John Denton's Knights insider: Spring Football Starts on Friday

March 17, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Dressed in a green shirt on Thursday in honor of St. Patrick's Day, UCF head coach George O'Leary playfully rang the bell on the Liberty Bowl trophy still sitting in his office some three months after the most significant win in program history.

The loud chimes on the bell were symbolic in that the start of next season was just a day away with spring drills beginning at UCF on Friday morning. After finishing last season as Conference USA and Liberty Bowl champs and being ranked in both major polls, O'Leary wants his team to realize that expectation levels have been raised around the football team.

``The bar has been raised and I think they realize that with more success goes more (expectations),'' O'Leary said. ``It has to be earned confidence now because last year's team graduated and this is a new team. I addressed the team as to what the goals are for the spring. And secondly, I told them that we're looking for leadership and I want to see someone come out of each position group as a leader.''

Hoping to go into the 2011 season nationally ranked for the first time in the preseason, the Knights have seven starters back on offense, several returning at key positions on defense and the nation's 39th ranked recruiting class about to join the program in the spring. With so much talent already in place and more on the way in the form of the school's finest recruiting class ever, O'Leary is putting pressure on players to prove themselves this spring.

``We have a lot of experience back on both sides of the ball because we play so many people,'' O'Leary said. ``I'm always looking at the spring as a competition. I promise the starters the first snap and then it's their job to keep it. You want everybody going into the spring attacking like they want to win a job. The goal for the coaches is to come out of the spring two-deep and then see where you are.''

There is no debate at the quarterback position where Conference USA Freshman of the Year Jeff Godfrey returns. In his first collegiate season, Godfrey led the Knights to an 11-3 record, won the first bowl game in school history and was the nation's highest rated freshman quarterback. But there are plenty of areas he can improve upon, namely staying in the pocket longer to make more reads on defenses down the field.

``His pocket presence needs to improve. Typical freshmen eyeball one guy and get it to that guy. Last year we kept him reading half the field and now we'll expand it to the full field,'' O'Leary said. ``He has to understand his pocket presence more. When he drops back, he has to have some sense of protection in the pocket. That's where he'll grow up and mature. Faking is another phase where he needs vast improvement on. He had an awfully terrific season for a freshman, but there's always room for improvement.''

Areas where O'Leary and the coaches will be watching on the offensive side of the ball are at running back and wide receiver. All-Conference back Brynn Harvey returns after missing all season with a knee injury, and he'll split time with C-USA and Liberty Bowl MVP Latavius Murray and Ronnie Weaver. And freshmen wide receivers Joshua Reese and J.J. Worton, standouts on the scout team last season as redshirt freshmen, will get opportunities to shine.

O'Leary is also hoping that talented freshmen tackles Torrian Wilson and Tony Jacob will show development. Wilson, one of the four-star gems of the 2009 recruiting class, could have played last season, but instead rehabilitated his knee fully. And UCF is anxious to see the maturity of Jacob, a 6-foot-8, 343-pound right tackle.

Linebacker is the team's one major area of concern following the losses of Derrick Hallman, Lawrence Young and Chance Henderson. Middle linebacker Josh Linam, the second-leading tackler from a year ago, is the only returner with experience. JUCO transfer Ray Cottman will be given a good look as well former University of Florida basketball player Ray Shipman. Both are loaded with athletic ability, but the coaching staff is eager to see their ``contact speed.''

``Right now, (the questions) are at linebacker. There are 13 players over there, but only one (Josh Linam) with a lot of experience who has played a lot,'' O'Leary said. ``Because of the class that we brought in, that's the class that I will be looking at more than any. I want to see if some of these guys who were running the second and third teams can take over the first-string spots.''

O'Leary said the theme of spring practice will be less about scheme and alignment and more about evaluating players' abilities and toughness. The Knights will practice in shorts and helmets on Friday and Saturday, before putting on full pads on Tuesday. The team will scrimmage in Bright House Networks on March 26 and again on April 16 for the Black and Gold Spring Game.

``I want to keep it simple with them so that we can evaluate the talent, and not evaluate how smart they are,'' O'Leary said. ``I already know how smart most of them are or aren't. But I want to evaluate the level of their talent and that's what we'll do.''


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John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at jdenton@athletics.ucf.edu.