In his six seasons at UCF, assistant head coach David Kelly has seen the Knights go from being an afterthought in the mind of elite recruits from South Florida to the forefront of the discussion.
That monumental change has allowed UCF to develop more of a free-flowing pipeline out of one of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country, and that has had a direct effect on UCF’s recent rise to prominence.
UCF has become such a player in South Florida now that the school has earned a lofty distinction previously reserved for the traditional power of the area, the University of Miami.
“These days,” Kelly said, pausing for effect, “all of the kids from Miami are saying that UCF is the `New U.”
Much of UCF’s South Florida talent will be on display Saturday night for a homecoming game of sorts when the Knights (2-0) face Florida International (2-0) at 6 p.m. in Miami. Some 27 UCF players, led of course by standouts Jeff Godfrey, Nick Pieschel, Kemal Ishmael and Josh Robinson, will be playing back in South Florida for the first time in years. UCF hasn’t played in South Florida since a 2008 20-14 loss to the University of Miami, and most of them are calling this opportunity a dream come true.
“Definitely this one means a little more,” said Robinson, a Sunrise native who starred at Plantation High School. “A bunch of people that I know will be at the game and some guys I know will be playing against us. So that just spices it up even more.”
UCF head coach George O’Leary has noticed a different vibe in the air this week as the team prepared for the trip to Miami. O’Leary called his team up at the conclusion of a practice earlier this week and had all the South Florida natives stand. O’Leary talked to that group about keeping its emotions in check, while also making sure that they do everything possible to make sure UCF is successful.
Usually there might be some concerns about a team coming off an emotional 30-3 home defeat of Boston College and one that has a nationally televised showdown at BYU a week from now. But O’Leary and Kelly know that UCF’s strong South Florida influence won’t allow the team to overlook this game in Miami.
“Florida International has some outstanding skilled athletes and they’re well-coached so we know we’ll have our hands full,” O’Leary said. “We have (27) kids who grew up down there, so we fully believe we won’t have any problem getting the kids up for this game.”
Said Kelly: “We’ve got a large contingent of kids who have been teammates and played against a lot of the players at Florida International. The excitement for them has to be out of this world. I just want everybody else on our team not from that area to buy into what this game means to all of those South Florida kids. We have to get behind them and be successful for those kids.”
Kelly, UCF’s lead recruiter in the South Florida area, helped the Knights land the likes of Godfrey, Ishmael and Robinson and other promising players such as Justin and Jordan McCray, Josh Reese, J.J. Worton and Torrian Wilson. By having success at UCF and helping the school climb to national prominence they have shed light on UCF’s vast promise in the eyes of many players in South Florida, Kelly said.
“If you look at the ascension of our program, it’s come for two reasons: George O’Leary getting his system, which has always been a successful one, established; and the second thing – and this is not a slight to anyone – but it’s the onset of us getting greater numbers of kids from the South Florida area,” Kelly said. “The kids already here have become great ambassadors for our program as a whole. All of a sudden we’re getting the athletes who have legitimate options to go anywhere they want in the country. And they are saying that there’s something special about this UCF thing. They know they can come up here and make their own niche. The fact that they’ve done it, now other kids from South Florida are saying if Jeff Godfrey, Josh Reese, Kemal Ishmael and Josh Robinson had tons of opportunities and instead went to UCF maybe I should go there too and build this up.”
Players such as Godfrey, Robinson and Ishmael have played a major role in helping build UCF into what it is today. Godfrey, a Miami native and the all-time leading passer in Dade County history, was told by several recruiters that he was too short at 5-foot-11 to play quarterback at the major college level. UCF gave him the chance that others wouldn’t and he’s since become Conference USA’s Freshman of the Year and again one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, Ishamel (North Miami Beach) and Robinson (Sunrise) are the unquestioned leaders on a UCF defense that hasn’t given up a touchdown in 12 quarters dating back to last season. Both were first-team all-conference performers last season and form one of the best safety-cornerback duos in the country.
All three of those players earned starting roles not long after getting to campus, and have become fixtures of the program. Kelly said because of the competitive environment that most South Florida kids are raised in most tend to thrive in pressurized situations in college football.
“When you go to the Optimist League games when those kids are 7 and 8 years old, there are 10-12,000 fans there. So they have been competing against a number of top athletes in pressurized situations all of their lives,” Kelly said. “You could see that mentality from Jeff Godfrey right away last year when he came into the NC State game and we were down 28-6. He came into the huddle and tells the offensive players to follow me because he’d been here before. In his mind, he had been there before playing in front of 10-12,000 fans since he was five years old. Because of the competitive level these kids have been in in that condensed area down there, when it gets to these moments these kids are about competing and winning.”
Winning is ultimately all that matters come Saturday for UCF when it faces a blossoming FIU program that is coming off a 24-17 victory against Louisville. The Panthers feature an electric receiver-returner in T.Y. Hilton, but the Knights feel they have as much or more speed to neutralize the long-shot Heisman Trophy candidate.
O’Leary is all in favor of playing in-state games like these, but he sometimes scoffs at the effect games like this have on recruiting. At the end of the day, O’Leary said UCF’s profile will continue to rise in South Florida and in the eyes of recruits if the Knights keep on winning.
“Our school sells itself when the kids get here because we have a great campus and a neat facility. But the key is still that you have to win. We just have to keep doing that and having consistency there,” O’Leary said. “The more kids that we can get out of South Florida who are productive, prominent players the better chance we have of getting more of them in the future. And that’s big for our program.”