Nothing quite says mid-November like a trip to sweltering Orlando. After elevating the UCF Knights program to unprecedented heights, the peak being a 52-42 upset win over No. 6 Baylor in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, the George O'Leary era came crashing down in 2015. When these teams faced off in Nippert Stadium last season, it resulted in the Bearcats absolutely thrashing the Knights, 52-7. You might recall that George O'Leary did not coach UCF in that game as he had stepped down as head coach a week prior. The 2015 Knights lost each of their 11 other contests, including a stunning home loss to Furman, finishing with the worst record in program history.
This losing campaign brought about change in the house of Knights. Oregon's wildly successful offensive coordinator, Scott Frost, was hired in December to lead the team in 2016. With limited time, Frost and his staff got to work quickly and assembled an impressive recruiting class of 20 players, including two four-star athletes and several junior college transfers. That's tot to imply that O'Leary left the cupboard devoid of talent, quite the contrary. UCF is a very young, talented team that should show much improvement this season. An important conference game for the Bearcats, which upon glancing at the schedule would appears to be a win, could very well become a bit more competitive that originally anticipated.
The numbers talent at the quarterback position is evident, even if its considered to be somewhat unstable and inexperienced. The perceived starter, senior quarterback Justin Holman, started nine games last season and displayed some good traits in finishing 127-of-250 with seven touchdowns and 1,379 passing yards. Unfortunately, Holman battled injuries throughout the season and was unable to consistently perform at a high level. Holman has also thrown 29 interceptions in his career at UCF which has to be of concern to Frost and new offensive coordinator, Troy Walters. However, if he can stay healthy, Holman's impressive showing (10-of-15 for 127 yards) at the Knights' spring game may be a positive sign of things to come for the "Oregon East" offense.
Tyler Harris, a redshirt sophomore quarterback, completed 26-of-61 passes for 308 yards and four touchdowns in six games off the bench in 2015. He possesses great size at 6'4" and 228 lbs., and is a pure pocket passer with some mobility. He appears to be the most polished option should Holman succumb to injury again in 2016. The remaining stable includes senior Nick Patti, junior Pete DiNovo, sophomore three-star prospect Garrett Kruczek, and an incoming freshman from Hawaii, McKenzie Milton, who attended camp at Oregon and made a strong impression upon Frost.
The tools to build a potent receiving corps certainly seem to be in place. Tre'Quan Smith, the AAC 2015 Rookie of the Year, was the first freshman in UCF history to lead his team in receptions and receiving yards (52 receptions for 724 yards) last season. Sophomore Tristan Payton was second on the team in receptions with just 21 for 264 tards, and also had a touchdown. Junior tight end Jordan Franks completed the 2015 campaign with 20 receptions for 246 yards and two touchdowns. And though sophomore wide receiver D'erred Wilson did finish with an impressive 14.8 yards per catch average, he only had eight total receptions on the season.
Much of the improvement this offense will be able to make this season will be on the shoulders of the offensive line. The unit returns seniors Jason Rae and Chester Brown, and the remainder is comprised of two juniors, five sophomores, and three freshmen. This will be the group to keep an eye on as the season develops.
Aside from last year, during the O'Leary era, the Knights were consistently effective on the defensive side of the ball. With most of the talk and focus on Scott Frost and his offensive prowess, it would appear that new defensive coordinator Eric Chinander will have a great opportunity to make his distinctive mark on this side of the ball. Chinander also comes from Eugene, where he began as an intern in 2010.
He brings a new 3-4 defense to Orlando, as UCF traditionally ran a 4-3 scheme. His focus is on applying an aggressive and attacking style of defense. This new approach was clearly evident by the 11 sacks the unit registered in the Knights' spring game. Those results are encouraging considering that last season's pass rush was abysmal at best.
Jamiyus Pittman should be the pillar which Chinander will build upon to anchor the line. Pittman returns after amassing 45 tackles, 4.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss and one blocked kick. However, questions at defensive end persist as only one major contributor at the position, junior Seyvon Lowry, returns. In an apparent response to this deficiency, the Knights signed three JUCO linemen who may assist in plugging the discernible holes.
The secondary could be a point of strength as cornerback Shaquille Griffin will lead five seniors in the defensive backfield. There is a surplus of young talent as well with players like Tre Neal and Rashard Causey.
For 11 mostly successful seasons, UCF football was O'Leary. After O'Leary's departure, and a psyche-damaging 2015 campaign, it will take some time for Frost to rid the Knights of last season's bad memories. Frost quickly began his overhaul of this program with a strong recruiting class. Changing the culture, along with the playbook and schemes, doesn't happen overnight. This team is very young and the roster appears to be full of potential, however this will be a season of growing and learning.
The Knights will be coming off a bye week after the tall task of facing the Cougars in Houston when they clash with UC. The Bearcats will be coming off what will more than likely be a tough game against BYU. If Holman stays healthy and the Knights show some improvement on defense, they will be much more competitive against the Bearcats than last season. But not nearly improved enough to add a W to the record books.