UCF has had its share of ups and downs over the past half-decade and there have been mixed reviews in regards to the program. What cannot be argued though is that UCF is slowly but surely stockpiling talent. Due to strong recruiting efforts, the Knights are bringing in a steady influx of players, which will lead to consistency down the road.
When George O’Leary first became UCF’s head coach, he inherited a program on the rise, but the then Golden Knights were falling into near academic troubles and O’Leary wasn’t left with a whole lot of playmakers. In the midst of a winless season in 2004, O’Leary was forced to start inexperienced freshmen in order to maintain competitive.
O’Leary’s first full recruiting class brought in players such as Pat Brown, Rocky Ross, Cory Hogue, Joe Burnett and of course, Kevin Smith. All saw time as starters and even players that O’Leary secured before he could hit the roads full time in his previous class saw starting time. O’Leary easily remembers the inexperienced players he was forced to start when he first arrived, although that’s becoming less of a problem at UCF.
“When I first got here, 15 (true freshmen) played,” said O’Leary. “Each year that number has gone down.”
Gradually, O’Leary has brought in deeper and more talented classes, which is one of the first steps to develop a consistent program. While O’Leary readily admits that the Knights haven’t shown consistency during his tenure with UCF (two winning seasons and three losing seasons), there is no doubt that he has begun to bring the entire program’s recruiting atmosphere up a notch. This can be seen in not just higher rated commits or players steadily flowing into the NFL, but less freshmen being thrown into the fire.
“There are probably three or four from a strength standpoint that may be able to help us, but there’re no anointments,” added O’Leary. “They all have their work cut out for them to earn a job and that’s the way it should be for freshmen.”
Four years ago, more than half of this year’s 2009 class probably would have started for the Knights or would have at least seen significant playing time. Now the Knights are getting to the level where only fringe blue-chippers such as Josh Robinson and Jonathan Davis can help out. Last year, the defense didn’t need any help from freshmen, but a depleted running back corps that saw Kevin Smith declare early for the NFL Draft and lost Phillip Smith as well used three true freshmen running backs. Rob Calabrese also saw plenty of starting action as a frosh at quarterback when Michael Greco and Joe Weatherford failed to take the reins.
“This will be the first year, maybe last year a little on defense, that I don’t see any freshmen that I’m going ‘whoa, this guy will help us tremendously,’” said O’Leary.
An example of this lack of reliance on true freshmen could be seen last year when elite prospect Moose Robinson was redshirted, as was super-talented Vance King, who has since transferred. It’s difficult for linemen to make the transition to the collegiate level and the dynamic King never grasped the playbook. While UCF struggled on the field, most of that was due to injuries and off-field problems, that eventually led to younger players being forced to play early.
As long as the Knights don’t have another tumultuous off-season where they lose multiple starters like they did last year, the team will be well on its way to redshirting more and more players, and with that comes consistency.
So for UCF fans, when you see only a handful of top recruits playing, remember that it’s a good thing.