For longer than most of its fans can remember, UCF survived by throwing, catching and scoring. Atop the marquee every season was a quarterback.
The only name on the marquee this year, however, is new coach George O'Leary, whom UCF lured away from the Minnesota Vikings by promising financial commitments to him and to his new program. O'Leary, who headed programs at Georgia Tech (from 1994-2001) and Notre Dame (for five days in late 2001), promised the basics: more running, more stopping the run, more discipline and more graduates. All of this is intended to get the Knights back on track after a 3-9 season that cost Mike Kruczek his job.
OffenseAfter burning a planned redshirt in the 2003 campaign, quarterback Steven Moffett is ready for a full season of work. He likes the idea of running a multiple offense that made Joe Hamilton a Heisman Trophy candidate at Georgia Tech. Tailback Alex Haynes (2,502 yards in three seasons) will get help from redshirt sophomore Dontavius Wilcox. Offensive coordinator Tim Salem's challenge is staying true to a run-first mentality while utilizing his best athletes, many of whom are receivers. Tavaris Capers (67 catches, seven TDs in '03), Brandon Marshall and Luther Huggins are the veterans, but Mike Walker and redshirt freshman Sergiori Joachim are ones to watch.
DefenseUCF was 10th in the MAC in scoring defense, 10th in rushing defense and ninth in overall defense last year, and there doesn't appear to be much promise on the horizon. Outside linebacker Antoine Poe, the chief playmaker, lost his career in the final game of last season with a neck injury, and middle linebacker Craig Harvey left the program before spring practice. That leaves new defensive coordinator Lance Thompson with numbers problems all along his front seven. UCF recorded only 15 sacks in '03.
Returning middle linebacker Stanford Rhule has adjusted his attitude and appears poised for a big senior season, but he needs help from Tywin Kalandyk, not to mention a front four that has struggled at the point of attack in the second half of games.
Much of UCF's scheme depends on the abilities of cornerbacks to cover one-on-one. After only two interceptions by the secondary last season -- none by cornerbacks -- that's still in question. Sophomore Ron Ellis is a future star, but is that future now? Former Maryland transfer Rovel Hamilton is other corner. Two-time All-MAC safety Atari Bigby and free safety Peter Sands are sound, but overall this secondary has struggled to make big plays.
SpecialistsMatt Prater was the bright star amid last year's misery, booting 10 field goals and, in a major surprise, leading the country in punting with a 47.9-yard average. Under O'Leary, though, UCF's famed rugby punt is dead, and punting duties fall to Scott Sevin.
Final AnalysisO'Leary has only one season to make an impression in the MAC. His first year in Orlando is UCF's last in the league; next year the Knights move with East Division rival Marshall to the re-formed Conference USA.
O'Leary turned Georgia Tech into an annual ACC contender, and his tough-mindedness has already injected some hope into a UCF team that always seems on the verge of something big but can't get over the hump. It's unlikely, though, that this is the team to do it. The Knights aren't strong enough or deep enough on either front to control the line of scrimmage in key games, and the schedule doesn't help: O'Leary's first team opens at Wisconsin, plays at home against Big East favorite West Virginia and then travels to Penn State.