Second to None

Sept. 22, 2008

They are UCF's last line of defense.

They are UCF's best line of defense.

Seldom has any school been blessed with the wealth of veteran experience and leadership in any single position group than UCF currently boasts in its secondary. Joe Burnett, Johnell Neal, Sha'reff Rashad and Jason Venson, all seniors, entered the 2008 season with 135 combined starts between them and each with at least 30 individually.

The quartet was thrown into the fire as freshmen in 2005 and had to learn on the job, but they eventually mastered the position and, as a unit, have helped lead the Knights to the most glorious period in the program's history, encompassing the school's first two bowl game appearances and the 2007 Conference USA Championship.

Not only has the quartet been successful on the gridiron but they have found equal success off of the field where all four are friends and enjoy spending time together bowling (all agree that Rashad is the best), playing games and other such activities. Neal, Rashad and Venson all graduated on time and are presently working towards master's degrees during their fifth and final year of eligibility.

Each of the four rank amongst UCF's top ten in career interceptions. Burnett is the leading punt returner in both school at Conference USA history, a school-record tying three of which have been returned for touchdowns. As of press time, roommates Burnett and Neal are tied for the fourth most pass breakups in UCF lore.

Their lasting legacy as a group is cemented but that doesn't mean that they wouldn't like to continue to add to it as seniors.

"We've had a lot of ups and downs," Venson said. "As freshmen, we didn't really get the system. We weren't grasping much. As the years went on, we got more comfortable mentally. I never doubted our physical abilities and, after we finally got the system, we were able to put it all together last season and win a championship. We were fortunate for that but this year we can't be content on that. We need to be hungry again to win another championship and that's what we're focused on.

"We want to go out as the best secondary to every play at UCF. We want to lead the nation in any possible statistical category. We want to lead the nation in interceptions, not just the conference. If we can do that, it will help us reach our team goals too."

Neal put it more simply.

"We just want to be remembered as four guys who went out there and gave it their all on every play of every game," he said.

The future will remain bright for UCF in the defensive backfield as a talented corps of young players like Darin Baldwin and Justin Boddie are waiting in the wings for their shot to come. They certainly couldn't ask for better role models to emulate and, like good leaders, that is a role which the current senior defensive backs relish playing.

"We just make sure everything is going right," Rashad said. "For the most part, guys are doing a good job of staying on top of things and working hard. It is just a little bit of your responsibility to make sure that everything is going smoothly and to make sure that guys are not getting out of line."

"I'm the youngest of the four and the other three taught me so much," Burnett said speaking of the role that the other three, all redshirts, played for him as a true freshman years ago. "They knew the defense like the back of their hands. It's good playing behind those guys. They helped me out when I came in as a true freshman playing right away. They took me under their wings and corrected me when I needed it. Now we all can do that for the rest of the guys."

Like many current UCF fans, the four have been privileged to witness and be a part of a remarkable stretch of history for the program.

"We've seen so much happen here," Venson said while standing between the Nicholson Fieldhouse, Wayne Densch Sports Center and Bright House Networks Stadium, all of which have been built since he was first recruited to UCF. "We've seen so much grow. All of these buildings around here weren't here before. When he recruited me, coach O'Leary told us that we were going to have all of this stuff and he's a man of his word. We have everything he said that we were going to have. Without the support from President Hitt, Keith Tribble and their staffs, we wouldn't have that. We're very appreciative. We're happy that we were the class that was able to benefit from all of this."

"It means everything to have a home here on campus," Burnett said. "Having a home helps a lot. Just that home base feeling has made a difference. Being able to practice in the weather and harsh conditions of the climate in the fieldhouse has made us a better team. The student support that we get makes us feel like this is our home and we must protect that house. It's a great feeling."

Not only has this senior class of defensive backs benefitted from all of this, but, in turn, the next generation of Knights are benefitting for all of the experience gained by this group while working out of the new facilities.

Sadly, that day must come after this season. Neal won't know what to do with himself come Senior Knight.

"It means a lot, playing together for all of these years," he said. "We know what we're all going to do on each play. I can't imagine playing football without these guys. We've been together for so long."

Many of the 45,000 who will be in attendance won't want to let go for these four great Knights either, head coach George O'Leary being chief amongst them. The student-athletes are just as appreciative of their mentor.

"Coach O'Leary is a great coach," Burnett said. "Everyone who went to the pros and comes back says that if you can practice with coach O'Leary then you can practice in the NFL. That's a positive for me. I know that coach O'Leary goes hard every day so we go hard. I know that practicing here has bettered my position for the next level. He helps a lot."

How much has he helped? Just ask any set of opposing quarterbacks, wide receivers or offensive coaches who have to face UCF in 2008.

- Leigh Torbin