Listen closely to George O’Leary and there’s a quiet confidence to UCF’s veteran football coach as if he’s privy to a secret no one else has been let in on yet.
”I really think we’ve got a chance to be a good football team,” O’Leary said with a sly smile following a recent preseason practice.
Anyone who knows O’Leary is well aware that he isn’t one who is prone to throw around hype or hyperbole carelessly. He’s seen how hard his Knights have worked to wipe away the frustration of last year’s 4-8 record, and he’s impressed with the strides UCF has made offensively under new offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe. And once again, UCF should feature a gritty, stingy defense that’s loaded with experience and talent.
Add it all together and O’Leary is confident that the Knights will be in position to challenge for another Conference USA championship this season. And UCF also has its sights set on derailing the seasons of Miami and Texas in big non-conference games.
O’Leary sat down with Knights Insider recently for an exclusive question-and-answer session that revealed just how confident he is that UCF will be a force to be reckoned with this season. Here is the interview with O’Leary:
QUESTION: What’s been the biggest surprise in camp so far? What’s caught your eye in particular?
COACH O’LEARY: The best thing that I’ve seen so far is that the players have come every day to practice and left the field a better team. Other big things are the health factor and the guys with experience are sharing their knowledge on the field. But overall the effort has been really good. You’re beat up and sore right now, but I’ve told them that when they cross those white lines it’s `Game Day Saturday.’ They’ve understood that and each (unit) has had their day, but we’ve been very competitive offensively and defensively.
QUESTION: Each season is a different season, but have you noticed your team being especially motivated by last year’s disappointing season?
COACH O’LEARY: I think a lot of people are making more of last season than they should. That’s media-driven, I think. Every year I send myself an envelope with the record in it – I mail it to myself – and I was pretty much right last year except it was reversed. We took a couple of games into overtime when we had opportunities and there were a couple more games where the kicking game got involved and we should have had a win.
This year, I think we have a chance to be a very good football team. I see a great improvement from the kids who played for the first time last year. I think the addition of the six kids back who were out really helps our experience and depth. So I see us having a solid, stingy defense and an opportunistic offense that has a chance to get big-chunk plays. And we’ll always play special teams the right way. I’ve stressed to them that we need to win the special teams game every time. We’ve had a good camp and the kids have taken a coach-me attitude and have played the game faster than we played last year. We’re faster offensively and defensively.
QUESTION: When you are out talking to boosters or fans on the street, how often are you asked about the improvements with the offense? And how much better can the offense be this season?
COACH O’LEARY: That’s always the question I’m being asked, but as a head coach I’m more worried about the whole team than just the offense. But in today’s day and age, offense is such a major factor. You have to put points on the board because the days of holding teams to zero points or one touchdown are over because offenses are just too good. There’s no question this month, this preseason, the focus has been on the offense. The offense is better, but it’s a process.
QUESTION: (Offensive coordinator) Charlie Taaffe seems like such an intelligent coach who knows exactly what he wants and expects out of players. What changes has Taaffe implemented that will make the biggest differences this season for the UCF offense?
COACH O’LEARY: Nothing beats experience and one of the biggest keys with Coach Taaffe is that he has a world of knowledge, not just with one offense, but a lot of different offenses. That’s what I was looking for, someone who could take the personnel and make yardage and plays with the personnel that we have here. He has a vast background, whether it’s in the option game or the CFL or the wide-open football or in college football and tweaked his offense to fit our team. He’s made it where our kids can perform and keep the pressure on the defense by stretching the field.
QUESTION: You are a fan of players who have a `gym rat’ mentality, ask a lot of questions and put in the time studying the playbook. You have mentioned that quarterback Rob Calabrese fits that mold. How much progress did he make over the offseason?
COACH O’LEARY: With the quarterback situation, there’s some stability there. I do like the guys who are the gym rat type of quarterbacks because that’s the nature of the game now. Ultimately, they get the praise and the boos when things don’t go right. They have to spend more time as students of the game. All of the quarterbacks have done a good job spending time with the tape and doing the things that they need to do to be successful.
QUESTION: Having that receiving corps back healthy again with Rocky Ross, Kamar Aiken and A.J. Guyton back after missing time last season with injuries, how much will that help make the passing game better this season?
COACH O’LEARY: That’s a big key for us. Last year, it seemed everybody who was touching the ball just wasn’t making plays – from quarterback, to receivers and backs. It hurt when we lost a couple of those skill positions. And people forget about (tight end Corey) Rabazinski. We lost Aiken and then A.J.Guyton and Rocky Ross went down too, and that just took away some of the experience that we did have.
QUESTION: You have a relatively young offensive line with a couple of redshirt freshmen and a sophomore, but you seem genuinely excited about the potential of that group? Can that group be a dominant force for UCF this season?
COACH O’LEARY: They just have to learn perseverance because young kids today are so used to instant success. There’s no easy way to develop an offensive line except through a process. Most of those kids shouldn’t even see the field until their sophomore or junior year because I think that’s the toughest position from a standpoint of knowledge and sorting things out. They’ve been saturated with protections, but it’s the speed with which you are doing things that matter. There are going to be mistakes, but let’s make it a fast mistake.
QUESTION: I’m of the opinion that defensive tackle is one of the most important positions on the field and you have a couple of potentially great ones in Torrell Troup and Travis Timmons. How important are those two players to your defense?
COACH O’LEARY:Your front seven dictate what you can do defensively. Your cornerback dictate your coverage and how much man-to-man you can play. But the front seven dictate what kind of team you are because it always gets back to only being as good as your base defense. You can (blitz), but good offenses hope you blitz because they have a chance for a big play.
I think our front seven, with 14 of them back on the two-deep, they have depth and experience. I think they are only helping our offense be better because they are being challenged by our defense every day.
QUESTION: Darius Nall, an all-freshman performer two years ago, is back after having a tumor removed from his lung. Is there a better story in all of college football than Darius’?
COACH O’LEARY: He’s not feeling well, and we want to get him checked out. And the next thing we know he has a tumor. As a coach you go, `Whoa! This isn’t about winning games anymore.’ There are things more important when it comes to what Darius went through. But the trainers did a great job there, making sure we had the right doctors involved.
I’m just so thankful everything worked out for him because he’s a great kid. I don’t think the rest of the team understood how serious that was.
It really is an inspiration to our team. He’s so happy being back and playing football and we’re seeing that smile on his face again. He went through a lot, standing around and watching a lot and I know it drove him crazy. He worked through the (illness) and I’m just glad that everything worked out for him and his family.
QUESTION: Derrick Hallman has been your biggest hitter all throughout camp and his teammates rave about Derrick’s leadership skills. How much has his switch from linebacker to free safety shored up the secondary?
COACH O’LEARY: I think that was the key move on defense from what I have seen so far. He played (free safety) in high school, he’s very intelligent and he has all the athleticism needed to play safety. And the big thing is he’s a leader back there. He understands tendencies, understands routes and he’s the director of the defense as far as the coverages. I think it was a real good move moving him there. In the secondary I was looking for somebody to build around and that’s the kid who could do the job.
QUESTION: You have a lot of youth and athleticism at the corners, but you are lacking experience back there. How much of a concern is that?
COACH O’LEARY: I’m concerned about how much can they handle under fire. I want to know how they react when somebody does beat you back there. You are sort of on an island back there and there’s no question about whose mistake it is when they get beat back there. It’s how they handle the setback that I’m curious to see.
QUESTION: You’ve been doing this so long, how much do you still love this time of year, teaching and installing in training camp and seeing a team come together?
COACH O’LEARY: I’m still happy to get in (the office) in the morning and watch (video) when no one is here yet and evaluate things. In the preseason I try to do more coaching and get involved more than I do in the regular season than you do when you are into game plans.
With my job, you don’t punch a clock and you are here because you love it and you love the competition and the camaraderie with the kids. You joke with them and raise heck with them, but the big thing for me is seeing them come off the field as better players and you see them graduate. That’s what it’s all about.
The job’s gotten harder because of the internet and the radio because everybody wants to coach. But the big thing is as long as the kids show great effort and enthusiasm, we can build on that. That’s what drives me.
QUESTION: I know you have said that bouncing back from last season is overblown, but that has to drive you as a competitor, right?
COACH O’LEARY: The key to any program is consistency in winning and you don’t want to be up and down. But as a coach you have to evaluate why things happen. The problem is when you can’t come up with answers. We have the answers and now we just have to get things corrected. Through spring ball and the preseason I think we’ve worked hard to correct the problems.
QUESTION: Your top goal is to win the Conference USA title, but how important is that Miami game on your home field on Oct. 17?
COACH O’LEARY: To me, the only goal is to win the conference championship. But another goal is to win every game that we play. I’ve said to our team that we want to win our conference, but we also have to do well in the non-conference games and that means winning those games. Getting Miami up here will be great for us, and I know our players and our fanbase will be looking forward to it. I think it’s super when we can play in-state like that. I’d much rather do that than travel three or four states over and play a non-conference game. That makes no sense to me.
QUESTION: You’ve said you’ll be mailing your prediction of the record to yourself. Care to give us a peek at the numbers that will be inside that envelope?
COACH O’LEARY: I think we have a chance to be a very solid, competitive football team that has an opportunity to win every game. There are games on the schedule in which we’ll have to play real well to make things happen. But I think we have a chance to be a good team.
John Denton’s Knights Insider runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on UCFAthletics.com. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.