Preseason Preview: BYU vs. UCF
BYU is scheduled to travel to Orlando, Fla on Oct. 9 to face the UCF Knights in an intriguing inter-sectional match up.
This is a return game for the Cougars, who defeated UCF 24-17 in Provo during the 2011 season.
Cody Hoffman’s 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown helped to offset the fact that the Knights outgained BYU by 139 yards that night.
This season’s contest will take place on a Thursday night, meaning the Cougars will have to travel across the country on a short week.
UCF goes into the 2014 campaign with the tall task of replacing quarterback Blake Bortles, who was the third overall pick by in May’s NFL draft.
Bortles led the Knights to a 12-1 finish and the AAC championship in the league’s inaugural season in 2013. He passed for 301 yards and three touchdowns against Big 12 champion Baylor in a 52-42 victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
Despite the loss of a guy who passed for over 6,600 yards and 50 touchdowns over the past two years, head coach George O’Leary has a lot of talent and athleticism returning. In fact, if Bortles had decided to return for his senior season, UCF may have found itself ranked in the top 10 to start the season.
As it is, the Knights start the season ranked just outside of the top 25 and have been picked by the media to finish second in the AAC behind Cincinnati.
Big Shoes to Fill at Quarterback
On Sunday, O’Leary named true freshman Pete DiNovo (6-2, 205 Fr.) as the starter and the guy to get the first shot to try to fill the huge shoes of Bortles. DiNovo beat out Justin Holman (6-4, 215 So.), who is the only available QB on the roster with any playing experience after appearing in three games last season.
The freshman from Tarpon Springs, Fla will take his first snaps as a college quarterback when the Knights travel to Dublin, Ireland to open the season against Penn State. He’s a pro-style quarterback who was a first-team, 8-A All-State player in Florida. He set Pinellas County career records with 6,733 passing yards and 59 touchdowns, surpassing the previous records held by former Tulane and NFL quarterback Shaun King.
If DiNovo fails to get the job done, the Knights can always fall back on Holman, who appeared to be the leading candidate to be starter coming out of spring camp. Holman was 9-of-14 throwing the ball last year for 75 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
Work to do on the O-Line
Left Tackle Torrian Wilson (6-3, 305 Sr.) will anchor the line after being a second-team, all-conference selection in 2013. He has a total of 29 career starts under his belt and has been challenged by his coaches to be the vocal leader of the O-line this season.
Center Joey Grant (6-3, 286 jr.) also returns after starting 13 games as a sophomore last year. He’s coming off of shoulder surgery this spring, but is on track to reprise his starting role.
The Knights do have to replace three starters up front, including guards Justin and Jordan McCray. The twin brothers were both named first-team, All-AAC last season. Also gone is second-team, all-conference tackle Chris Martin.
Terik Cook (6-2, 291 Jr.), who is also the back up center, could start at one of the other guard spots next to Grant. In order to do so, he’ll have to beat out Colby Watson (6-5, 318 So.) or Aaron Evans (6-5, 290 Fr.). With a 535-pound bench press, Watson is probably the strongest guy on the team.
The right tackle spot appears to have been locked down by Michael Campbell (6-6, 285 So.), who has yet to start a game in his career. The third tackle in the mix is Chester Brown (6-5, 317 So.), who was converted from the defense last year and played in three games.
Reports out of Orlando are that the offensive line is really starting to come together in fall camp. It will need to in order to give their young quarterback the protection that he’ll need to find his talented and experienced receivers.
Loaded Receiving Corps
One of the reasons Bortles had such a successful season last year was the outstanding group of receivers he had at his disposal. DiNovo may be inexperienced, but the good news is that the three of the Knights’ top four receivers return for 2014.
Rannell Hall (6-1, 200 Sr.) led the team in receptions (57) and yards (886), while his five touchdowns were second best to J.J. Worton’s (6-2, 212 Sr.) seven scores. Worton returns after turning in 47 receptions for 721 yards.
Breshad Perriman (6-3, 214 Jr.) also comes back after delivering 39 catches for 811 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged an impressive 20.8 yards per reception in 2013.
The lone loss among the top four receivers is the graduated Jeff Godfrey. BYU fans may remember that Godfrey was the starting quarterback the last time these two teams faced off. He switched to receiver in 2012 after Bortles became the starting quarterback and produced a total of 83 catches for 835 yards and seven TDs in his two years at the position.
Calm After the Storm
Running back Storm Johnson left for the NFL following his junior season, after amassing 1,399 yards of total offense and 17 touchdowns. The departure of such a productive player would normally be a big blow to a team. However, the emergence of William Stanback (6-1, 225 So.) has given the Knights some peace of mind.
Despite Johnson getting the lion’s share of the reps in the backfield, Stanback still managed to rushed for 443 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman. He also caught 15 passes for 186 yards and a score on his way to earning second-team, all-conference honors.
A lightly recruited player out of high school, Stanback has turned into a very pleasant surprise for O’Leary’s team. He is a bruising and versatile back (see video below) who should be ready to take his place as the primary ball carrier on the offense.
Nine Starters Return on Defense
UCF has to replace just two starters from a very athletic defense. In all, 18 of the 21 defenders who made at least one start last year are back for 2014.
The Knights gave up 21.3 points per game last season, good enough for 17th in the country. They’ve been stiff against the run under O’Leary this past few years and last season was no different, finishing 16th nationally against the run, giving up just 122 yards per game.
That run defense will be supported this season by a defensive backfield that returns three senior starters in the likes of cornerback Jordan Ozerities (5-10, 191 Sr.), free safety Brandon Alexander (6-2, 195 Sr.) and strong safety Clayton Geathers (6-2, 208 Sr.). Meanwhile, sophomore corner Jacoby Glenn (6-0, 186 So.) was tabbed as a freshman All-American in 2013.
Defensive end Thomas Niles (6-2, 270 Jr.) returns after being named the team’s outstanding defensive lineman for 2013. Niles is expected to be joined on the defensive line by key players Miles Pace (6-1, 256 Jr.), Luke Adams (6-4, 260 So.) Demetris Anderson (6-2, 299 Jr.), Lance McDowdell (6-4, 310 Jr.), Jaryl Mamea (6-1, 283 Sr.) and Deion Green (6-1, 240 Jr.)–all of whom have starting experience.
The linebackers are the play makers in defensive coordinator Tyson Summers’ scheme. Middle linebacker Terrance Plummer led the team in tackles with 110 take downs in 2013. The first-team All-AAC player also recorded 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Outside linebackers Troy Gray (6-1, 210 Sr.) recorded 62 tackles, while true freshman Justin McDonald (6-2, 211 So.) came on as the starter late in the year and made 32 stops. Chequan Burkett (6-1, 218 Fr.) and JUCO transfer Errol Clarke (6-1, 240 Jr.) are expected to provide depth at the OLB positions.
The Knights return both their starting kicker and punter this season. Shawn Moffit made 21 of his 23 field goal attempts in 2013, while Caleb Houston averaged 42.2 yards per punt. The return game should also be solid with Worton coming back to field punts after averaging 12 yards per attempt last year. Hall and Stanback will likely be handling kick returns for a second year in a row.
The Bottom Line
This just might turn out to be BYU’s most difficult game of the season.
Will all due respect to Texas, UCF may be the most athletic team BYU will face. The Cougars have to make the trip to Orlando on a short week following a rivalry game against what should be a good Utah State team. The UCF defense should be formidable this year, and if the offensive line and quarterback positions solidify by the middle of the season, the Knights will be a tough out.
BYU is 0-5 all-time in games played in the state of Florida and Bronco Mendenhall’s team will have to bring its “A” game in order to avoid dropping to 0-6. Although I believe the Cougars will take a step forward this year and get to double-digit wins, I don’t think they get through the season unscathed and this game could very well be where they drop one.
Preseason Prognostication: UCF 24 BYU 21