Aug. 1, 2011
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By John Denton
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UCFAthletics.com) - In order to get back to the Conference USA title game for a second-straight year SMU will have to deal with quite possibly the most prolific passer in NCAA history (Houston's Case Keenum), the reigning Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year (G.J. Kinne) and the quarterback about to eclipse all of Brett Favre's records at Southern Miss (Austin Davis).
But there's another quarterback that SMU's June Jones - a coach who knows a thing or two about elite passers - can't get out of his thoughts and haunting nightmares.
``The thing that I still have fresh in my mind about UCF is that quarterback,'' Jones said of Knights' sophomore sensation Jeff Godfrey. ``If you can find a way to neutralize that kid you might have a chance to beat them.''
Jones said that somewhat sheepishly because he was fully aware of how Godfrey regularly toyed with defenses last season as a true freshman at UCF. Statistically the most efficient freshman quarterback in the country last season, Godfrey helped the Knights author their finest season in school history by burning foes with his running and passing. Coaches throughout C-USA rave about UCF's defense and its stable of running backs, but have said that Godfrey elevated the Knights to a different stratosphere.
``How many kids in the nation did what (Godfrey) did last season? They had the best defense in the conference last year, but the Godfrey kid allowed them to run a totally different offense and he took them to a completely different level,'' Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora gushed. ``Flat out, they don't win the league last year without Godfrey.''
And as good as Godfrey is at UCF, he might be the third or fourth best quarterback in the conference. Clearly, 2011 is the year of the quarterback in Conference USA. Both the quality and the quantity at the quarterback position could help elevate the stature of the conference nationally. It could be argued that no conference - including power leagues such as the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 - has the volume of elite passers as C-USA does this season.
Fedora, who worked previously at the University of Florida with Chris Leak, said the season will ultimately be deemed as a golden age for quarterbacks in C-USA because of the passing talent at several schools.
``There are a lot of dang-good quarterbacks in this league, so many of them, really,'' Fedora said. ``I think the quarterback play in our league is as good as any in the country. Really, I think we'll look back in five or six years and say, `Wow, that whole group was there together at the same time.'''
Any C-USA quarterback discussion has to start with Keenum, who could very well re-write the NCAA record book by the time his senior season is complete. Granted a sixth season by the NCAA after tearing a knee ligament last season, Keenum enters this season fifth all-time in passing yards with 13,586 yards and should eclipse Timmy Chang's record of 17,072 yards. Also, Keenum is eighth all-time with 107 TD passes, just 27 back of Graham Harrell's record of 134.
``When you start thinking about all of the personal goals and records, that's when everything starts getting messed up for you,'' said Keenum, one of just two players in NCAA history with multiple 5,00-yard passing seasons. ``But I'm focused more on the other things now. It's all about the team and having success as a team now.''
If that sounds like a mature approach, it's because Keenum is about as mature and seasoned as they get for a college player. Married and already graduated, Keenum is 23 years old and often seen as an extension of Kevin Summerlin's coaching staff. His knowledge of the offense allows the Cougars to play ``fastbreak football,'' a breakneck pace that often gives defensive players and coordinators fits.
Keenum said he's understandably biased, but he thinks the quarterback play in C-USA is as good as any in the country and that leads to some dazzling football.
``You look at what the (quarterbacks) in our conference are doing and I think they're as good as any in the country,'' said Keenum, a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate. ``I just love watching those guys play. If I have the choice and a Big 12 or an SEC or a Conference USA game is on TV, I'm watching the C-USA game every time. I'd rather watch a 48-42 shootout that's tight down to the end rather than a 10-7 grind-it-out game any time.''
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones is already a leading candidate for the Heisman and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden is atop many All-American rankings after throwing for 4,277 yards last season. But by the best quarterback in the football-crazy state might actually hail from Tulsa where Kinne directed an offense that averaged 41.4 points a game last season.
``The state of Oklahoma has some really good quarterbacks,'' Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said, ``and the best one might not be in the Big 12. We believe he plays in Conference USA.''
Keenum, Kinne, Southern Miss' Davis and East Carolina's Dominique Davis - who set 15 school records while winning C-USA's Newcomer of the Year award - all are trying to get where Godfrey was last season as a conference champion. That he did so as a teenaged true freshman proved to others around the league that the Miami native has superstar potential.
``It was amazing what that kid did last season,'' said SMU's Jones, whose Mustangs were beaten by Godfrey and the Knights in the C-USA title game. ``(UCF coach) George (O'Leary) was sharing with me about (Godfrey's) high school career in Miami, and I'm just a believer forever that some kids are just born with special things. Obviously, that kid is born with something special, being a real winner and he just finds a way.''
Godfrey threw for 2,159 yards and 13 touchdowns and ran for 566 yards and 10 more scores last season. And he did that while working with half of the UCF playbook. More will be expected of him this season and O'Leary is convinced that Godfrey will be up to it because of his tremendous instinct. And UCF's coach feels that Godfrey could ultimately become the best quarterback in a conference full of them this season.
``Teams are going to go as their quarterbacks go and the level of quarterback play in this league is outstanding,'' O'Leary said. ``The teams in this league don't have any trouble putting points on the board and it's because the quarterback play is so good.
``With our team, Jeff just has the ability to take a bad play and make a good play out of it - whether it's with his feet scrambling or his head or throwing,'' O'Leary continued. ``In my career I've had a couple of quarterbacks capable of doing that - Joe Hamilton is one and Jeff is another one. You like to say his ability is because you have coached him up, but with him it's just a feel. He senses pressure and something about to happen instead of having to see it. He's a special quarterback and we're proud to have him.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.