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UCF FS Kemal Ishmael
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview & Analysis - UCF Knights
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By Richard Cirminiello
The Knights have certainly enjoyed bouts of excellence during George O'Leary's eight seasons in Orlando. Sustained excellence, however, has been elusive for this program.
Head coach: George O'Leary
Ninth year: 50-51
Off. 21, Def. 23, ST 1
Lettermen Lost: 17
Ten Best UCF Players
1. RB Latavius Murray, Sr.
2. FS Kemal Ishmael, Sr.
3. LB Jonathan Davis, Sr.
4. DE Troy Davis, Sr.
5. DL Victor Gray, Jr.
6. WR Quincy McDuffie, Sr.
7. SS Clayton Geathers, Soph.
8. RB Storm Johnson, Soph.
9. RG Theo Goins, Sr.
10. C Jordan Raw, Sr.
Aug. 30 at Akron
Sep. 8 at Ohio State
Sep. 15 FIU
Sep. 22 OPEN DATE
Sep. 29 Missouri
Oct. 4 East Carolina
Oct. 13 Southern Miss
Oct. 20 at Memphis
Oct. 27 at Marshall
Nov. 3 SMU
Nov. 10 at UTEP
Nov. 17 at Tulsa
Nov. 24 UAB
Only one time during the coach's tenure has his team posted back-to-back winning seasons, often slumping at the very moment that expectations begin to heat up. This past year, for instance. UCF started 2011 with a full head of steam, having wrapped up the previous campaign in the Top 25 for the first time in school history. It ended the campaign with a screeching halt, though, as Conference USA's biggest disappointment, missing the postseason entirely.
O'Leary and his troops are determined to bounce back, with more than a little help from a trio of high-profile transfers. QB Tyler Gabbert (Missouri), RB Storm Johnson (Miami) and OT Phil Smith (Georgia Tech) will all work this offseason to earn jobs on an offense that was hit or miss a year ago.
It's been a somewhat rocky offseason so far for O'Leary and Knights, which have had to deal with a handful of suspensions for off-the-field missteps, and a public feud with former franchise QB Jeff Godfrey who has had one foot in Orlando and one out ever since the beginning of the year. The coach is hoping to be the calm hand that steadies the program in its final year in Conference USA before heading north to the Big East in 2013.
UCF has enough key parts on offense and defense to include a championship trophy in its separation package. The backfield is loaded with three potential starters. The defense will once again be terrific. And both lines figure to be solid. The Knights just need to determine Godfrey's successor out of Gabbert and sophomore Blake Bortles, the top priority on the summer to-do list.
Erratic UCF is eyeing a rebound from last season's deflating results, hoping to recapture some of the momentum that existed just prior to the 2011 opener. A little head of steam would do wonders for the Knights before joining a far tougher league that promises to afford it far more national exposure.
What to watch for on offense: The battle at quarterback. The Knights appear fully committed to strong-armed sophomore Blake Bortles … until Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert arrives this summer. While Bortles showed flashes late last year and in the spring, Gabbert was the 12th-rated quarterback from the Class of 2010. The newcomer lacks ideal size, but compensates with accurate throws, good timing and quick feet. The pair is going to square off, with a chance to become the face of the program for the next three years. Round 1 begins in August.
What to watch for on defense: Speed and pursuit of the linebackers. UCF loses productive middle linebacker Josh Linam, but will be just as fast to the ball as it was in 2011. On the outside, the Knights are going to feature dichotomous seniors Jonathan Davis and Ray Shipman who both go after the man with the ball like guided missiles. Linam's replacement, young Terrance Plummer, has great lateral quickness and a much better feel for the position than he had after arriving from Orange Park (Fla.) High School last year. This group of athletes is an underrated reason why UCF will continue to be difficult to run on.
The team will be far better if … it starts winning a few of the close games, especially away from BrightHouse Networks Stadium. In 2011, UCF missed its mark in large part because it was 0-6 outside of Orlando, and went 0-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The Knights were so close to being so much higher in the standings, yet their rallies consistently fell a little short. If this program is going to operate with more consistency, recapturing its 2010 form, it's going to need to show a little more bite outside of Central Florida.
The Schedule: It's not too bad, but there are several interesting tests over the first month. Going to Akron won't be a problem to start things off, but it'll take something special to stay with Ohio State or beat Missouri, even at home. The real fight will come against a fired up FIU program always looking to knock off a Florida school. The Knights will know where they stand in Conference USA play right away with East Carolina and Southern Miss both coming to Orlando. As big a break as that might be, the payback will come over the next several weeks with four road games in the following five before closing out against UAB.
Best offensive Player: Senior RB Latavius Murray. What is Murray capable of with a full season as the feature back? That might go unanswered now that Miami transfer Storm Johnson is joining last year's leading rusher, Brynn Harvey, in Conference USA's deepest backfield. However, even as a part-timer, Murray has been a terrific between-the-tackles runner, rushing for 1,318 yards and 22 scores on 255 career carries. The physical 6-3, 225-pounder ought to get more touches in 2012, enough to possibly pique the interest of curious pro scouts.
Best defensive Player: Senior FS Kemal Ishmael. Ishmael is set to become the new star of the Knights secondary now that Josh Robinson is a Minnesota Viking. The hard-hitting 5-11, 206-pounder led the team with 81 tackles last season, roaming the field with all of the tenacity of a fourth UCF linebacker. He never shies away from contact, filling running gaps quickly, and wrapping up in the open field. The combination of Ishmael and sophomore Clayton Geathers could be the most assertive safety tandem in Conference USA.
Key player to a successful season: Senior RT Phil Smith. The Georgia Tech transfer hasn't even gotten to campus, let alone won a starting job. Yet, there's little doubt that the program is banking on the veteran to provide some instant stability to a line that lacked it in 2011. He was a two-year starter on the Flats for a Yellow Jackets team that ran the triple-option. Smith will be an instant asset for the UCF ground game, but the Knights are hoping he can positively impact the pass protection as well.
The season will be a success if ... UCF gets back to winning the East Division of Conference USA. While it wasn't evident a year ago, no team in this half of the league has as much talent as the Knights, especially since defending champion Southern Miss figures to be regrouping. Plus, a big chuck of the players on the roster remembers what it took to win a title and beat Georgia in the Liberty Bowl in 2010. If UCF fails to cop the division for a second straight year, it'll appear as if the team is stuck in neutral.
Key game: Sept. 8 at Ohio State. This will be UCF's first meeting with the Buckeyes, and a wonderful opportunity to make a statement to a broader than normal audience. George O'Leary loves nothing more than to showcase to the nation the product that he's been quietly building on the foothills of Space Mountain. Putting a stain on Urban Meyer's first season in Columbus would be just the kind of splash that the Knights are seeking. Even a close call in the Horseshoe is going to create a confidence boost for a visit from the SEC's Missouri at the end of the month.
2011 Fun Stats:
- Points per game: UCF 27.1 – Opponents 18.3
- Time of possession: UCF 33:47 – Opponents 26:13
- Sacks: UCF 17 – Opponents 25
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