John Denton's Knights Insider: Knights Have the Look of a Winner

April 18, 2011

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By John Denton

ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF coach George O'Leary told his young, but promising football team on Monday that while they made many strides in the 15 spring practices that just concluded, the next step along the way to repeating as Conference USA champions could be even more critical.

O'Leary is a big believer that leaders aren't picked as much as they emerge from their actions. And he's looking at a restocked senior class to fill the leadership roles from the departed players and make sure UCF's chemistry is strong throughout the long offseason.

``The next three months will dictate their season,'' O'Leary said following Saturday's Spring Game at Bright House Networks Stadium. ``I've always believed that. How much improvement they can make, not just in the weight room but in the classroom (will be important). And just being a very positive program guy. That's where we have to grow up in some areas. I think the next three months will tell and your leaders will come to the forefront. Who are your leaders and just what kind of chemistry this football team has to have.''

In addition to finding playmakers at wide receiver and linebacker, O'Leary used the spring drills to look for leaders at each position. And while he usually takes an old-school approach to leadership by leaning heavily on the experience of the senior class, O'Leary made it known to his team that leadership can come from younger players and in many forms.

For example, junior tailback Brynn Harvey is one of the Knights' most respected players because of his toughness and dedicated work while returning from a serious knee injury, yet he rarely says a word on the field. Meanwhile, fiery safety Kemal Ishmael, who missed Saturday's game with a shoulder injury, is both a big talker on the field and a producer as UCF's surest tackler and most dependable player.

``My coach in high school used to tell me, `Well done is better than well said,' so that's the approach we're trying to take now,'' senior guard Cliff McCray said. ``We all know that the next three months around here are critical. Coach always says that we win games in the offseason with our work, so it's a time for us to put everything together and stay focused. Being that it's my seventh year here and fourth year playing at UCF, there are no excuses for mistakes and I know that I have to step it up as a leader this season.''

UCF emerged from the spring with an improved playmaker at quarterback (Jeff Godfrey), some tremendous talent and depth at tailback (Latavius Murray, Harvey and Ronnie Weaver) and an offensive line that has four of five starters back. Defensively, the Knights found some playmakers along the defensive line (Troy Davis, Toby Jackson and Victor Gray) and the secondary is as solid as ever with proven playmakers (Josh Robinson and Ishmael) and promising young talent (A.J. Bouye and Jordan Ozerities).

Linebacker was a concern after losing three starters there, and it will likely stay that way until the first game against Charleston Southern on Sept. 3. Ray Shipman and Jonathan Davis made the transition to linebacker from basketball and tailback respectively, and both shined this spring. Middle backer Josh Linam can be counted on, but he was out injured much of the spring. Highly touted linebacker signee Leilon Willingham, a four-star recruit from Denver, was on hand for some of the drills and should battle for playing time in the fall.

The wide receiver position is also a question mark after Brian Watters, Jamar Newsome and Kamar Aiken - the top three targets last season - graduated. A.J. Guyton is back for a fifth year and should be Godfrey's top target next season as a possession receiver. Coaches want to get the ball into the hands of speedster Quincy McDuffie's hands more next season. Youngsters Marquee Williams, Josh Reese and J.J. Worton showed promise during the spring and will need to be counted on come the fall.

Because coaches are allowed limited contact with players over the summer months, the responsibility of organizing workouts and weight-lifting sessions often falls on the shoulders of the players. It will be up to UCF's new senior class and vocal leaders such as Godfrey, Guyton, Ishmael and Robinson to make sure that the Knights use the next three months to get better and prepare for the season.

After all, expectations are higher than ever following an 11-3 season that ended with championships in C-USA and the Liberty Bowl and the Knights being ranked as high as No. 20 in the national polls. Nothing less than a repeat as conference champs and a return to a bowl game will satisfy the Knights.

``We need leaders on this team,'' Godfrey said. ``Like coach said before, you don't have to be a senior to be a leader on this team. We need to come together as a family and we need to come closer.''


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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.