UCF head coach George O’Leary has one basic rule when it comes to freshmen playing early in their careers: They’re not allowed to act like freshmen.
By that, O’Leary means that they have to hit campus with the physical tools as far as size, strength and speed to compete at the major-college level. They have to learn on the fly, and be above making the mistakes that often befell young players. And, of course, while they can have the occasional bad plays, they aren’t allowed to have bad days in O’Leary’s system.
When UCF kicks off the 2011 season Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Bright House Networks Stadium against Charleston Southern no fewer than 11 freshmen are expected to see action at some point in the game. And including junior college transfers and position switches, some 17 players will be taking their first snaps at UCF at their current positions.
The fear of the unknown is what keeps football coaches up at night, but O’Leary is comfortable that UCF’s newcomers will be ready to play in the season-opener. The game plan, at times, will be distilled down to just the basics so that young players react without being bogged down with adjustments and new techniques. O’Leary is eager to see how that group reacts to the pressure of the first game, and he has already vowed that the group will be closely evaluated.
“They better be excited. I’m wanting to see how they play to the pace and speed of the game assignment-wise,” O’Leary said following the Knights’ practice on Thursday. “I want to see how they take care of their responsibilities offensively, defensively and on special teams.”
Leilon Willingham, the prized recruit of last fall’s new crop of talent, is the only true freshman expected to start for the Knights. The 6-foot-2, 240-pounder will open at outside linebacker after impressing coaches in training camp with his toughness, football smarts and nose for the football.
“He’s so excited and isn’t scared at all,” raved senior linebacker Josh Linam, who has been somewhat of a mentor to Willingham in camp. “We’ve still got to get in the film room together and make sure we’re doing our assignments. We’re going to mess up, but we understand that it’s all about the next play and running to the ball.”
UCF lost three starters at linebacker following last season, necessitating an injection of youth and newcomers this season. In addition to Willingham, freshmen Terrance Plummer and Troy Gray are expected to see time at linebacker.
It will also be the first game at linebacker for converted tailback Jonathan Davis and former University of Florida basketball player Ray Shipman. Davis opened last season as UCF’s starting tailback, but has returned to his high school roots as a playmaking linebacker.
“I was surprised at how fast both of them picked things up. They’ve both been in the film room and taking coaching and transferring it over to the field,” Linam said. “The big thing is being able to take it from the film room to the field and they’ve been able to do that.”
On the offensive side of the ball, UCF is in search of playmakers at wide receiver after losing the top three targets from last season. Quincy McDuffie and A.J. Guyton will be the top go-to receivers this season, but they are being pushed by a talented crop of freshmen wide outs.
J.J. Worton and Josh Reese red-shirted last season and made great strides in training camp this year. Worton has some of the best hands on the team, while Reese already has a chemistry with star quarterback Jeff Godfrey after being teammates in high school.
And another true freshman, Rannell Hall, has caught O’Leary’s eye with his playmaking abilities. Hall is affectionately referred to as “Speedy” by coaches and teammates because of his ability to run past people, but it’s his maturity that has impressed O’Leary.
“We’ve been rolling six receivers in there and I’ve been impressed with the young kid from Miami, Rannell Hall, with his speed. He has great concentration to the ball and he can go up and get it,” O’Leary said. “He keeps his poise and doesn’t panic when something’s not right. Those are the freshmen who can help you. He’s a fairly tough kid as far as contact speed. He’ll have a chance to play and help us. And Worton and Reese, I think they’ve had good preseasons and will get a chance. I’m comfortable with the rotation.”
O’Leary said one reason that the Knights are playing so many young players is because the team lost 19 seniors off last season’s C-USA championship and Liberty Bowl-winning squad. But another more significant reason is that the Knights are seeing the fruits of consecutive elite recruiting classes, and those players are more ready to play earlier.
And, of course, they are playing because they don’t act like freshmen.
“You’re looking to get athleticism on the field and this freshman class has that,” O’Leary said. “So it’s about us getting them enough experience now so that they can help us this year.”