Aug. 5, 2005
ORLANDO - Going into the 2005 football season, UCF head coach George O'Leary can see that his team is making progress. From improvement in the weight room in the team's strength and conditioning to the growth the squad made in spring practice, the Golden Knights enter 2005 hopeful to continue to lay the groundwork for a successful football program in Conference USA.
"I thought this past spring we improved in all areas from what I saw in the fall," stated O'Leary. "Obviously the maturity level improved, the strength level improved in the off-season and the field presence improved."
With an off-season schedule of rigorous strength and conditioning work, the foundation and tone have been set for the upcoming season.
During spring drills, the Golden Knights had the look and feel of a team that was starting to understand O'Leary's system, from both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. With the return of 39 lettermen, the Golden Knights have a core of experienced players returning.
"I was very happy with the progress we made in the spring," added O'Leary.
Looking at the roster, UCF still has one of the youngest teams in the nation, with just 18 juniors and 13 seniors on the roster. UCF has 54 freshmen or sophomores on its roster - making up 65 percent of the team - entering 2005.
The young players will guide UCF into Conference USA. O'Leary, who enters his second season as head coach of the Golden Knights, begins a new era of football for UCF as the Golden Knights begin play in Conference USA. The new conference affiliation ends a three-year run in the Mid-American Conference for UCF as a football-only member. In Conference USA, all of UCF's sports will participate in the same conference for the first time in school history.
"I think moving to Conference USA is going to be great for the whole school," commented O'Leary. "We are going into a conference that travels well with their fan base and we're going to see the country. With the two-division format that stretches from Texas to North Carolina, C-USA covers the southeast portion of the country into the southwest. From a recruiting standpoint, it's great and obviously the added television exposure will be a bonus."
The 2005 schedule begins with a primetime showdown at South Carolina. The ESPN broadcast is set for Thursday night, September 1, marking the fourth consecutive year UCF has opened the season on ESPN. The game also marks the first college football broadcast for ESPN in 2005.
"I think it's a great opportunity for the program," O'Leary noted on the South Carolina game. "It's a national game against an SEC team with obviously a coach who has had a lot of success. We are looking forward to the game and the opening of the fall season. I think it's a great way to open up the season against an SEC opponent on national TV."
In total, UCF plays five teams that were bowl-eligible last season in 2005. The 2005 schedule for the Golden Knights features 10 games to be played on Saturday, with the only mid-week game set for Thursday, Sept. 1, on national television. Following the South Carolina game, UCF has a week off before the highly anticipated beginning of the South Florida series.
"We are looking forward to it," O'Leary said. "I think it is a natural game and a game that should be played every year. It is a natural rivalry for both schools."
The Golden Knights face the challenge of just four home games in 2005. All four home games are against Conference USA opponents, including the home-opener September 24 vs. Marshall.
All 14 players who lettered last season on offense return with at least one start under their belts. The offensive line welcomes back the largest contingent of experience as all six letterwinners from last season return in 2005. Three players - Dominic Iglenzi, Sean Gilhuly and Dan Veenstra - started all 11 games up front a season ago.
Two of those players, Ignelzi and Veenstra, will have a new position in the fall. Ignelzi, one of three true freshmen to earn playing time on the offensive line in 2004, moves from left guard to right tackle. Ignelzi showed the toughness and determination to become a successful collegiate lineman in his first season on the line and adjusted well to the move to tackle in spring practice.
With the return of six lettermen, the overall depth of the unit should be vastly improved in 2005. The first team offensive line heading into fall camp includes redshirt freshman L.J. Anderson at left tackle, sophomore Kyle Smith at left guard, junior Cedric Gagne-Marcoux at center, Gilhuly at right guard and Ignelzi at right tackle.
Anderson had a strong spring to lock down the top spot on the depth chart at left tackle. The South Carolina native moves well for a player with his size.
A couple of UCF's true freshmen could also see time on the offensive line in the fall. Richard Clark and Ian Bustillo are two players who could work their way onto the two-deep roster at center or guard, while Patrick Brown has a bright future ahead of him at tackle.
"We played so many young players last year on the offensive line and hopefully they learned from playing at such an early stage in their careers," commented O'Leary. "The key for the offensive line is going to be consistency and improvement at the line of scrimmage in terms of past protection and run blocking. I saw steady improvement and more consistency in the spring and hopefully we continue to improve in those areas."
With three true freshmen and two sophomores on the offensive line in 2004, UCF had the youngest unit in terms of starts in the nation.
The coaching staff hopes with an increased understanding of the offense and improved strength from their work in the weight room, the offensive line could be one of the most improved units on the team.
Quarterback could very well be the most important position on the field in 2005 for the Golden Knights. In the spring, junior Steven Moffett performed well and earned the No. 1 job at quarterback going into preseason camp. Moffett used his strong arm and mobility along with a firm understanding of the offense to take charge of the team in the spring. Now entering his second full season as the starter, Moffett looks to have a grasp on UCF's offense.
"I thought Steven really improved his field presence in the spring," stated O'Leary. "He had a great awareness of what was on the field and what had to be done from an offensive strategic standpoint. I was very pleased with the progress he made and the improvement in him."
Moffett showed flashes of potential last season, but will look to improve his consistency on the field and as a leader of the offensive unit. The Winter Park native finished the season 147-of-229 passing for 1,721 yards and nine touchdowns along with 10 interceptions. Moffett completed 64.2 percent of his passes and ranked seventh in the MAC in pass efficiency.
Sophomore Kyle Israel returns for his second year of collegiate football after earning playing time as a true freshman. A tough competitor with good touch on his passes, Israel's season came to a premature end due to a leg injury in 2004. The Orlando product completed just 14 passes in 36 attempts a year ago in three games of action, including one start.
Israel sustained an injury to his leg again in spring drills and missed most of the spring. Walk-on Ed Marynowtiz - a LaSalle transfer - earned plenty of repetitions with the second team offense in the spring to add depth to the position.
A pair of true freshmen - Alex Thompson and Marquel Neasman - add quality depth to the position. Thompson is more of a true, drop-back quarterback while Neasman brings more athleticism to the position.
One position that has plenty of options for O'Leary is at tailback. With the loss of all-time leading rusher Alex Haynes, UCF is in search of a new starting tailback for the first time in four years. The candidates to earn the starting job include junior Dontavius Wilcox and junior college transfer Jason Peters.
"We have great running backs and they have an opportunity to help us," commented O'Leary. "Obviously Dontavius will have his opportunities this year. I thought he probably should have played more last year."
Wilcox will have the first opportunity to impress the coaching staff as he enters the fall listed atop the depth chart. A shifty runner with good speed, Wilcox was a change-of-pace back for the Golden Knights in 2004. Wilcox played in all 11 games last season and rushed for 215 yards on 61 carries including two touchdowns.
Wilcox ran well in the spring and showed the coaching staff he is capable of carrying the load at tailback.
Peters is the wild card of the group after transferring from Butte Junior College in California. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Peters has great size and was rated the No. 3 junior college tailback recruit in the nation by collegefootballnews.com. Peters led the state of California with 1,679 rushing yards as a freshman and was a preseason junior college player of the year according to Street & Smiths Magazine entering his sophomore season.
His spring came to an abrupt end as a foot injury sidelined the bruising back. With the injury behind Peters, he will have a chance to continue to display the natural ability he showed in spring drills.
"With the addition of Jason Peters, I think we'll be running the ball by committee. I have done that in the past and I think it will work out very well."
Redshirt freshman tailback Chris Strother was sensational in spring practice, showing the best speed among the running backs. Strother also showed the knack of making people miss on a consistent basis. Freshmen tailbacks Jayson Williams and Kevin Smith are two additional backs who could see time in 2005.
One area on offense where the starters appear to be set entering preseason camp is at wide receiver. The return of Mike Walker and Brandon Marshall gives UCF a potent, one-two combination on the outside. Both players moved to defense in 2004 - Walker at cornerback and Marshall at safety - due to UCF's rash of injuries in the defensive secondary. Both players are back on offense and are atop the depth chart at wide receiver.
Walker, a junior from Orlando, is perhaps the team's best overall athlete and showed it on the field in 2004. As a cornerback, Walker led UCF with three interceptions, including two at Penn State in the third game of the season. After moving back to offense at the end of the season, Walker totaled nine receptions for 191 yards and one touchdown. The touchdown came on 70-yard play where he broke several tackles and found the end zone. His 21.2 yards per reception average led the team and gave UCF a big-play threat in the passing game.
Marshall has great size and hands as he returns to wide receiver after a stint at safety in 2004. Marshall moved to safety prior to the Buffalo game (fourth game of the season) and ended up leading the team in tackles. In three games on offense, Marshall hauled in eight passes for 84 yards last season. With the loss of Tavaris Capers and Luther Huggins to graduation, Walker and Marshall should feature prominent roles in the UCF passing attack.
Junior Brooks Turner should be used as the No. 3 wide receiver in 2005. Turner made the most of his opportunity last season when Marshall and Walker moved to defense. Turner caught 16 passes for 126 yards and gave UCF another dangerous option both on the outside and in the slot.
Sophomore Javid James, a junior college transfer who enrolled in January, displayed the ability to contribute offensively in 2005. With a mix of good size and speed, James has a chance to be a playmaker in the UCF offense.
Junior Andre Sumpter, who missed all of 2003 with an injury, practiced with the team all of last season and should be ready to contribute in 2005. Other candidates to see time include sophomore Sergiori Joachim and sophomore Chris Narsesian, who missed all of 2004 with a knee injury.
"I think the wide receiver corps was a good group last year," said O'Leary. "I had to sort of move people around to help us on defense, but I think with the returning receivers back we have the opportunity to make plays, both short distance and long distance. I thought they had a good spring and again look to always improve our strength level at that position."
Tight end has become a position with quality depth and talent for O'Leary and the Golden Knights. Senior Darcy Johnson is one of the top tight ends in Conference USA and is a dangerous receiver in the passing game. The 6-6 Palatka native has all the tools to become one of the nation's best at his position.
Sophomore Mike Merritt and senior Antonio Eldemire have a strong combination of size and athleticism behind Johnson on the depth chart. The Golden Knights also signed a pair of high school tight ends - J.R. Sandlin and Travis Ferrer - who have the chance to blossom into solid collegiate tight ends as their careers progress in Orlando.
"The tight end position is a spot where we have good depth returning, which is very positive as far as the program is concerned," stated O'Leary. "We signed two other freshmen tight ends, so we have some depth and obviously we have some players who can contribute."
Defensively, UCF welcomes the return of 16 letterwinners entering the fall. The Golden Knights battled the injury bug in 2004 - losing several impact players both in the secondary and at linebacker for the season. UCF entered 2004 with two players in the top 10 in career tackles in the secondary in Peter Sands and Atari Bigby. Sands was ineligible for 2004 and Bigby had a disappointing season due to a stress fracture in his leg.
With the loss of Sands and Bigby, several freshmen earned playing time, including Sha'reff Rashad. The strong safety is first on the depth chart entering preseason camp. Rashad made his first career start at Penn State and broke his hand on the first play of the game - but still managed to play the entire game. Rashad, now a redshirt freshman, missed the rest of the season due to the hand injury. The Jacksonville product is versatile enough to also play the free safety position.
At strong safety, sophomore Renford Parkes returns after starting five games a year ago. Parkes had to adjust to the speed of game last season and continued to improve with playing time and learning the new defensive scheme O'Leary installed.
Senior Anthony Willis tops the depth chart at free safety and has the most experience of any UCF safety. Freshman Breon Rogers adds strong competition at the position. Rogers, a mid-year addition from Hargrave Military Academy, is a big-time recruit with good size and athletic skills.
Ron Ellis returns as one starter on the corner. Ellis, now in his third year in the program, finished fifth on the team with 45 tackles in 2004. Junior college transfer and mid-year signee Marlon Williams practiced with the Golden Knights in the spring and enters the season behind Ellis on the depth chart.
Redshirt freshmen Johnell Neal parlayed a strong spring into the top spot at the other cornerback position. Neal has worked well in the weight room in the off-season and could be a player to watch this season. The Baton Rouge native is a solid tackler and showed strong coverage skills in the spring.
Redshirt freshman Jason Venson returns from a season-ending knee injury. The Georgia native worked his way onto the two-deep roster after an impressive preseason camp a year ago prior to the knee injury.
UCF welcomes two freshmen defensive backs to fall camp - Joe Burnett and Lammar Guy. Burnett is second in Florida high school history in career interceptions (31) and could earn plenty of playing time as a true freshman.
Curtis Francis makes the move from tailback to cornerback in preseason camp. Francis played as a true freshman on special teams on both the coverage units and as a kick returner along with limited duty at tailback. A versatile athlete who was a standout in track in high school, Francis has all the tools needed to become a starter at cornerback for the Golden Knights.
"We had so many players who had opportunities last year," O'Leary said. "It was a position that was drilled with injuries last year and I think it's key to keep them healthy and hopefully the speed of the game has caught up with them. They understand what has to get done back there to be a good secondary and a good pass defense."
Linebacker is one area of concern for UCF entering the season. The Golden Knights signed eight linebackers in the 2005 recruiting class and the newcomers should have a chance in preseason camp to crack the two-deep roster.
Senior James Cook is the first-team weakside linebacker heading into the season. The veteran of the UCF linebacking corps, Cook started 10 of the 11 games he played in a season ago. The Jacksonville native looked comfortable as a leader in the spring and has a good understanding of UCF's schemes.
At strongside linebacker, junior Chris Welsh moves from defensive end but a broken hand cut short his spring practice. A strong player with good speed for his size, Welsh has a motor that never quits on the playing field. Welsh started 10 games in 2004 at end and totaled 25 tackles, including four behind the line of scrimmage.
Mid-year signee Jordan Richards is one freshman who could see playing time right away in 2005. Richards enters the year at UCF as the No. 2 weakside linebacker on the depth chart. He showed the coaches plenty of toughness and playmaking ability in the spring, but must continue to learn UCF's defensive system as the year progresses.
Middle linebacker could be one position in which a newcomer could lock down a starting job once the season begins. Ronnell Sandy - a junior from Titusville - and senior Tommy Kasper of Winter Springs hold down the top two spots on the depth chart.
"We signed eight linebackers for a reason because I thought probably as a unit and a position that's were we need the most help," commented O'Leary. "From a standpoint of special teams, I thought that we were missing linebackers and we brought in a group of linebackers who will have the opportunity to perform. The newcomers along with the kids who improved this spring will give us the chance to put the best two deep out there."
The defensive line returns the most letterwinners on the defense for UCF with six players returning from 2004. A pair of interior linemen - Emeka Okammor and Keith Shologan - both started in the middle as true freshmen. Both players should be well-adjusted to the speed and strength of the Division I game after playing in all 11 games last season.
Seniors Paul Carrington and Glenroy Watkins return at left defensive end, while junior Kareem Reid and sophomore Dennis King hold down the right end spot. Watkins and Carrington split time as starters in 2004, and Carrington holds down the top spot on the depth chart going into spring drills. Watkins possesses good speed and can rush from the edge in the UCF defensive scheme while Carrington has great size for the position. Carrington really came on strong at the end of the season and continued his stellar play in the spring.
Reid sat out 2004 as a transfer from the University of Kentucky. On the practice field, Reid showed the coaching staff on the scout team he could be a player to watch with both his size and athleticism. King, who shifted between end and tackle, is another edge-type rusher who played in just five games a year ago.
"I definitely saw some offensive and defensive line battles in the spring," commented O'Leary. "We need for that to continue in the fall as both units improve against each other."
On special teams, senior place-kicker Matt Prater returns for his fourth season in Orlando. Prater, who is fourth in the UCF career annals with 33 field goals, battled injury in 2004 and missed two games for the first time in his career. With a strong leg (50-yard range) Prater gives UCF one of the most reliable kickers in the nation. His 178 points rank fifth in school history for a kicker. Senior John Brown filled in for Prater in 2004 and was a solid reserve.
Senior punter Aaron Horne returns for his second year at UCF as the punter. In his first season of college football, Horne improved as the season went on. He averaged just over 38 yards per punt, but did manage to place 18 punts inside the 20 yard line.
"We return both our starting punter and place-kicker, which I think is a plus," said O'Leary. "Matt Prater has a steady foot and is a consistent kicker."
O'Leary was impressed with the job Horne did last season, after playing football for the first time since high school. Horne spent two years as a student at Florida International before returning to the football field in 2004. "For Aaron Horne to come in after a two-year layoff from playing competitive football, he did a pretty good job punting for us and I'm looking forward to how much progress he has made as far as his kick situation is concerned."
UCF lost the services of kick returner Luther Huggins and punt returner Tavaris Capers to graduation. Several players will have an opportunity to replace the two, including the running back trio of Peters, Francis and Wilcox on kick returns. On punt returns, Venson could lock down the spot after a standout high school career as a kick and punt returner.
"I think on kickoff returns the running backs will be involved, plus Jason Venson," added O'Leary. "Jason was an outstanding punt returner in high school and last year the knee injury cost him the chance to return kicks. He'll have opportunities this year to see what he can do. Willie Thornton is a kid that has returned kicks and has great speed so he will also be in the mix. The number one consideration for us is to find a guy who can catch first - not who can run with it."
Note: UCF begins preseason camp Saturday, August 6 with practice from 3:10-5:30. Preseason camp is open to the public until August 22.