Several new players and coaches participated in their first spring practice on Tuesday, and Head Coach George O’Leary was pleased with the energy and enthusiasm exhibited by his team.
The Knights have an entirely new defensive coaching staff, led by coordinator Jim Fleming, and there are just about as many new faces holding down first- and second-string positions.
“I thought the effort and enthusiasm were good,” O’Leary said. “We’re trying to rep a lot of guys out there, playing 44 guys at once (on two fields). There’s a lot of coaching going on, and a lot of corrections have to be made. But that’s what spring ball is all about.”
UCF worked out for two hours in helmets and shorts on Tuesday and will do the same on Thursday. On Saturday, the Knights will don full pads for the first time and go through some segmented scrimmaging. The Knights will hold 14 practices over the next five weeks, culminating with the annual spring game at 2 p.m. April 14 at Bright House Networks Stadium.
Led by their senior class, the Knights are working hard to return to a bowl game and improve upon last season’s 5-7 record.
“There’s a lot of hunger there. I know there’s a lot in me and everybody else who was on this team last year,” standout tailback Latavius Murray said. “We know that we were a better team last year than our record showed. So we want to go out there and make sure that same thing doesn’t happen next year.”
The Knights’ offense should thrive with many key players returning. Quarterback Blake Bortles once again will be able to hand the ball off to Murray and Brynn Harvey, one of the nation’s best backfield combinations. Sophomore receivers J.J. Worton, Josh Reese and Rannell Hall showed flashes of greatness last season.
Center Jordan Rae and left guard Theo Goins bring veteran leadership to the offensive line, while junior twin brothers Jordan and Justin McCray could start alongside each other on the right side of the line.
“We had a couple of months of weightlifting and training, but it’s good to get back on the field and get our plays down,” Rae said. “We didn’t finish last year how we wanted to. Leaving the conference after this year, we want to leave with a bang. We want to make a statement.”
Veterans Victor Gray and Troy Davis will anchor the defensive line, while four-year starter Kemal Ishmael is back at his usual safety slot. A lot of underclassmen will fill other roles in the secondary and linebacker corps.
“On the defensive side, I have a big role in being a leader,” said Ishmael, who has dropped 14 pounds in an effort to become more agile and quicker to the ball. “We have sophomores and freshmen playing linebacker. I have to speak up and get everybody going. I have to be a motivator.”
O’Leary, who often likes to say that games are won or lost during the offseason, said he’s excited about the work that his team put in during conditioning and weightlifting drills. The improved strength and size of the team should help the Knights get back to being a more physical team on both sides of the ball, O’Leary said.
“We made great gains in the offseason,” he said. “What I got back from the weight coaches is that we’re way past last year in terms of strength gains.”