Aug. 2, 2011
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By John Denton
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ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Eight months after putting the finishing touches on the finest season in school history, UCF could be poised now to author an even better one in 2011. With that said, anticipation has never been higher for a season to begin than the one dead ahead.
The Knights open training camp on Thursday to begin preparations for the Sept. 3 season-opener at Bright House Networks Stadium against Charleston Southern. Expectations are at an all-time high after the Knights climbed into the national rankings during an 11-3 season that included another Conference USA title and an AutoZone Liberty Bowl defeat of Georgia.
Now, the Knights are eager to make even more national noise. In addition to hoping to repeat as conference champs, the Knights have intentions of crashing the BCS party and reaching an upper-tier bowl game. To do that, they might need to pull off the first undefeated season in school history. Head coach George O'Leary feels his team has the talent and depth to win every game on the schedule, but several variables will go into how truly special of a season this becomes.
While the Knights are loaded with experience, talent and plenty of promise following another elite recruiting haul, there are question marks surrounding the team as camp opens. UCFAthletics.com writer John Denton examines the 10 most intriguing storylines and question marks surrounding the football team:
1. Who are the leaders of this team?
O'Leary challenged the team back in the spring to work throughout the offseason to improve, and all indications so far are that the group has done just that. Also, the Knights lost 19 seniors off last year's team, so there's a big void with the leadership of the team this time around. Players such as Ronnie Weaver, Adam Nissley, Kemal Ishmael, Victor Gray and Jeff Godfrey are strong candidates to be leaders on the field and in the locker room this season, and much of the success will depend on their ability to keep their teammates in line and working toward the same goal.
2. The starters and rotation at linebacker.
Graduation hit UCF hard at linebacker, and the Knights will be looking to fill three starting positions prior to the season. Josh Linam is the lone returner and is steady in the middle. But the other positions are up in the air with converted tailback Jonathan Davis hoping to start at one outside linebacker slot, while former Division I basketball player Ray Shipman hoping to fill the other slot. UCF's coaching staff is also quite anxious to see freshman linebacker Leilon Willingham, who chose the Knights over Michigan and Colorado. Willingham, who has been enrolled in summer school at UCF, has a legitimate chance to be a starter by midseason.
3. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Godfrey's development.
Godfrey was fantastic in his first season with the Knights, leading UCF to a Conference USA championship and a defeat of Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. All Godfrey did last season was become the efficiency leader among all freshmen quarterbacks in the country. But in year two the UCF coaching staff is expecting even more production from the 5-foot-10 quarterback with the big right arm and dazzling speed. Godfrey worked hard in the spring to stay in the pocket longer to allow plays to develop more down the field. Also, the coaching staff is now expecting him to read the entire field on pass plays as opposed to just one or two routes last season. Godfrey showed an incredible knack for finding a way to win games last season, and now he'll be expected to carry even more of the leadership, and expected to be a steady performer.
4. The health of standout safety Kemal Ishmael.
Godfrey and tailback Latavius Murray get many of the headlines, but it's Ishmael whom many consider to be the best all-around player on the team. He is the team's most sure tackler and one of its brightest players when it comes to football smarts. A starter each of the past two seasons, Ishmael proved himself to be more of a vocal leader in the spring. That was before he was shelved with a shoulder injury that required surgery. He's expected to be back and healthy by the start of training camp, and any chance the Knights have of repeating as C-USA champs revolves around the health of their hard-hitting safety. He and Josh Robinson, both first-team All-C-USA preseason picks, give the Knights one of the best secondary units in the country.
5. Will there be a two-back set among the tailbacks?
UCF entered last season with major question marks at tailback, but by the end of the season that position was arguably the team's deepest spot. With Latavius Murray, Brynn Harvey and Ronnie Weaver at tailback the Knights have three quality backs capable of running for 1,000 yards in a season. Harvey, who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, returned to full-contact drills late last season and in the spring he showed flashes of his old self. Murray, the MVP of the C-USA title game and the Liberty Bowl, was UCF's most surprising find last season and he should be a huge threat this season both running and catching the ball out of the backfield. Weaver is one of UCF's toughest and most well-respected players and will see time because of his work ethic. The burning question is whether UCF will employ a two-back set to get maximum reps for the three backs. Murray's ability to catch passes and Weaver's blocking skills make the group extremely flexible and should give offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe plenty of options.
6. Seeing the depth and dynamic talent at defensive end.
UCF lost Bruce Miller, the school's all-time leader in sacks, and fellow starter David Williams, but the talent returning and incoming should allow the Knights to fill the voids. Troy Davis, who had a huge fourth-quarter sack in the Liberty Bowl against Georgia, is a future star because of his combination of speed and power off the edge. Darius Nall is back with the team after missing spring drills and he'll be ready to play every down at end this season after being a rush specialist last season. Toby Jackson and Cam Henderson, former JUCO teammates, have the size and speed to be dominant and keep alive UCF's tradition of strong pass rushers off the edge.
7. The experience along the offensive line should breed great chemistry.
The Knights lost just one starter off last season's offensive line - albeit a big one in 6-foot-7, 320-pound right tackle Jah Reid, a second-round NFL pick by the Baltimore Ravens. UCF returns a veteran offensive line that was really good last season and should be even better this season. Senior Nick Pieschel moves from guard to right tackle to replace Reid. Pieschel and tight end Adam Nissley should form a dominant dup on the right side and help the Knights in the running game. Cliff McCray and Theo Goins are returning starters at guard, while Chris Martin made progress as a part-time starter last season. The center position was a huge question mark last season, but those concerns were cleared up by the growth of Jordan Rae. And behind that group is a young, talented second-team led by Torrian Wilson, Jordan and Justin McCray and Tony Jacob that gives UCF its best depth along the O-line in years. Now, the line has another year under assistant coach Brent Key and its evolving chemistry should make it a strong point of the team this season.
8. Who will emerge at wide receiver?
UCF lost its three receiving threats from last season - Brian Watters, Jamar Newsome and Kamar Aiken - so the push now is to find new targets on the perimeter for Godfrey. Quincy McDuffie, UCF's All-American kick returner, will get the ball plenty this season and given a chance to make plays with his blinding speed. Senior A.J. Guyton brings experience, but must become more consistent. Marquee Williams proved himself in the spring to be a playmaker and will get several looks to make plays in three receiver sets. Redshirt freshmen Josh Reese and J.J. Worton have loads of talent and should vie for playing time at wide receiver.
9. Which freshmen/newcomers will crack the two-deep roster in training camp?
Willingham has proven himself already this summer to be a hard worker who has quickly picked up the UCF system and benefitted from arriving on campus for summer school. The coaching staff has high hopes that he can be an anchor in the middle of the defense for the Knights and alleviate some of the concerns about the linebacking corps. Jackson and Henderson signed with Georgia and Auburn respectively out of high school and were teammates at Navarro (Texas) College. Both have the size and speed to be future stars. Jose Jose (6-foot-3, 371 pounds) arrived on campus for spring ball and after dropping some weight in the offseason he could become a solid run-stuffer in the middle. And freshman tight end Justin Tukes (6-foot-5, 241 pounds) showed some promise in spring ball and could help the Knights greatly in the passing game.
10. How good can this team become?
There was plenty of buzz during the C-USA Media Day that the Knights are once again the team to beat in the conference because of their returning talent, their gritty defense and the ability to run the ball consistently. But after beating Georgia in the Liberty Bowl last December and proving to the nation that the program can compete with anyone in the country, the Knights are hungry for more this season. Wins against the likes of Boston College, BYU and FIU early in the season could put the Knights in position to become a BCS-buster a la Boise State and TCU in the past few years. UCF could start the season in the Top 25 and a strong start in non-conference play could vault the Knights into the Top 10 by midseason. If the Knights can answer question marks at linebacker and wide receiver, stay healthy and get continued improvement from Godfrey, they could be in position to be an even better team than last year's 11-3 edition.
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.