It may seem weird that a program coming off its most successful season in its history would be in something of a rebuilding mode. At least, that’s what Head Coach George O’Leary and his UCF Knights football team hopes to avoid in 2014. Still, the departure of some key figures on offense, plus new leadership on defense, lead to some significant questions marks in the season after going 12-1, winning the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship, and defeating Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Starting with this article and continuing over the next couple of weeks, we will present the five biggest questions that, depending on the answers, will determine how successful the follow-up act to the Knights’ first and only BCS bowl-winning season will be. So without further adieu, here’s question number one:
1. Who’s the Quarterback?
Blake Bortles solidified his claim to being arguably the greatest quarterback in UCF program history in 2013, and it wasn’t just for his outstanding numbers (68% comp, 3,581 yards, 25 TD, 8 INT). UCF won seven of eight games decided by one possession (and darn near went 8-for-8). You don’t do that with just any guy under center.
Now that Bortles has parlayed that resume into a paying gig with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the reins have been handed over to a quartet of heirs. Someone will have to step up and take command of the offense out of this mix.
The media picked UCF to finish second behind Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll, and there is little doubt that the questions under center contributed to that.
At the moment, the leader in the clubhouse looks to be sophomore Justin Holman. The 6-4, 213-pound product of Stephenson High School in Snellville, Georgia certainly has the measurables that O’Leary likes. However, we just don’t have enough of an on-field sample size on him yet. He’s 9/14 for 75 yards and a TD for his career, with most of that coming in garbage time in the Knights’ blowout win over UConn (6/11, 65 yards and the TD). He went 18/31 for 165 yards in the Spring Game, but that’s in the Spring Game. It’s a different situation entirely against unfriendly competition.
On his heels is Pete DiNovo, the 6-2, 205-pound redshirt freshman from East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs. The product of much fanfare when he arrived at UCF, he posted a pedestrian 10/20 for 117 yards, a TD and an INT in the Spring Game. However, DiNovo impressed the coaches enough in 2013 to earn the Scout Team Player of the Year Award at the team’s end-of-year banquet, so to be that good at that task that early, you need to be able to pick on on things quickly. He should certainly be filling up Holman’s rear-view mirror in the race for the starting job.
Freshman Tyler Harris, from Pierce County High School in Blackshear, Georgia, also fits the physical mold (6-4, 223 pounds), but the small sample size in the Spring Game was not that impressive (5/11, 38 yards, INT). Still, he occupies the Quarterback of the Future spot, which admittedly sounds strange, considering the guys around him all have at least two more years remaining after this one. Barring a slew of injuries, he will have to sit back and learn in 2014, and may end up wearing a redhirt when all is said and done.
The wild card in this situation is Nick Patti, the diminutive (5-10, 195 pounds) product of Dr. Phillips High School who transferred back home to UCF from Boise State following Chris Petersen’s departure for Washington. The all-time leading passer for the Panthers, Patti saw limited action for the Broncos (8/11, 63 yards, 0 TD) in 2013, but caught a break when the NCAA granted him a waiver allowing him to play right away. He remains the most unknown quantity, and didn’t come back all that way with the intention of sitting on the bench.
Whoever takes the ball will have plenty of weapons at their disposal. Rannell Hall (57 catches, 886 yards, 5 TD), J. J. Worton (47 catches, 721 yards, 7 TD), Breshad Perriman (39 catches, 811 yards, 4 TD, 20.8 avg.) and Josh Reese (21 catches, 253 yards, 1 TD) all return on the outside, forming arguably the most formidable receiving corps in the country, top to bottom. To fill the void left by the lone senior wideout from last season, Jeff Godfrey, UCF also added senior UAB transfer Jackie Williams (5-11, 190 pounds), who led the Blazers in receiving with 52 catches for 799 yards and a touchdown in 2012, but left the program after a falling-out with then-head coach Garrick McGee. Along with massive safety valve Justin Tukes (13 catches, 116 yards, 1 TD) at tight end, plus Will Stanback’s (15 catches, 186 yards, 1 TD) already-established ability as a pass catcher out of the backfield, UCF’s quarterback will have no shortage of targets to throw to.
The question is whether they will have enough time to hit those targets. Up front, the Knights are an inexperienced bunch, with the departure of the Brothers McCray at the guards and right tackle Chris Martin. UCF has some stability at center Joey Grant, who started all 13 games last year, but the lone other returnee, tackle Torrian Wilson, moves inside to guard from right tackle, where he had his struggles at times. Projected starting guard Tarik Cook and tackles Michael Campbell and Chester Brown will have to adapt quickly to facing live ammunition, lest whomever they are protecting spend more time on the ground than upright (More on this unit in a later post).
O’Leary is on record as having Holman as the starter, with DiNovo and Harris behind him heading into camp, but Patti’s presence should make things very interesting.
Regardless of who actually does earn the job, it will not be an easy transition. One of the ongoing talking points about O’Leary’s tenure prior to 2013 was that he did not develop a quarterback. While the emergence of Bortles exploded that myth in spectacular fashion, the new batch following him means he and offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe will have to do it all over again this year.
UCF fans were spoiled in 2013 by Blake Bortles, a quintessential college quarterback whose ability and late-game intangibles led his team to a magical season beyond any Knight fan’s wildest dreams. Whoever fills his gigantic shoes, growing pains are likely to ensue in 2014, and that means those fans will occasionally have to remind one another that he is not Blake Bortles.