And so it is here. UCF’s defense of a conference championship and a mission to prove last year’s appearance in the national polls is the norm is about to kickoff. George O’Leary’s team now turns its attention to a season opener on Sept. 3 against visiting Charleston Southern. As training camp concluded new playmakers emerged and leaders of this version of the Knights now gets to step into the spotlight.

As we embark on the 2011 season there are number of key players who will determine the success of this team. While we all know Jeff Godfrey’s magical talents and Kemal Ishmael’s presence in the secondary, here’s 10 players to watch who could be key for this team to attain its goals:

  1. Brynn Harvey: He’s back. After missing the 2010 season with an injury, the redshirt junior returns and looks like his old self after struggling in the spring to get back to his old form. He was an all-conference back in 2009 and Harvey is a big bruiser who can wear down defenses. He joins Ronnie Weaver and Latavius Murray to give UCF one of the deepest running back groups in the country.
  2. Adam Nissley: The senior tight end is one of the strongest players on the team. While no one doubts Nissley’s blocking ability, fans might get to see him expand his role as a pass catcher. Nissley caught only six passes last year and has just 17 career catches. But with a group of young receivers needing time to emerge, look for Nissley to be more involved in the passing game.
  3. Jordan Rae: The junior center redshirted in 2008 and never saw a snap in 2009. All he did in 2010 was start every game he was healthy for and stabilize the critical position as the offensive line leader. Rae got better and better as the year went along and enters 2011 as one of the best at his position in Conference USA. Considering the amount of snaps in the pistol and shotgun formations UCF’s uses, Rae and quarterback Jeff Godfrey rarely had issues.
  4. J.J Worton: The redshirt wide receiver might as well be nicknamed “Magnet” because his hands catch everything, no matter where the ball is. Despite suffering an injury near the end of spring practice, Worton picked up where he left off by standing out with his traffic grabs of balls leaving you to wonder how he caught that. With little interest coming out of high school, Worton has that little chip on his shoulder to prove other people wrong and prove UCF right.
  5. Quincy McDuffie: Now is the time for the speedy junior from Edgewater High School to prove he is not just a fast guy playing football but a football player who is fast. No one doubts McDuffie’s kick return ability, but George O’Leary has said the ball needs to be in his hands more on offense. McDuffie had just 13 receptions for 144 yards last season. Those are numbers he could do in two games this coming season.
  6. Darius Nall, Troy Davis, Toby Jackson, Cam Henderson, LeBranden Richardson: All five defensive ends go together because they all are fast, quick (there’s a difference between fast and quick) and strong. While UCF loses Bruce Miller, this unit is faster and deeper than it has ever been. Nall had 8.5 sacks last year and double digits are likely this year and newcomers Jackson and Henderson will cause problems in passing lanes for opposing quarterbacks with their 6-foot-5 frames.
  7. Jose Jose: It took him an extra year to get to UCF but the sophomore might be a huge part of UCF’s short-yardage defense from his defensive tackle position. He can clog a hole or multiple holes with his size. As Jose gets into the shape George O’Leary wants, the former high school teammate of Jeff Godfrey will be a force on the defensive line.
  8. Leilon Willingham: The freshman linebacker from Colorado is likely to start from day one, something not easy to do at UCF. Willingham is one of the more decorated defensive players out of high school to come to UCF. He can hit and he can run. George O’Leary has always said he likes to recruit players who won a lot in high school. Well, Willingham has not lost a game in three years. He left high school riding a 33-game winning streak.
  9. Clayton Geathers: With much attention in UCF’s talented secondary going to veterans Kemal Ishmael, A.J. Bouye and Josh Robinson, Geathers is a talented 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman who will carve his own niche in the defensive backfield.
  10. Josh Robinson, the punt returner: Robinson’s statistics were down last year but not because he didn’t play well. It’s because teams stopped throwing to his side. On special teams, opponents starting kicking away from Robinson last year and that likely will happen again in 2011, but when Robinson gets his chances he is one of the most electrifying punt returners in the nation. Robinson has yet to take a punt return back for a score. Expect that to change in 2011.

Marc Daniels’ From the Press Box runs several times per month on Listen to Marc during UCF football, men’s basketball and baseball radio broadcasts on the UCF Sports Network. Each weekday, Marc hosts The Beat of Sports on ESPN Radio 1080 in Orlando.