UCF would appear to be the newcomer most ready to make its mark in the Big East. The Knights start spring practice Wednesday, and we recently caught up with their coach, George O'Leary.
A lot going for you guys right now between the conference switch, facilities and whatnot. How would you characterize the mood around the place heading into spring ball?
George O'Leary: I think the real football fans, the schedule just came out, they're excited about the schedule and the competitiveness of the schedule, and I think they're looking forward to it -- national ESPN games. And I think that the schedule fell right in a lot of areas for us, and we have a great nonconference schedule with South Carolina at home and Penn State away, so I think the nonconference schedule, with the addition of the competitiveness of the conference schedule, I think it's probably the most attractive schedule we've had since I've been here.
What do you think of the USF-UCF game being played on Black Friday?
GO: I think that's a grab. I've been saying that since we stopped playing them, that that should be a natural game every Thanksgiving weekend, because unless you're playing a rival-type game -- Alabama-Auburn, Georgia-Georgia Tech -- it's a tough weekend because kids go home. So I think it's a win-win for both schools, whether it's at our place or their place. So basically it's a nice little corridor game, and I think that's something that now we're in the same conference, I think it's a great game. And whether the game's played at night or daytime, I think it'll be a jammed house and I think there will be a lot of lot of interest in that game from both Tampa and Orlando.
What are you looking for in Blake Bortles' development this spring?
GO: Well I think the next step is basically just to continue improving technique and basically ball delivery. The timing that takes place with quarterbacks and receivers I think is something you're always looking to strive at, and I think he does a good job of taking a bad play and making a good play out of it. Now he has to be a guy that does it not almost all the time but basically every time, that he's got to make a positive play out of situations that don't have -- whether the coverage is bare or some type of blitz -- that he makes a positive play on every play. And that's what the goal is over time, and I think that's the next step I see him taking.
How do you replace a guy like Quincy McDuffie? Anyone you're looking at specifically?
GO: Well, I think Quincy was a big factor in the kicking game, and the funny thing about it, Ranell Hall the year before was the all-conference kick returner. Not Quincy; the guy next to him last year. So Quincy had a great season returning. And I expect Jeff Godfrey to step up into that position this year from a standpoint of athleticism and speed; he's right in the same ballgame there. So that's one I expect to see done. And it's nice when you have players that can just fill the role that other people have played in past years.
We know about Storm Johnson. Who else is going to see time there?
GO: Well, right now Cedric Thompson's been here -- he's a 6-1, 225-pound back right now, that's why we have two scholarship running backs that have played -- they can play one-back, two-back because they can protect. Then there's three other kids that I think the jury's still out on just with that. Plus we signed three running backs, too, with this class. So I think one of those running backs coming in is going to have to help us be a third-back type of guy.
You guys have traditionally been one of the most physical, best defensive teams in Conference USA. Do you feel that might give you guys more of an advantage over some of the other Conference USA teams joining the Big East?
GO: Well, we've always tried to be stingy on defense, but I think the big thing is that we've got a bunch of kids back, but we also have a bunch of young kids I think I've been very pleased with when I watch them on the show team, and some of the second-teamers at the same time. I think we have more potential playmakers coming up through the ranks. I think that's what you look at on defense: to be sound in your fundamentals but also have the ability to make plays. I think that's where the emphasis will be in the spring as far as, need to get those kids on the field in some capacity. It may mean a position change, but it's something I want to keep all the playmakers with where we have them, where they can make plays on the field and not necessarily be a backup because they're sitting behind some guy that started last year.
Do you think you have everything in place now to be able to win the Big East title in Year 1?
GO: I think our only goal is to win the conference championship. That's the only goal, and I'm sure it'll be the same goal next year again. Every game you've got to bring your A-game, but every game's a new adventure. We have one goal: to win the conference championship, because I think it gets you where you have to get to as far as the end of the season, and it won't change this year whether it's Conference USA or the Big East or whatever we're going to call it now -- I don't know what we're going to call it. But our goal is to basically win the conference and do as well as we can within the conference.