Kevin Smith's Shoes (Getty Images)
In 2007, UCF had one of the most effective ground games in NCAA history. Kevin Smith departed for the NFL as a junior, taking his 2,567 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns with him, being drafted with the first pick in the third round by the Detroit Lions. This undoubtedly has left the Knights with one big question. Who will attempt to fill the big shoes Smith left behind?
Coach George O’Leary said it best when talking about replacing “Mr. 24k.”
“I don’t know if you can replace Kevin. Whether it’s UCF or any school you are at, when you’re a consensus All-American as a running back, it makes it very difficult. I’ll go back to what I’ve done most times, I’ll have two or three running backs that can go out there and do what they need to get done. Again, we’ll see which one we set in on as far as the running back. I see a bunch of running backs playing early. We’ll see who’s going to be the guy we can count on for all three downs, not specialty downs.”
Knowing that UCF will use more than one back to replace Smith doesn’t necessarily narrow down the possibilities a whole lot. One of the front runners for a share of the job would have to be Phillip Smith, who is the only back at UCF with college game experience. Smith had 246 yards on 52 carries, as well as four touchdowns last year. However, he had problems hanging onto the ball and saw few significant carries as “24k” rarely came out. Smith’s growth was stunted this spring after suffering a lower leg injury, and while he is expected to go this fall, the Knights would have loved to see what he could do this spring as the team’s number one back.
The list to spell Smith includes four true freshman, and one red-shirted freshman. Ronnie Weaver, a red-shirt freshman, got most of the carries in the spring game due to Smith’s injury. Weaver, a former walk-on, is now on scholarship and looking to get his share of carries. During the spring game, Weaver had a difficult time getting things going, rushing for 45 yards on 15 carries against a tenacious UCF defense.
After Smith and Weaver, there are four true freshmen to look at. Brandon Davis (Peachtree Ridge HS in Suwanee, GA) is a guy that will run through you or around you and is the Knights most touted running back commit. Because of his physical running style, Davis has gained comparisons to Kevin Smith and his game should translate smoothly to college.
Then there is Latavius Murray (Onondaga HS, Nedrow, NY), New York’s Gatorade player of the year. He rushed for over 2,000 yards in both his junior and senior seasons. He also played linebacker in high school and many believe that is his natural position.
Another highly touted freshman is Brynn Harvey (Largo HS, Largo, FL) who also had over 2,000 yards rushing his senior season. Harvey is a big back at 6’0”, 210 lbs. and also is known for his physicality.
Finally there is Vance King (Stockbridge HS, Stockbridge, GA), who is an athlete that played just about everywhere on the field last year, including at tailback. He is probably best suited at safety where he shined last year but O’Leary has been on record saying that he will try Murray and King at tailback first.
O’Leary knows that his team will rely on at least one freshman running back and is also aware of the problems that can create.
“I think they’ll be true freshmen, they’ll make a lot of mistakes but as long as their full-speed mistakes, I can live with them. I think it’s how quick they pick up the offense from a mistake situation, it’s who can pass-protect. Everybody looks at the running back just as a running back, but you have to protect too and I think that’s what eliminates a lot of young freshmen, is that they don’t have the upper-body strength to protect yet. We’ll put the right guy out there who can do everything. One guy might be a better runner, the other might be a better pass protector, but who does both the best is who will be on the field.”
One of the major contributors to Smith’s success last year was a talented and experienced offensive line. Despite losing two starters on the offensive line, the group returns three starters and appears ready to open holes for whoever is in the backfield. Also a veteran receiving corps should take a bit of pressure off of the backs, as UCF should look to pass a bit more this season.
The answer to who will be in the backfield should become a bit more obvious in a couple of weeks. On August 4th the Knights begin practice and that will be the first opportunity for these new Knights to show the coaching staff what they are made of. There will be a lot riding on a few weeks of practice for the tailbacks as O’Leary is willing to play whoever proves themselves. As we saw in 24k’s case O’Leary has no problem starting a true-freshman running back, and UCF will likely need a freshman to emerge at the position again like Smith did four years ago.
John Bernstein is a writer for InsideKnights.com, covering the UCF Knights for Scout.com. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.
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