By: chalifour.eric | 5/11/12, 1:09 PM EDT
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You can read the entire UCF Knights preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 National magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
C-USA East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: George O'Leary, 50-51 (8 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Charlie Taaffe | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jim Fleming
Sophomore Blake Bortles won the starting quarterback job thanks to his strong play at the end of the 2011 season. A sophomore from Oviedo, Fla., Bortles has the arm strength and poise to make all of the throws in the Knights’ offense. He completed 68.2 percent of his passes as a freshman with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Quincy McDuffie, Josh Reese, Breshad Perriman and Rannell Hall are speedy receiving threats who have formed a strong connection with Bortles.
While UCF can make plays through the air, the stars of the offense are in the crowded running back rotation. Latavius Murray, Miami (Fla.) transfer Storm Johnson and Brynn Harvey are each capable of 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Murray rushed for 233 yards on 21 carries in the 2011 season finale against UTEP. Harvey ran for 1,109 yards as a sophomore in 2009.
The key will be the continued improvement of UCF’s offensive line, which is anchored by senior center Jordan Rae. The Knights will get some help from Georgia Tech senior transfer Phil Smith, a Tampa native who started 20 games in his three years with the Yellow Jackets.
UCF’s defense put up strong overall numbers last season — the Knights led C-USA in total defense and scoring defense — but the statistics were a bit deceiving. The defense couldn’t get critical stops in the fourth quarter, a big reason UCF lost six games by seven points or less. O’Leary responded by revamping his defensive coaching staff, replacing coordinator John Skladany with Jim Fleming (after Ted Roof made a pit stop in Orlando before taking a job at Penn State).
Victor Gray and Troy Davis lead a defensive line hungry for more sacks after struggling to put pressure on the quarterback last season. The Knights recorded only 17 sacks in 2011, ranking 10th in C-USA and 95th in the nation.
UCF needs Jonathan Davis, Terrance Plummer and Ray Shipman to step up at the linebacker position. Shipman, a former scholarship basketball player at Florida, started two games in his first season at UCF.
The secondary took a hit with the early departure of NFL-bound cornerback Josh Robinson, a first-team All-C-USA pick in 2011. Safety Kemal Ishmael and corner A.J. Bouye, coming off a torn ACL, will now assume leadership roles in the defensive backfield.
UCF has no shortage of elusive kickoff and punt return threats. The Knights also boast players capable of preventing deep return plays by opposing teams. UCF’s big challenge is finding a reliable starting kicker and punter. Shawn Moffitt, Sean Galvin and Jamie Boyle are battling for the top jobs. In part-time duty last season, Moffitt hit 5-of-7 from inside 40 yards but missed all three field goals from 40 and beyond.
The Knights firmly believe they underachieved last season and should have earned a bowl invitation. UCF wants to make sure it ends its final season in Conference USA on the right note before jumping to the Big East. “We didn’t finish last year like how we wanted to,” says Rae, who will be in his third season as the Knights’ starting center. “Leaving the conference this year, we want to leave with a bang. We want to make a statement. We’re definitely going for a conference title.”
If the defense and offensive line improve, UCF has the potential to make some noise in Conference USA.