The Knights will contend for the conference title in their first season in the AAC, they said. They’ll only pull it off if Louisville slips up, they said. No one outside of Orlando expected 12-1 and an 8-0 league record though. UCF were outstanding all season, beating opponents in every way possible – blowouts, shootouts, and defensive struggles. Even in their sole loss, against South Carolina, the Knights surged to a 10-0 lead before the Mike Davis show took over. With the Gamecocks feeling comfortable at 28-10, Knight quarterback Blake Bortles did what he does best, and brought UCF roaring back in the 4th quarter, before a failed onside kick ended their hopes. The Knights, as we have become used to under George O’Leary, were well-drilled in every aspect of football, and knocked off Penn State, Louisville and Baylor along the way. Now the question is, what can they do for an encore?
UCF has plenty of quality players, but don’t doubt for a second that this team lived and died (well, once), on the shoulders of Bortles. He might not be the most orthodox of passers, but his will to win and knack for making the right plays at the right time led the Knights charge this season. With 3581 yards and 35 TDs through the air (9 interceptions), and another 272 yards and 6 scores on the ground, Bortles led the Knights to just shy of 35 points per game. The outcome of last season, plus his never-say-die attitude will ensure Bortles’ legend will last. The running game had a capable 1-2 punch in the form of Storm Johnson (1139 yards, 14 TDs) and William Stanback (443 yards, 6 TDs). Johnson and Stanback’s success wasn’t a surprise considering the offensive line leading the way. The McCray twins, Justin and Jordan, were all-conference guards, while right tackle Chris Martin made second-team. The unit wasn’t just solid run-blocking, they allowed only 22 sacks too. The receivers were a strong bunch. Rannell Hall led the way with 57 receptions for 886 yards and 5 RDs, while Breshad Perriman caught just 39 passes, but gained 811 yards (20.79) and 4 scores. J.J. Worton and former QB Jeff Godfrey combined for 90 receptions, 1127 yards and 11 TDs. Johnson and Stanback contributed 45 catches and 4 scores out of the backfield.
Now the fun begins. Of the 7 all-conference players the Knights had on offense last season, only 2, Worton and Stanback, return. Gone are Bortles, Johnson, the McCrays and Martin, leaving some gaping holes to fill. Bortles is beyond a shadow of a doubt the biggest loss – no other quarterback on the roster has seen anything close to significant playing time since he took over in 2011. With only 3 scholarship passers on the roster, the position is a concern. There were 2 freshmen on the roster last season – Justin Holman only saw mop up duty in 3 games, throwing 14 passes and running 7 times, while Pete DiNovo took a redshirt. Also in the mix is 2014 4-star recruit Tyler Harris, who has some similarities to Bortles. No quarterback stood out in camp, so read into that as you will. Stanback isn’t as flashy as Johnson, but he’s fast, and a bull of a runner, and can certainly carry the load. The Knights never seem to be short at running back, and this year won’t be any different. Offensive line could be another problem with only left tackle Torrian Wilson and center Joey Grant returning. Grant injured his shoulder and needed surgery, but he’ll back in the fall. Tarik Cook was expected to man the right guard spot this season, but he moved to center to cover for Grant. Aaron Evans played well in his stead. Wilson has moved to left guard, leaving a couple of redshirt freshman manning the tackles. Michael Campbell will play on the left side, with Chester Brown opposite him. The unit was by no means perfect in camp, but they certainly look promising. The receiving corps only loses Godfrey, and with an extra year’s experience, they could be even more dangerous in 2014 – if they can find someone to get them the ball.
It’s no surprise that the Knights had a strong defense last season, they seem to have one every year. While they gave up some yards at times, they never seemed to allow the back-breaking plays that could turn a game in an opponents favor. The defensive line didn’t muster a lot of sacks, but still provided a decent pass rush. Defensive end Thomas Niles led the team with 4 sacks, but he also had 8 hurries and 8 tackles for loss. EJ Dunston and Demetris Anderson were a good pair of tackles, combining for 13.5 tackles for loss. Middle linebacker Terrance Plummer led the team in tackles with 110 and TFLs with 8.5. He also added 2.5 sacks, broke up 6 passes, picked off another 2, and forced 2 fumbles. Outside linebacker Troy Gray was no slouch either. He broke up 4 passes, picking off another 2 and had 5 QB hurries. The secondary did a good job of limiting passing attacks, with Clayton Geathers keeping at all together at strong safety. Geathers was second on the team with 100 tackles, broke up 10 passes and intercepted 2. Freshman corner Jacoby Glenn broke up an impressive 15 passes and picked off another couple.
The defense could be even better in 2014 with only 1½ starters gone. Dunston will be missed in the middle, but he’s not irreplaceable. If Jaryl Mamea can’t win the starting job, expect JUCO Lance McDowdell to make his presence felt. Niles was outstanding in the spring game, racking up 5 sacks, but it was against reserves. A bunch of different guys played opposite Niles last season, so settling on one would certainly benefit the defense. Miles Pace was the best of the group, but there are some options waiting in the wings. Linebacker should be a strength, but they need someone else on the outside with Sean Maag gone. Watch out for JUCO Errol Clarke II in the summer. The secondary returns everyone, and with the new additions, the Knights defense could be one of the best in the country. The biggest concern is whether the offense can give them enough of a breather
Shawn Moffitt had a breakthrough season in 2013 after suffering from a host of blocked kicks the previous year. Last season he hit 21 of 23 field goals, all of his PATs, and made the difference in a number of games. Caleb Houston was decent as a freshman, averaging 42.2 per punt, and dropping 12 of his 41 punts inside the 20. Hall averaged a respectable 23.8 on kick returns, while Worton averaged 12.1 returning punts. Both coverage units were very good.
Everyone is back, and everyone should be better, assuming Moffitt can top his 2013 season.
How do you top last season? It would have been tough, even with all 22 starters back. The conference schedule is easier, thanks to Louisville and Syracuse moving to the ACC, but the OOC slate is tough, with Penn State in Ireland, a trip to Missouri, and BYU in Orlando. Most of the departing players should be replaced adequately, but guys like Bortles don’t come along too often. The Knights will be competitive in league play, and should contend for the crown yet again. Expect a 9-3 finish and a bowl game in 2014. Although, I said that last year.