College Football Preview 2014-2015: 20. UCF Knights
Coach: George O'Leary (11th year)
2013-2014 Record: 12-1 (8-0 American Athletic)
August 30th vs. Penn State (Dublin, Ireland)
September 13th @ Missouri
September 20th vs. Bethune-Cookman
October 2nd @ Houston
October 9th vs. BYU
October 18th vs. Tulane
October 25th vs. Temple
November 1st @ UConn
November 14th vs. Tulsa
November 22 vs. SMU
November 28th @ South Florida
December 4th @ East Carolina
Despite the fact they were a great program in the Conference USA under the tenure of George O'Leary, 2013-2014 still came as a major surprise. The Knights went 12-1, undefeated in the inaugural year of the American Athletic Conference, beat Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and their lone loss was a three-point loss to SEC power to South Carolina. Although Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson both left for the NFL early, O'Leary and UCF have developed a staying power and a weaker AAC means they could still be a national title threat.
Backfield: It certainly is not going to be easy to replace Bortles, who threw or 3,581 yards and 25 touchdowns in his junior year before being drafted No. 3 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. A number of different candidates are in serious competition to replace him, including sophomore Justin Holman, redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo and true freshman Tyler Harris. Boise State transfer Nick Patti, who will eligible this year, should also be in the mix. Neither have much experience, Holman is the only player who has thrown a pass in a Central Florida uniform, he was 9 for 14 with 75 yards in mop up duty for Bortles. He should have the slight edge because of how comfortable he is in the Knights' offense but Harris has potential and is a quick learner and DiNovo has a big arm. Johnson left a year early as well, leaving a big hole in the backfield after he rushed for 1,139 yards last season. Sophomore William Stanback is likely to replace him, the powerful back ran for 443 yards and 6 touchdowns last year. He isn't very explosive but he is a short-yardage playmaker and can run over people. Three-star back C.J. Jones should also contend to be in the mix in the backfield; a talent from Port Orange, Florida could be a nice change of pace to Stanback, he is explosive and elusive.
Receivers: Most people might remember senior receiver J.J Worton for his spectacular one-handed grab in the end zone against Temple, perhaps the catch of the year. He can make excellent grabs but he is also a very productive overall pass-catcher. Worton had 47 receptions for 721 yards and also recorded 7 touchdowns. He is a great route runner and has pretty dangerous speed and his superb athleticism enables him to grab everything thrown near him. Also back in the receiving corps is senior Rannell Hall and junior playmaker Breshad Perriman. Hall was the Knights' leading receiver last year and managed 886 yards while Perriman proved to be a big play threat, averaging nearly 21 yards per catch. Tight end Justin Tukes is a proven option in the passing game, while excelling as well as a blocker. He had just one touchdown last year but if he stays healthy he could become a real threat in the red zone. Expect three-star prospects Jordan Franks and Tre'Quan Smith, both dangerous playmakers from Florida. Franks also is gifted with great size, standing at 6'4" and could be very productive his first season in Orlando.
Offensive Line: Some important pieces are gone on Central Florida's offensive line, which was one of the nation's strongest lines in the nation in 2013-2014. All-AAC studs Justin and Jordan McCray graduated this offseason, leaving a big hole on their line. The good news is that senior Torrian Wilson is back, an experienced linemen with real talent. He could move from left tackle to left guard this year to fill the big need at that position. Wilson has an impressive motor with a solid frame and an expansive knowledge of UCF's offensive system. The left tackle slot is likely to be manned by gigantic sophomore Chester Brown, a 6'5", 325 pound beast of a player. Although young, his size is very impressive and he has been very impressive this spring. The right side of the O-Line is a major question mark, as the Knights will have to break in two new starters on that side. Aaron Evans is a redshirt freshman with an NFL body and pretty great athleticism. He could really help Stanback grow as a back with him opening lanes. Two offensive line prospects also come in with this class, both could have an impact. Wyatt Miller, a three-star find from Georgia has the tools to become a really talented offensive tackle and Luke Palmer adds depth.
Defensive Line: The Knights had the nation's 29th ranked defense, allowing just 362 yards per game, much of that is thanks to the defensive line, who can apply pressure to the quarterback. Second-team All-AAC performer Thomas Niles returns at one of the defensive end spots. Niles is a speedy threat off the edge who is a great wrap-up tackler; he had four sacks in 2013. Also back on the D-Line is defensive tackle Demetris Anderson, another junior. Anderson started in all 13 games for Central Florida last year and proved to be a very productive player, recording 24 tackles and 7 tackles for loss. O'Leary and staff raided the junior college ranks by adding talented defensive tackle Lance McDowell (they also added linebacker Errol Clarke II). McDowell, who is from Nassau Community College in New York, has the frame and strength to make some big plays for the Knights' defense. Junior Miles Pace is back at the other defensive end position, who appeared in eight games last season. He recorded 4 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in those appearances and his athleticism could help him grab some more of those statistics this year.
Secondary: Central Florida's pass defense was a real weakness in 2013, as it allowed nearly 240 yards per game through the air, good for 76th in the entire nation. Though, it could be a real strength this year with all four starters returning in the defensive backfield, including talented safeties Brandon Alexander and Clayton Geathers. Both are playmaking seniors, who can make big plays; Alexander landed three picks and Geathers two, along with 100 tackles, managing an All-AAC season. Both of these safeties are great coverage players, which should help take some pressure off the Knights' cornerbacks. Sophomore Jacoby Glenn was decent in his first year as starter but he has the potential to be great. A great athlete with hard-hitting ability, Glenn should see big improvements this season. The likely starter at the cornerback slot should be senior Jordan Ozerities, who had 59 tackles. The gem of this year's recruiting class is safety Kyle Gibson, a four-star talent who has all the tools to be a great player at the collegiate level. Excellent range with great tackling ability, Gibson could contribute right away.
Special Teams: This could also be a major strength for the Knights, as they return kicker Shawn Moffitt and punter Caleb Houston. The senior, Moffitt, was 21 of 23 from field goals and Houston was quite productive. Worton and Hall aren't just great receivers; they are also both dangerous in the return game, especially Worton, who averaged 12 yards per punt return.
Even with questions at both quarterback and back and also the offensive line, the Knights have the talent to win double-digit games. The AAC is extremely weak with Louisville and Rutgers now gone and outside of early tests against Missouri and Penn State (in Dublin) the Knights have a very favorable schedule. O'Leary and the Knights have reached a point of sustainability where, even with some severe losses, they still have enough talent and experience to be in serious contention.