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The AAC has had plenty of storylines this offseason from the rise of Memphis to the arrival of Navy, but not many people are talking about George O’Leary’s team in Central Florida. They’d like to remind everyone that they’re still here and they know everything, including how to win.
Storm Johnson proved to be a difficult replacement as no UCF running back managed to stand out last year. William Stanback led the team with over 600 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but at under 4 yards per carry and coughing the ball up twice. Stanback is a talented back, and could end up being one of the better in the conference, but it isn’t a safe bet necessarily either.
Behind him, unfortunately, there wasn’t much improvement in that low YPC statistic. Dontravious Wilson had almost exactly half the yards on almost exactly half the carries, and Micah Reed’s yards per carry stats failed also to reach 4 yards per carry. Wilson did have three touchdowns last year and didn’t lose a fumble all year.
Justin Holman showed flashes of NFL-caliber arm strength last year, and his numbers reflect it. He just missed the 3,000-yard mark and managed 23 passing touchdowns. Fourteen interceptions is a number that can be improved upon, and there’s reason to believe Holman will, if for no other reason than he’s a year older and isn’t a new starter anymore.
One difficulty Holman faces heading into the year is that his top four receivers from last season are gone, including first round pick Breshad Perriman. Those four guys combined for over 2,500 receiving yards of UCF’s roughly 3,000 passing yards. So the question is who steps up?
Sophomore Jordan Akins did catch 12 balls for 135 receiving yards, tops of any returning receiver, so he’s probably a safe bet to assume a larger role, but keep an eye on redshirt freshman Tre’Quan Smith. Smith has emerged at the top of the depth chart and could end up being the leading receiver by season’s end.
As for the line, the right side should be solid. Joey Grant is a two-year starter at guard and Chavis Dickey was solid as the starter at right tackle last year. Jason Rae and Tarik Cook both have starting experience at center, so it would be unsurprising to see one of them slide over to left guard.
A stout line should be the strength of the defense heading into the season. The only major loss is DT Jaryl Mamea, but with Demetris Anderson and Jamiyus Pittman stepping into defensive tackle roles the position is still in good hands. Anderson and Pittman combined for 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year.
Thomas Niles and Miles Pace are also animals at defensive end. They had a combined 21.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks last season, so yeah Mamea’s 10 tackles for loss and 7 sacks will be missed, but the cupboards is far from bare.
Secondary is a completely different story though. The good news is that every starter this year did play last year, but the bad news is that they didn’t play frequently. This group could only boast three interceptions and two tackles for loss between the four of them last year.
Outside linebackers Chequan Burkett and Errol Clarke played in twelve of the team’s thirteen games last year, so that shouldn’t be a problem. However, your guess is as good as mine as to who’s going to play middle linebacker. Domenic Spencer seems to be the guy, but he had only three tackles last year, so he is far from a proven commodity.
Even with several question marks, betting against George O’Leary isn’t smart. (That is unless you’re betting against his resume…still too soon?) All jokes aside, UCF was one of the three teams who claimed the AAC crown last year and they won it outright two years ago, so technically that makes them a two-time defending champion. It will be a tall task to make it back-to-back-to-back, in fact probably too tall, but an 8-win season preceding a bowl berth is in store for the Knights.
Credit Cover Photo to Reinhold Matay/AP Photo