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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW... UCF KNIGHTS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


We’re not sure if UCF head coach George O’Leary has Matt Doherty’s phone number on his speed dial, but he might want to give him a call and ask for a bit of advice before the kickoff of the 2012 campaign.

Doherty, remember, was SMU’s basketball coach until a few months ago, when the Mustangs hit the eject button on him and made a media splash by hiring Larry Brown instead.

The connection between UCF, and O’Leary, and SMU and Doherty? Both schools are planning exits from Conference USA to the Big East for next season. Both schools also don’t want to move into their new, higher-rent digs without momentum for their high-profile sports. The Mustangs, more worried about their hoops program than their gridiron team, decided to act on Doherty’s future a year before making the move to the Big East. The Knights, to this point, have stayed put with O’Leary on the football side, but rest assured the dynamics are much the same with UCF football as they were with SMU basketball a few months ago; neither school wants to enter their new league with a coach in trouble. The Mustangs just decided to make a pre-emptive move a year earlier regarding Doherty.

CUSA sources say that O’Leary could meet the same fate in Orlando as Doherty did in Dallas unless the Knights bounce back from last year’s highly-disappointing 5-7 mark. Which continued a maddening trend for the UCF program under O’Leary in which it has only once posted back-to-back winning seasons in the Irishman’s eight-season run, and stands a subpar 50-51 since his hire in 2004 (although an 0-11 debut campaign didn’t help the overall record).

Regional insiders say O’Leary was also under pressure to make staff changes after last year’s collapse, which came on the heels of the school’s best-ever 11-3 mark in 2010 that included a 10-6 win over Georgia in the Liberty Bowl. O’Leary resorted to the time-tested confirmation of a coach on the hot seat when throwing designated assistants under the bus after last season; in the Knights’ case it was d.c. John Skladany, who outwardly seemed to do a pretty good job a year ago when UCF ranked ninth nationally in both total defense and scoring defense in 2011.

O’Leary, however, claimed that stats didn’t tell the whole story, and that UCF didn’t make plays on the stop end in the clutch a year ago. To which he might have a point, but he’s still not fooling anyone who has been around the block with coaches in trouble; Skladany was sacrificed so O’Leary could save his own skin.

To show he “meant business” with this staff, O’Leary also canned LB coach Al Seamonson and director of player personnel Albert Boone. Earlier, WR coach David Kelly had resigned under pressure due to his ties to an ongoing NCAA investigation for recruiting irregularities within the program.

Perhaps, then, it was appropriate that O’Leary be forced into scramble mode to find his new d.c. in the offseason. Veteran defensive coach Ted Roof was looking for a way out at Auburn after the Tiger stop unit failed miserably under his watch last season, and O’Leary provided an escape route in December. Four weeks later, however, Roof’s one-month tenure as UCF’s d.c. ended when he jumped again, this time to Penn State as Bill O’Brien’s new stop end mastermind.

O’Leary, looking at his third defensive coordinator in less than two months, thus promoted Jim Fleming, who had only recently been hired as the LB coach. Fleming was last active in 2010 as Kent State’s LB coach; previously he had been Akron’s defensive coordinator from 2004-09. Compared to Skladany, an accomplished defensive strategist with a track record of success at UCF and previously Iowa State in the Dan McCarney era (Skladany, by the way, is now McCarney’s new d.c. at North Texas), and Roof, Fleming’s credentials appear to be third best among that trio.

Regarding those previously-mentioned NCAA allegations regarding former assistant David Kelly, those charges were also serious enough to force AD David Tribble to resign in November. The charges allege Chicago resident Ken Caldwell, who mentored a variety of football and basketball high school athletes, was working with a professional agent and helped steer recruits to UCF. Investigators determined Caldwell provided 11 football and men's basketball recruits $16,005.74 worth of benefits starting in March 2009.

It should be noted that O’Leary has not been directly fingered by the NCAA in that particular investigation, although the reported transgressions (which also involve the school’s basketball program) did occur under his watch. As a result, school president John Hitt gave O’Leary a letter of reprimand for allowing the violations that took place within his program.

O’Leary at least got off easier than hoops head coach Donnie Jones, who was suspended for three games last season by Hitt.

UCF had earlier been placed on probation (with limited sanctions) for impermissible calls to prospective football recruits between 2007-09, and went before the NCAA infractions committee in late April to plead its latest case, hoping self-imposed sanctions and changes within the athletic department might reduce the penalties. The NCAA was expected to announce a decision upon its findings by the end of the summer.

UPDATE (July 31): NCAA announces one-year bowl ban for UCF, effective 2012 season...

A new AD, Todd Stansbury, was hired from Oregon State’s staff in January. Although outwardly supportive of O’Leary and admitting that “football is the engine that drives the (athletic) program,” almost all regional sources say that O’Leary is on a very short leash this fall.

So, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, it’s probably a duck. Much as when a coach is off a massively disappointing season, throws assistants under the bus, works for a new AD, has the NCAA snooping around his program, accused of racism (even if recklessly so by connections to a star player...more on that in a moment), and with the program poised to make a big leap into a higher-profile conference next season, he’s probably in danger of walking the plank...and soon.

So, make no mistake, George O’Leary is on a very hot seat in Orlando.

If O’Leary’s hair hadn’t already turned gray, it would have anyway last fall when the Knights collapsed after lots of bravado and bluster about becoming the first CUSA team to crash the BCS. After a 2-0 start in which UCF outscored Charleston Southern and Boston College by a 92-3 aggregate, the season began to unravel in a maddening succession of close losses. Six of seven defeats in the next nine games were by a TD or less.

And the ride was bumpy along the way. Especially for QB Jeff Godfrey (left), who appeared to be a budding star when leading the Knights in their Liberty Bowl season of 2010 but regressed alarmingly last fall when tossing only 5 TDs in 232 pass attempts before being replaced in the starting lineup by RS frosh Blake Bortles late in the season. Which didn’t sit too well with Godfrey, who quit the program at the conclusion of the campaign, then watched when both his father and rapper Luther Campbell, a mentor to Godfrey, pulled out the time-worn racism card and tried to stick it to O’Leary, who for all of his faults last season did not deserve Godfrey’s connections dealing from the bottom of that overused deck.

But it was just another Excedrin headache in a season full of them for O’Leary.

After appearing ready to transfer to Florida Atlantic to be nearer his home base in Miami, Godfrey did an about face in the spring and asked O’Leary if he could return to the team. O’Leary agreed, as long as Godfrey can clear up some academic issues, although he’ll be used as a full-time wide receiver and part-time QB in UCF’s version of a Wildcat package...if he behaves himself.

Taking Godfrey’s place in the lineup last fall and holding on to the QB job in spring was Bortles (right, vs. Memphis last October), who completed 68% of his passes for 958 yards in an encouraging debut campaign. Big (6'4 and 221 lbs.) and with a strong arm, Bortles progressed smoothly along the learning curve in spring when the coaching staff challenged him in different ways by mixing up the tempo of the offense and digging deep into the playbook to test Bortles’ mental grasp of the system. He passed all of the exams with flying colors and would have had a monster spring game had not his receivers dropped at least twelve passes. As it was, Bortles completed 27 of 45 throws for 239 yards and a TD in the mid-April showcase event.

Yet with Godfrey now a wideout, there isn’t much experienced cover behind Bortles at QB, although Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert (Blaine’s brother) has landed in Orlando after a peripatetic year that him also saw him spend about a week with Louisville.

Bortles received some good news in May when soph wideout J.J. Worton (left), who flashed considerable upside as a RS frosh in 2011 when catching 41 passes, was reinstated to the program by O’Leary after a suspension following a St. Patrick’s Day arrest at a local bar. Which means that the top three pass catchers from last season (sr. Quincy McDuffie, with 43 catches a year ago, and soph Josh Reese, with 30 catches in 2011, and Worton) are all back in the fold. The presence of Godfrey and touted true frosh Breshad Perriman, son of former Miami Hurricane and NFL star Brett Perriman and who wowed observers in spring work after enrolling early, might provide extra and potentially-dynamic receiving options for Bortles.

The infantry diversion could be augmented by Miami transfer Storm Johnson, a 216-lb. slammer and once highly-touted Georgia prep star who gained 199 YR as a frosh for the Canes in 2010. Serviceable returnees Brynn Harvey (right, motoring vs. Boston College last September) and Latavius Murray split several starts last season and each delivered 100-yard games a year ago.

Meanwhile, the offensive line returns three key veterans and will be enhanced by Georgia Tech transfer Phil Smith, taking advantage of the NCAA graduate waiver and a good bet to end up starting at the critical LT position.

As for first-year d.c. Jim Fleming, he inherits some playmakers on his new platoon, although five starters did depart after the gut-wrenching 2011 campaign. Still, many CUSA sources claim there are probably more prime-time athletes on the UCF defense than on any other stop unit in the conference (reflected by last year’s impressive stats).

Fleming welcomes back three-quarters of last year’s accomplished secondary, but must find a replacement for CB Josh Robinson, CUSA’s top cover corner last fall who left for the NFL a year early and ended up as a 3rd-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings. This year’s top NFL prospect in the DB corps is hard-hitting sr. FS Kemal Ishmael (left, vs. BYU last September), now the spiritual leader in the secondary.

Fleming also made a few position adjustments in spring, including moving 267-lb. jr. Victor Gray from DT to a DE position, hoping to goose a pass rush that was the one shortcoming on the platoon a year ago (the Knights recorded only 16 sacks, ranking a subpar 100th in that category).

Speaking of athletes, perhaps the most intriguing in all of CUSA is sr. OLB Ray Shipman (right), a 6'5, 242-lb. physical specimen who began his college career as a basketball player for Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators, and fellow sr. OLB Jonathan Davis, who started his college career as a running back. The pair provides lots of sideline-to-sideline mobility for the LB corps.

After blowing so many close games a year ago, UCF is in no position to take anyone lightly, but with many CUSA contenders breaking in new QBs and in various stages of reloading, it’s possible that the Knights could be favored in all of their league games. If, that is, they aren’t too bruised by a menacing September non-conference slate that includes dates at Ohio State and at home vs. one of the new kids on the SEC block, Missouri.

O’Leary’s Knight teams have been prone to pointspread streaks, good and bad, in recent years. From late in the 2008 campaign thru the first two games last season, the Knights covered an eye-opening 24 of 31 games on the board, only to drop 7 of their last 10 vs. the number a year ago when UCF also covered only one of six away from Orlando. Note, however, that O’Leary has continued to offer good value as an underdog, reflected by his 15-8 spread mark receiving points since 2007.

Summary...Of all of the storylines in this season’s CUSA, none are more intriguing than those at UCF, which appears to be approaching a true crossroads campaign as it prepares to move to the Big East next year. Especially for HC George O’Leary, who is under pressure to win but has displayed an uncanny knack for delivering results when least expected in Orlando, bouncing back from three past sub-.500 seasons to earn bowl bids. There are plenty of compelling pieces in the Knights’ mix, but remember how chemistry issues were a major negative last fall, and a disruptive offseason might have further complicated matters. And now the 2012 bowl ban.

The parts were certainly greater than the sum for UCF last year; O’Leary’s fate in Orlando might rest on reversing that dynamic this fall.


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