2,567 rushing yards, 29 rushing touchdowns, and a first team All-American honor; these are just some of the feats that Kevin Smith accomplished as a junior last season. Now a starting running back in the NFL, Smith is on to bigger and better things and UCF is looking how to replace one of the most successful running backs in college football history.
After Smith declared for the NFL Draft, Phillip Smith was expected to be the team’s go-to rusher, but unspecified problems forced Smith off the team. Without a running back with any in-game experience, the Knights will rely on four freshmen to carry the load and try to help fans forget the great Kevin Smith. Some will say that these freshmen will try to replace Smith, but as Coach O’Leary said, there is no replacing him.
“I don’t know if you can replace Kevin,” said O’Leary. “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.”
Starter: Ronnie Weaver- Prior to the C-USA championship game last season, Weaver was penciled in as a third-string running back behind both Kevin and Phillip Smith. With both players leaving UCF for different reasons, Weaver has been thrust into the starting role, and has done a phenomenal job this preseason. A redshirt freshman, Weaver does everything well, although he doesn’t seem to thrive at any one aspect. He is a hard runner with solid speed and quickness, who also catches the ball out of the backfield with ease. Weaver is also a willing blocker, something O’Leary looks for in a running back. Weaver may not be as dynamic a back as Smith was, but he has all the tools to help soften the blow and his effort will not go unnoticed by coaches.
Projected Backups: Brynn Harvey, Latavius Murray, Brandon Davis, Ricky Kay, Brendan Kelly- When practice first began, Harvey looked tentative and was perhaps the least impressive of UCF’s highly touted freshmen running back trio (including Murray and Davis.) After the pads came on though and Harvey became more comfortable, he showed off the talent that helped him earn over 2,000 yards in both of his final high school seasons. Harvey has good burst, tremendous speed and excellent size and strength. He is behind Weaver in the lineup and figures to get a lot of reps.
Murray will likely be UCF’s short-yardage back, as his 6’3”, 215 lb. frame will allow him to push piles. Murray has nice vision, good acceleration and is a very physical runner. Murray is an accomplished blocker and receiver, and also is a student of the game. During one play in practice, he caught the ball out of the backfield, was hit and fumbled it. On the very next play, Murray caught the ball again, and wrapped up the ball with both hands, showing that he has what it takes to get better.
UCF’s third true freshman is Brandon Davis, the small scat-back from Georgia. He stands at roughly 5-9”, but he runs with a physical style. He has the best quickness amongst UCF backs, and should be a solid backup this season as well as a good returner.
Ricky Kay and Kelly should get reps at fullback. Kay is an experienced player who knows what it takes to be successful. Kelly is a freshman, but showed nice power early on in camp. If he is redshirted this year, he will ultimately make a big impact in certain packages down the road.
Strengths: Versatility; this unit is deep and all four freshman running backs offer something different. While none of them may be able to individually push away the memory of 24K, combined the RBs will offer one of the better groups in the conference, and they will only improve as the season continues.
Possible Concerns: Experience; None of UCF’s running backs have a collegiate carry, which could be a problem. As O’Leary said, he will expect rookie mistakes, but as long as they are made at full speed, he won’t be too worried. These players will all give it their all, so if there is a mistake, it will undoubtedly be made at full speed.
Position Overview: With inexperience amongst the top backs, there will be some bumps, but there is an overwhelmingly amount of talent here. Each player offers something unique, and as a whole, C-USA teams will have a difficult time slowing down this group of talented backs.