After a successful 2013 season that saw the Central Florida Knights end it with an exciting 52-42 victory over the Baylor Bears in the 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the Knights look to show the nation victories over bigger programs will be the norm and not the exception going forward. If head coach George O’Leary is able to find a suitable replacement for All-AAC conference quarterback Blake Bortles sooner than later, the Knights could take down a SEC and Big 10 opponent in the non-conference part of the schedule.
With the departure of Bortles, the Knights have four quarterbacks with little or no experience — sophomore Justin Holman, Boise St. transfer Nick Patti, redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo and true freshman Tyler Harris — competing for the starting job. Only Holman has any game experience; passing for 75 yards and one touchdown in mop-up duty. He also rushed for 40 yards on seven carries and provides the team with a run-pass option that could ease the transition early on for the offense.
Leading rusher Storm Johnson departed for the NFL but the team’s rush offense could be better in 2014 as it will be led by talented sophomore William Stanback. Backing up Johnson, Stanback rushed for 443 yards and six touchdowns and could provide more consistency as Johnson was plagued with fumble issues the entire season. Backing him up will be a pair of sophomores Dontravious Wilson and Micah Reed, both of whom saw action primarily on special teams.
The most experienced unit will be the wide receivers as they return all three starters from last season led by senior Rannell Hall, who lead the team with 57 receptions for 886 yards and five touchdowns. Joining him will be senior J.J. Wharton (47 receptions for 721 yards) and junior Breshard Perriman (39 receptions for 811 yards.) Perriman is the deep threat and finished 2013 with four receptions over 50 yards. Also returning is tight end senior Justin Tukes, who was utilized more as a blocker but finished the season with 13 receptions for 116 yards.
If the Knights are to repeat as AAC champions it will be on the strength of a talented defense. Led by pre-season All-AAC candidates linebacker Terrance Plummer, safety Clayton Geathers and sophomore Jacoby Glenn, the Knights are almost a lock to improve on numbers that had the unit ranked 17th in total defense (21.3ppg) 16th in rush defense (122.5ypg) and 29th in total defense (362.0ypg)
Plummer led the team in tackles (110) and tackles-for-loss (8.5) and will be the center of every opposing team’s game plan. This will give the other returning linebacker, senior Troy Gray an opportunity to improve his 2013 stats that saw him finish No. 5 in tackles (63) while collecting two interceptions. Joining them as a new starter will be sophomore Justin McDonald, who saw action in nine games and started three in 2013.
UCF returns its entire starting defensive backfield, as senior cornerback Jordan Ozerities and safety Brandon Alexander join Glenn and Geathers to form what could be considered one of the top units in the nation. One thing they will need to improve is the interception numbers from last season. This group had only eight interceptions but deflected 35 passes; if they are able to improve on that ratio this defense could be even better than last season.
Defensive coordinator Tyson Summers will count on new defensive line starters — juniors Demetrius Anderson, Lance McDowdell and Miles Pace — to generate more pressure up front. No player had more than four sacks last season. The lone returner is junior Thomas Niles, who led the team with those four sacks.
Even when UCF did not have the talent, they did not shy away from playing top programs and that pattern continues as they face Penn State to open the season in Dublin, Ireland and then travel to SEC foe Missouri two weeks later. To round out their non-conference schedule, they host Bethune-Cookman and BYU.
After upsetting PSU on the road last season, the team has the confidence to play against anyone. The success of the 2014 season, however, will hinge on Holman being able to minimize his mistakes on the offense and the defense generating a pass rush and making opposing offenses pay with more interceptions.