UCF football embracing target on its back after Fiesta Bowl win
ORLANDO, Fla. -- For most of its time on college football's top level, Central Florida has been content to wear the "sleeping giant" label that Knights coach George O'Leary gave the program when he arrived in 2004.
A decade and their first 12-win season later, UCF enters 2014 no longer as the little team that could. And that's just fine by them.
"Oh, yeah, in the conference we are the target and everyone wants to beat UCF now," senior offensive lineman Torrian Wilson said. "That's the price we pay right now for being the conference champion, for going to the Fiesta Bowl and for just doing great things last year.
"We wouldn't want it any other way."
The Knights' 12-1 finish in 2013 was their best in school history, and their third 10-win season in the previous four years. It signaled their arrival on the national stage, but also led to personnel casualties in the offseason with starting quarterback Blake Bortles and running Storm Johnson departing for the NFL.
Overall nine starters on defense and six on offense returned this season. Though losing Bortles was clearly a big hit for a unit that expected to have more time to develop his younger understudies.
O'Leary held off on naming a new starting quarterback in the spring, before ending early preseason speculation by naming redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo as the starter for the Aug. 30 opener in Ireland against Penn State. It was a bold move by O'Leary, opting for DiNovo over sophomores Justin Holman and sophomore transfer Nick Patti.
Though O'Leary is quick to point out that their success this season will depend on more than that one position.
"I feel comfortable with our football team," he said. "We'll be solid. We have more depth than we've had in the past as far as at all the positions. It's just a matter of getting a couple of positions straightened out and getting the guy in there that can make things happen for us and just maintain the game, not necessarily have to win the game at quarterback."
The learning curve at all positions will be short. The Penn State opener is followed by a trip to Missouri, and an 0-2 start could stifle a lot of the buzz last year's run created.
Here are five things to watch for with UCF this season:
OTHER OPTIONS AT QB: While DiNovo has the job for now, O'Leary said the competition is not closed. Accuracy issues cost Holman the nod for the Penn State game, though he was the only quarterback other than Bortles to take a snap last season. O'Leary doesn't want a two-quarterback system, but if DiNovo struggles, he won't hesitate to replace him.
REVAMPED LINEMAN: The Knights also took a graduation hit on the offensive line, with tackle Chris Martin and guards Justin and Jordan McCray all departing. Wilson is the lone senior in this year's group, but junior Joey Grant is also a veteran. The rest are new in junior left guard Chester Brown, sophomore guard Tarik Cook, and tackle Michael Campbell, a redshirt freshman.
NEW FEATURED RUNNING BACK: Sophomore running back Will Stanback had a tough spring, but enters the season as the Knights' starter. He likely won't be as explosive as Johnson, but he did rush for six touchdowns and nearly 450 yards in 2013.
PLAYERS COMING OFF INJURIES: Another thing that could slow the Knights' offense early is their health. Starting receivers Breshad Perriman and Rannell Hall were limited in early practices because of injuries. Center Joey Grant has also been slowed coming off offseason shoulder surgery. All three are expected to be back in time for the opener.
NEW DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: On the defensive side the Knights will be breaking in a new coordinator. Tyson Summers has coached the linebackers since 2012, and was interim coordinator in the spring.
• College football tickets