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UCF Knights Season Preview: Knights have reason for optimism

College FootballUCF KnightsFootballCollege SportsNCAAConference USA

UCF receivers coach Sean Beckton’s cell phone buzzes daily with inquiries from old friends.

They are former players who toiled in obscurity, practicing in dirt lots and helping UCF build a football program with few resources in 1979. Now they look on with immense pride, hoping they can celebrate the Knights’ success in the national spotlight.

“Every day I get three or four calls from alumni, asking about the team,” said Beckton, who has witnessed the extreme highs and lows of the program as a player on UCF’s first football team and long-time assistant coach. “They’re ready for the season. They’re excited, and they want to know how the team is doing. They want to know how good we can be this year.

“I tell them we’ve got a really good team that can really compete, but we’ve got to keep working hard every day.”

Despite a dark NCAA sanctions cloud looming on the horizon, there is a spirit of optimism about this year’s UCF football team.

“We’re excited because we absolutely believe we have the talent and skill to win every single game this season,” offensive line coach Brent Key said. “We have to work at it. No one’s going to give it to you. But we believe this team is capable of accomplishing it’s goals of winning a conference championship and a bowl game.”

The NCAA threatened to take away the Knights’ biggest goals before the season even started.

UCF was slapped with a football postseason ban after the NCAA determined the Knights committed major recruiting infractions.

However, UCF is appealing the sanctions. The NCAA does not enforcing punishment during the appeals process. While UCF President John Hitt said he hopes to get a quick answer from the NCAA before the Conference USA championship game, the appeals process is complex and it seems unlikely the Knights will be serving their ban this season.

The delay is good news for UCF players and coaches, who are eager to avenge last season’s disappointing 5-7 record and win big now.

“We hate to lose,” junior defensive lineman Victor Gray said. “I hate to lose and last season was just awful. We worked harder than I’ve ever seen before during the offseason because we don’t want to go through anything like last season ever again. It’s just unacceptable.”

The Knights set a variety of weight room records, using the offseason training sessions as an outlet to express their frustration. UCF had the talent to earn a bowl bid last season, but a combination of internal personality clashes and inexperience contributed to a handful of mistakes that cost the Knights key wins.

Team leaders have taken steps to avoid another disaster in 2012.

Junior Blake Bortles was the first UCF starting quarterback to meet regularly with the offensive linemen all summer. Senior linebacker Ray Shipman hosted barbecues for his teammates. Senior running back Latavius Murray tagged along with the linemen to watch Joey Grant try to win a pancake eating contest.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been before,” senior safety Kemal Ishmael said. “It reminds me of the team that won the Liberty Bowl, only better.”

The 2010 UCF football team that won the Conference USA title and Liberty Bowl set the standard for success.

O’Leary and Key said UCF could match, and even exceed, those milestones thanks to a talented lineup.

“It’s the most depth we’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” O’Leary said of his lineup.

UCF has at least two strong options at every position, including tougher to develop spots such as the offensive and defensive lines.

The Knights used to struggle to land elite recruiting prospects who earned four stars out of a five star rating system established by Rivals.com and Scout.com. Now one of UCF’s four-star propsects – Tyler Gabbert – is the backup quarterback and another four-star prospect – Josh Reese – is a third-string receiver.

The Knights’ starting running back, Latavius Murray, was the Liberty Bowl most valuable player. Second-team running back Storm Johnson, a four-star prospect coming out of high school, has elite speed. And third-string running back Brynn Harvey earned first-team All-Conference USA honors in 2009.

The rushing threats tend to get the most attention, but Beckton said the receivers group is equally impressive.

“This year’s group could be one of the top receiving corps that we’ve ever had in UCF history,” said Beckton, who coached Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall and other elite UCF receivers. “If they continue to work and continue to listen, they’ve got a chance to be very, very productive for this team.

“We believe that’s true for this whole team. If they work hard, they have a chance to be special.”

ilimon@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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