John Denton's Knights Insider: Spring Game Preview

April 15, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - With UCF's football team still riding the emotional wave provided by the most successful season in school history, there's a sense of even greater expectations this spring for the Knights.

After all, after winning 11 games, finishing the season ranked No. 20 in the nation and capturing both the Conference USA and Liberty Bowl titles, there is a belief now that the Knights are ready to establish themselves as a national powerhouse for years to come.

Senior wide receiver A.J. Guyton said there has been a desire by the team this spring to put in the work necessary to repeat the feat again next season. Gone are 19 seniors off a team that ended last season with a historic defeat of Georgia in the Liberty Bowl, but the Knights are confident that they have the talent and leadership to show that last year was no fluke.

That talent will be on display on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Bright House Networks Stadium in the Black and Gold Spring Game. It's the conclusion of a spring session in which the Knights have worked to find new leaders, make major replacements at the linebacker and wide receiver positions and establish a culture that will allow the Knights to meet the raised expectations for the coming season.

``We've established ourselves as a program and showed everybody that this is what we're about here at UCF,'' senior tight end Adam Nissley said. ``Now we've got to prove that this is something that we're capable of doing every year. We need to be able to continue the success we had and show everybody the program that we are.''

The program that the Knights are is one that is still loaded with experience and talent despite losing much of the core of the team. Offensive playmakers Jeff Godfrey and Latavius Murray return behind an offensive line with four starters back. And defensively, the Knights have arguably one the best secondaries in the country with Josh Robinson and Kemal Ishmael (out today following shoulder surgery) and a defensive line loaded with big-play pass rushers. Highly touted JUCO transfer Toby Jackson, a 6-foot-5 defensive end, will be on display Saturday in the spring game as will blossoming star end Troy Davis.

The Knights are rebuilding at wide receiver and linebacker, but several players have shown flashes of greatness in the spring. Ray Shipman and Jonathan Davis, a converted basketball player and a tailback respectively, have caught head coach George O'Leary's eye with their big-hitting so far this spring. At receiver, senior A.J. Guyton is back as a starter, but the Knights hope to see more production from Quincy McDuffie, Marquee Williams and Josh Reese.

``Overall, I thought we've made some progress in a lot of areas this spring,'' O'Leary said. ``We're still not where we need to be, but we've progressed. The areas I've looked specifically at is at wide receiver and linebacker seeing if some of these young guys can help us.''

Guyton, who is back for his fifth year, entered UCF as part of the class that just left UCF. That class was the most successful in school history, winning two C-USA title games, appearing in three bowl games and finally getting over the hump against Georgia back on Dec. 31. Guyton is trying to use his experience to lead the Knights, and stress to the team that much is expected now.

``Since I got here in 2007, each year the expectations have gone up. And now, especially with us winning a bowl game and beating a SEC team last year, expectations are higher than ever. We're the hunted now and teams are coming after us. UCF is of the map and we've got to fight them back,'' Guyton said. ``I've tried to take on that leadership role because a lot of those seniors that left, I came in with them in 2007. I had the injury in 2008, so I'm still here. But I'm trying to lead these guys because I know what it takes, having already won two championships and been in three bowl games. I try to show them and lead by example. It doesn't always have to be vocal, but it's just picking guys up when they are down and showing them the right way to do things.''

Godfrey knows a thing or two about the right way to do things. He was the nation's highest rated passer as a freshman and he took his game to another level in the postseason, thriving under the pressure in the C-USA title game and the Liberty Bowl.

But he knows that the team is being looked to now to prove that last season was no fluke. Godfrey has worked hard this spring on getting better at reading defenses and hanging in the pocket longer. That has allowed him to hit more deep passes down the field, while still possessing the ability to run for big yards as well when he breaks the pocket.

``Expectations should be high because we had a great year last year. But I keep telling guys that last year is last year and we have to move on,'' Godfrey said. ``Coach preaches leadership every day and I'm trying to give my all every day and show players the right way to do things. It's not about just yelling and screaming or telling people to do this or do that; it's about showing it to the young guys. I've tried to show that you don't have to be a senior to be a leader.''

O'Leary stopped one of the spring practices midway through recently and repeated the workout the following day because he didn't think his team was showing enough fire and enthusiasm. He stressed to the team that the 19 seniors from last season's squad were gone and he was looking for players who would emerge from each position as leaders. He's since been pleased with how the Knights have practiced, feeling as though the team's leadership is in good hands.

``I think each position should have their own leaders, but I'll always kind of lean on the seniors and collectively we've got a good group,'' O'Leary said. ``It's sometimes hard to find leaders today because it's a sit-down society now and nobody wants to take charge. We're still looking for somebody to emerge from each position (as a leader), but I like this senior class.''


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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.