A position loaded with question marks entering last season has become one filled with talented and dynamic exclamation marks for UCF heading into the 2011 season.
How stacked are the Knights at tailback? Brynn Harvey, the preseason all-conference pick last season, will likely be a second-stringer and his carries will be cut into thirds because of the depth at the position.
Latavius Murray, the likely starter on Sept. 3 against Charleston Southern, came on strong last season to fill in for the injured Harvey and nabbed MVP awards for both the Conference USA title game and the Liberty Bowl.
Then, there’s Ronnie Weaver, arguably the toughest pound-for-pound Knight. The former walk-on has become one of the most respected players on the team because of his work ethic and hard-nosed play. All he did last season was run for 11 touchdowns and average 4.8 yards a carry.
Then, there’s Harvey, who was worked his way back into form after tearing a knee ligament two springs ago. His burst has returned and the vision is still there for the back who ran for 1,628 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons with the Knights.
Put the three of them together and they form the best running back trio in all of Conference USA. And based on the raw numbers, no backfield was more potent last season as UCF was one of only two schools (Wisconsin was the other) to have three players with at least 10 rushing touchdowns. Weaver (11 TDs), Murray (11 TDs) and quarterback Jeff Godfrey shredded defenses, while Harvey was coming off a 2009 season in which he had run for 14 TDs.
Now, when they aren’t fighting on the field for carries or hanging out together away from football the UCF trio marvels at the talent at the position.
“It’s a great bond that we have. On the field, it’s a great competition and we’re all out there either trying to win a (starting) spot or in my case have a spot to lose,” Murray said. “Off the field, we’re all great friends. The way we look at it is that all three of us are great backs and whichever one is out there will be running hard.”
UCF dons full pads on Monday for the first time in training camp, and the belief is that the full-contact drills might provide some separation among the three backs. For now, they are rotating during individual drills and team sessions. Eventually, there could come a time when the Knights play two tailbacks at once to get more playmakers on the field, but for now coach George O’Leary thinks the situation will play itself out because of injuries and the wear and tear of the position.
“All three of them have different styles and they know how to get North and South with the football,” O’Leary said. “We check so much at the line that they have to be able to go from run to pass and pass to run at the line. All three do something different and all three are going to play early. But it’s not a hard thing deciding with them. I’m pretty sure that I’m going to go with the hot hand at the time.”
No one had a hotter hand down the stretch last season than Murray, the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder who evokes comparisons to Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson because of his tall frame and explosiveness through holes. He ran for five touchdowns and caught another in the final four games of last season, playing his best football when it mattered most. He gashed Tulane for 146 yards in his first career start and then had two touchdowns and 115 total yards in the C-USA title game against SMU.
And against Georgia in the Liberty Bowl, he had what many consider to be the biggest run in school history by rumbling 10 yards late in the fourth quarter for the points that gave UCF its biggest win. Murray carved up the Bulldogs for 104 yards en route to winning the MVP of the bowl game.
Doing all of that was even more impressive when you consider that he started the season as a converted H-back because of his pass catching abilities. Longing for a return to tailback, he eventually worked himself up from fourth on the depth chart to starter. It was a long road back for Murray, who had torn a knee ligament in 2009, once contemplated a transfer and ended the season with a MVP trophy raised overhead.
“I’m more of a humble guy, so what I accomplished never really snapped in my head,” Murray said through a smile. “But there have been moments when I realized, `Man, I came from a long way last year.’ I know that I’ve been blessed and I’m thankful for that.”
Murray knew exactly what Harvey was going through last season when he was unable to play because of a torn knee ligament. Harvey worked throughout the offseason and early in the year for an early return, but he was able to preserve his redshirt season and not rush a return because of the emergence of Murray, Weaver and Godfrey.
Harvey, a 6-foot-1, 207-pound junior from Largo, proved to everyone that he was back in form in the Black and Gold game when he took the first snap of the game and scampered for 32 yards right up the middle.
Harvey is one of O’Leary’s favorites because of his toughness and his ability to cut in the hole and not before. He feels like his explosiveness has returned, and he can once again make major contributions this season.
“I feel it coming back. I can’t wait to put on the pads and start hitting, but it really feels like my burst is back and I’m feeling good,” Harvey said. “I guess those runs in the spring were just waiting to come out of me. The first play of the game, I felt good making that long run. I felt like, `Hey, I’ve still got it.’ It feels good to be back and be able to support the team again.”
Weaver, a 2010-pounder from Wabasso and Vero Beach High School, has given the Knights plenty of support throughout his career at UCF. He earned a scholarship with his work on the scout team as a freshman, and made his mark on the team as becoming UCF’s finest all-around special teams player.
Then, midway through last season he was promoted to the starting tailback slot and he breathed life into the Knights’ offense with his hard running. He ripped Kansas State for 130 yards and a score, ran over Marshall for 150 yards on a career-best 30 carries and then he gashed East Carolina for another career-high 180 yards. Weaver was able to share the satisfaction of his climb from being an unheralded walk-on to a standout running back with his mother Patricia Bradley, who attended most every game home and away.
“I think it hit my mom more than me, but I’m grateful for the journey that I have traveled,” Weaver said. “I’ve been blessed the whole time I’ve been here at UCF. It’s just continuing to work hard and things have gone my way. I’m going to continue and I have one more hill to climb this last season of mine.”
Weaver feels like UCF will be able to keep opposing defenses off balance this season because of the diversity that UCF can put in the backfield. Murray is as dazzling catching the ball out of the backfield as he is running it. Weaver has the best vision of the three and is dependable with the ball. And Weaver is exceptional in short-yardage situations and should feast against second-units this season when he appears as a relief runner.
“We all have different strengths that we bring to the offense,” Weaver said. “All three of us now can be considered cagy veterans because we’ve played a lot of football, so we’ll be ready for anything. I just feel like we all can help the offense out by doing all of the different things that we bring to the table.”
John Denton’s Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.