August 6, 2008
It was good to hear him talking about a quarterback battle instead of a battle with the newspaper.
It was good to hear him talking about fall drills instead of mat drills.
It was good to hear him answering questions about the quality of his team instead of the death of his player.
Honestly, it was good to hear George O'Leary just talking about football during UCF's annual preseason media day Tuesday afternoon when not a single reporter asked a question about the tragic offseason death of Ereck Plancher.
This was not the time nor the place.
"This is a time to look ahead," UCF star cornerback Joe Burnett said.
It's time to talk football. College football. The best sport ever invented -- BCS, Jim Leavitt, Clemson's uniforms and all.
I've said it many times: Orlando may be an NBA city, but deep down in our roots we remain a college football town. Don't get me wrong, it's great the Rays and Marlins are doing so well. It's great Dwight Howard is in the Olympics. But nothing gets the juices flowing this time of year like college football.
Burnett is right when he says this is a "huge year" for the Knights. They are coming off the first conference championship in school history, but there is a laundry list of questions. Do they have a legitimate running back? Do they have a legitimate quarterback? Do they have the talent to navigate a brutal non-conference schedule that includes Miami, South Florida and Boston College?
O'Leary has done wonders in upgrading the program, but now it's time to take that next step and show he can put a consistent winner on the field. In four seasons, he's had one bad year, one good one. One bad year, one good one.
He has improved the talent level, discipline and academic standing.
Now comes the hardest part of all: He's put the Knights on top of Conference USA, but can he keep them there?
"It's hard to get to a championship [level], but it's harder to stay there," O'Leary said. "You don't want to be a roller coaster-type of team. Once you get there, you want to stay there."
That's why when the players gather together in the middle of the field after practice, they break the huddle with three simple words, "Back to Back!" Their mission is to win another title, to show they are more than just a fluky bunch of one-hit wonders.
"The goal is to bring another championship back home," Burnett said.
Another day, another doubter.
Burnett and his teammates know there are many naysayers who believe UCF doesn't have the championship-caliber players it had last year.
Their No. 1 running back entering fall drills has never had a college carry. Their No. 1 quarterback has never started a college game.
Even so, Burnett believes in this team. He believes in it so much he opted to come back for his senior season instead of turning pro.
There was a time right after the Liberty Bowl when Burnett was certain he was headed to the NFL.
He even told his teammates and his coaches.
He even went down to South Florida with Kevin Smith and began working out in preparation for the NFL Scouting Combine.
But just before it became time to declare for the draft, something didn't feel quite right.
Maybe it was his teammates who kept phoning him and telling him they needed him, and that if he returned to UCF this defense might be one of the best in the country.
"Something in my gut told me to come back," Burnett said.
He looks around at all his friends and teammates chattering to reporters about the upcoming season.
And he smiles.
So much has happened in the last few months to this team and these players.
They won a championship; they lost a friend.
Time to turn the page.
"I think everybody is looking forward," Burnett said. "It feels good to be here today just talking about football."
There is nothing better.
Mike Bianchi's Open Mike blog can be read at OrlandoSentinel.com/openmike, and he can be reached at email@example.com.
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