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Central Florida goes looking for fights

Coach George O'Leary calls out state's football powerhouses as the Golden Knights look to boost their profile not just in Florida, but across the nation.

By IZZY GOULD
Published September 1, 2006


Those cannonballs soaring through downtown Tampa were fired from George O'Leary's mouth.

Where's Florida? Miami? Florida State? Bring 'em on, he begged at the state's annual media day. He thinks his best shot to build a national power is shoving those bullies, winning a game, then another until Central Florida is labeled a force.

Next season, UCF opens an on-campus stadium against Texas. One more critical step toward the hoped-for elite status.

This season, O'Leary hopes to build on a remarkable 2005 turnaround.

The Golden Knights finished 8-5 after going 0-11 in 2004. They finished tops in Conference USA's East Division at 7-1. They played for the conference title and earned their first bowl berth.

Naming O'Leary conference coach of the year was merely a formality.

Quite a finish considering UCF started 2006 with two losses and O'Leary scratching his head.

"The biggest chore from the 0-11 season was to continue preaching if you do good things good things are going to happen," O'Leary said. "You need to see some daylight at the end of the tunnel.

"Thankfully in the Marshall game we had success. Confidence grew. That was the pivotal game."

A 23-13 win against the Thundering Herd snapped the nation's longest losing streak for UCF's first win in 17 games. O'Leary credits his assistants.

His C-USA peers showed they are convinced UCF is for real voting the Golden Knights preseason favorites to repeat as division champs.

"The big thing is we do return a lot of players from last year," O'Leary said. "As I tell them very often you either get better or worse. I think we've gotten a little better."

Offensively, UCF boasts a line touted as the most experienced in the nation. Patrick Brown, Kyle Smith, Cedric Gagne-Marcoux, L.J. Anderson and Josh Sitton combine for 93 starts to their collective credit.

They were crucial in clearing paths for Kevin Smith, the 2005 C-USA freshman of the year. The shifty 6-foot-1, 210-pounder rushed for 1,178 yards and nine touchdowns.

O'Leary still plans to dip into his holster of rushers, leaning on guys like Jason Peters, who finished with 585 yards and five touchdowns.

UCF averaged 167.08 rushing yards a game, placing it among the top three in the conference.

"The key last year was playing a lot of different guys," O'Leary said. " . . . I'll play running back by committee, especially freshmen and sophomores. They can't take the pounding every week."

Steven Moffett returns as a third-year starter behind center. He threw for 2,925 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. Some wonder who he'll hook up with in the absence of 2005's leading receiver, Brandon Marshall.

Well, Mike Walker returns after 2005 ended with season-ending knee surgery after a 31-28 loss to Rice. He caught 64 passes for 855 yards and nine touchdowns in 11 games.

The Golden Knights defense was among the worst in C-USA, allowing an average of 420 yards and 28 points per game.

They'll try to reclaim their polish, anchored by a solid secondary with Jason Venson, who led UCF nwith 85 tackles and Johnell Neal's 69 tackles and team-leading five interceptions.

Experience will be a welcomed addition.

"We played seven or eight true freshmen," O'Leary said. "That's hard on this club. I'm not (making any alibies) at all. I think it's very difficult to play freshmen because of the speed of the game and the strength of the game.

"It looked like those freshmen hit the wall. We have to improve on defense."

Of course there's Joe Burnett, who was named first-team freshman All-American as a punt returner, averaging 16.2 yards per game.

"We want to continue going upward. We have to get back to another bowl game. That's critical. We have to continue to get better now. That might not be in terms of wins or losses."

UCF AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Orlando.

ENROLLMENT: 47,000.

NICKNAME: Golden Knights.

COACH: George O'Leary (8-16, third season; 60-49 in nine seasons overall).

CONFERENCE: Conference USA.

LAST SEASON: 8-5, 7-1 C-USA (First in East Division).

LOCAL TIES: OT Dan Veenstra (Largo), DB E.J. Moore (Evangel Christian), WR Jamar Newsome (Boca Ciega), DB Kirk Callahan (Armwood), DT Leger Douzable (Alonso).

STADIUM: Citrus Bowl (65,438).

OUTLOOK: UCF enjoyed a remarkable turnaround after going 0-11 in 2004. The Golden Knight won eight of their final nine regular-season games en route to their first bowl berth. They are led by 2005 C-USA freshman of the year Kevin Smith, who rushed for 1,178 yards and nine touchdowns. UCF also touts one of the most experienced offensive lines with 93 starts between Patrick Brown, Kyle Smith, Cedric Gagne-Marcoux, L.J. Anderson and Josh Sitton. Also returning Steven Moffett, a three-year starter at quarterback who threw for 2,925 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

WEB SITE: www.ucfathletics.com

SCHEDULE: Saturday - Villanova, 6 p.m.; Sept. 9 - at Florida, 6 p.m.; Sept. 16 - USF, 2:30 p.m.; Sept. 26 - Southern Miss., 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 4 - at Marshall, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 13 - Pittsburgh, 8 p.m.; Oct. 21 - Rice, 4 p.m.; Oct. 28 - at Houston, 7 p.m.; Nov. 4 - East Carolina, 4 p.m.; Nov. 11 - at Memphis, 8 p.m.; Nov. 18 - at Tulane, 2 p.m.; Nov. 25 - University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1 p.m.