Davis to give the Knights an outstanding end pairing. Whether that sticks remains to be seen, but it would lead to the following: Davis and Gray outside, backed up senior Cam Henderson and a few underclassmen; Jose and Dunston starting inside, backed up by junior Josh Wofford.
It’s a possibility, but even if Gray does move outside he’ll be moved back to tackle on passing downs – with Henderson, a former JUCO transfer, serving as the Knights’ pass-rush specialist. One thing that might prevent U.C.F. from moving Gray to end is the fact that Jose, for all his power, can’t handle being an every-down tackle. But Jose can be a very useful tool on running downs, when he’s almost impossible to move.
Hall is going to score on a kickoff return in 2012 – I promise. He didn’t do so last fall despite leading Conference USA in yards per return, earning first-team all-league honors in the process. Between Hall and McDuffie, U.C.F.’s return game is the best in the conference. Kicking is an issue, however, as the Knights need to replace kicker Nick Cattoi and punter David Bohner. They’ll be replaced by sophomore Shawn Moffit and senior Jamie Boyle, respectively.
Position battle(s) to watch
Linebacker While the line and the secondary delivered more than a few standout performances last fall, U.C.F. was lacking some degree of explosiveness on the second level. The issue in 2011 was a wholesale lack of experience, outside of then-senior middle linebacker Josh Linam, who must be replaced. He was flanked last fall by a mix of true freshmen, converted running backs and former basketball players, and while this untested group flashed some athleticism, the overall product was much weaker than in the recent past – which was to be expected. U.C.F. needs more from the position in 2012.
Linman is gone, replaced by sophomore Terrance Plummer (17 tackles, 2.0 for loss), one of two true freshmen to earn significant snaps a year ago. He’ll be joined at outside linebacker by another sophomore, Troy Gray (30 tackles, 4.5 for loss). While Plummer and Gray both have potential, the team’s most productive linebacker is senior Jonathan Davis (44 tackles, 10.5 for loss), one of the Knights’ starting running backs in 2010 – he rushed for 234 yards and a score that season. Davis did a nice job outside last fall, translating his quick feet and agility to the defensive side of the ball, and should do an even better job in 2012. Another senior, Ray Shipman (35 tackles) played basketball at Florida before transferring into the program; he adds some depth on the outside.
U.C.F. also added another quartet of linebackers in February, though it’s likely that only one or two avoid a redshirt season. But with a top four in place, U.C.F. – if it can avoid injuries – seems locked in when it comes to a rotation. Simply put, the top quartet must deliver: U.C.F. needs both more big plays and stouter play between the tackles, something that should be doable with another solid defensive front.
Game(s) to watch
Does U.C.F. want to make some noise? It will have the chance early, when it takes on Ohio State – on the road – Florida International and Missouri over three straight weeks in September. In all, the Knights’ first half is likely the most difficult of any non-B.C.S. conference program in the country: at Akron, at Ohio State, F.I.U., Missouri, East Carolina and Southern Mississippi. Getting a split there or winning four of six would leave U.C.F. in a great place to make a run in the second half, as the final six games include five games against eminently beatable competition. The lone exception is Tulsa, which plays host on Nov. 17, preceded a week earlier by S.M.U., a current and future conference rival.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell The year took on an entirely different feel yesterday morning, when the N.C.A.A. decreed that U.C.F. would not be eligible for any sort of postseason play this coming season – again, with the silver lining that the Knights will enter the Big East without any sort of bowl or conference restrictions. That alters this team’s mindset, you’d think, taking U.C.F. out of a title-or-bust mentality and into one where it will search for motivation every Saturday. That’s one reason why I have this team in this spot, not its original spot five or six slots higher on the list. It’s an intangible that needs to be considered: Can O’Leary keep this team primed for every Saturday when it knows that the season will end on Nov. 24 – whether or not U.C.F. is 10-2, 9-3, 12-0, atop the East division, atop the entire conference?
What should motivate U.C.F., and what I think will keep this team motivated, is the idea that it still has something to prove in the program’s final season in Conference USA. That alone should lead to a nice turnaround from last season, pushing the Knights from 5-7 to 8-4 in the regular season. The reasons are pretty simple: U.C.F. is going to follow the same formula, running the ball effectively and stopping opponents from doing the same, while getting more from its passing game and excelling in the return game. I’m excited to see how Bortles fares as the full-time starter; how Johnson does if given adequate touches; how the younger offensive linemen gel with the experienced hands; how Gray and Davis fare as all-conference teammates up front; how the more experienced linebackers play as a group; and how the two strong safeties lead a slightly reworked secondary. This is a very nice team, albeit one that has gone from a Conference USA favorite to one completely removed from the title conversation. Nevertheless, look for U.C.F. to finish with eight wins and atop the East division, even if the final standings are meaningless. Congratulations, Southern Mississippi or East Carolina: one of you will be the East champions – by default.
Dream season U.C.F. loses at Ohio State but makes a major statement by upending both Florida International and Missouri to cap non-conference play. The Knights then dismantle E.C.U. and the Golden Eagles, roll through the weak slice of Conference USA and sneak past Tulsa, ending the season at 11-1 overall and 8-0 in league play.
Nightmare season With nothing to play for, U.C.F. plays as if, yes, there’s nothing to play for. The Knights beat Akron but then drop five straight; beat Memphis but then lose to Marshall and S.M.U., the latter by 28 points; and beat UTEP before ending the regular season with another two defeats.
In case you were wondering
Where do U.C.F. fans congregate? Fans hang out at UCFSports.com and Inside Knights, though the latter seems a little quiet. You can also check out the Knights Notepad over at the Web site of the Orlando Sentinel.
U.C.F.’s all-name nominee DT Jose Jose.
Through 88 teams 349,943.
Who is No. 36? If you change one letter in tomorrow’s head coach’s first name you get a National Book Award-winning author. If you change one letter of the coach’s last name, you get a novelist whose original novel, along with pieces of his other work, was made into a 2003 film.
Tags: A.J. Bouye, Blaise Winter, Blake Bortles, Brynn Harvey, Clayton Geathers, Conference USA, George O'Leary, J.J. Worton, Jeffrey Godfrey, Jim Fleming, Jonathan Davis, Jose Jose, Kemal Ishmael, Latavius Murray, Phil Smith, Quincy McDuffie, Rannell Hall, Shawn Moffit, Storm Johnson, Terrance Plummer, Theo Goins, Troy Davis, Troy Gray, U.C.F., Victor Gray
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