ORLANDO, Fla. — UCF Football returned to the stage Wednesday afternoon with their first of 14 spring practices, featuring a changing-of-the-guard on a scale that has not been seen in a few years. Practice is open to both the fans and media, showcasing the talent of next year’s team without getting too deep into game planning.
“Every day is a work day,” said Head Coach George O’Leary. “I love the spring because it’s pretty much fundamentals, you’re not worried about schemes as much as just getting better fundamentally.”
Fundamentals are not the only thing he is looking forward to improving, citing displeasure in the leadership from 2014.
“They weren’t leaders last year. I was disappointed,” he said. “That’s the one aspect of the team last year I was disappointed in, the chemistry of the leadership. We had a lot of seniors, but we had too many ‘me guys’ in my opinion. This is a ‘we’ game, and that’s how you win, with ‘we guys’.”
It is only the beginning of an arduous process that will hammer itself out over the next few months, but the spring is where next year’s starters will begin to distinguish themselves. This spring offers position battles in areas that have been ones of strength for recent classes, effectively re-molding the face of Knights’ Football.
O’Leary does not consider this climate change as a major factor in this team’s potential.
“You’ve got athletes out there, you’ve just got to coach them up,” he said. “I’ll never compare year to year. I think we’ve got a lot of returning players at key positions that are important. We’ve got to see how some of the secondary guys come along and how the receivers come along, and then see if these other guys can get better at the positions they played last year.”
Gone are the starting defensive backfield and the foundations of ‘Wide Receiver U’, opening up enormous opportunities for playmakers on either side of the ball. UCF will field new starters at both cornerback positions, both safety positions and has lost their top three pass catchers from last year.
The first day of spring practice is by no means an indication of how the depth chart will be set come the regular season, but O’Leary has already stated that first chances to claim those spots will be given to those who were on the team last year.
At receiver, that meant a heavy dose of Jordan Akins and Taylor Oldham with the first team offense. Akins was all over the field on day one, and looks every bit the part of a go-to receiver with physically imposing size.
Pete DiNovo is making the switch from quarterback to wide receiver, drawing comparisons to former dual threat and O’Leary favorite Rob Calabrese. DiNovo worked in with the second team and may bring about a resurrection of the Wild Knight package.
“He can help us out there as far as he’s been in game situations before and he understands the tempo of what’s going on,” O’Leary said. “He’s an athlete and he’s a smart kid, he’ll be fine.”
Not only will there be competition among the vacated position groups, but it is clear that O’Leary has not cemented a starting running back in his mind as of yet – telling all of his backs in the offseason that he would need to see more toughness this year.
“A lot more toughness,” he told them. “A lot more toughness and staying healthy, you can’t play with guys that are in the tub all the time, and you can’t have guys miss games because of little injuries that you have to play through.”
That may have been foreshadowing in regards to William Stanback, who was expected to be the workhorse last year but was injured in preparations for the Croke Park Classic and never fully recovered during the season.
In a troubling turn of events for the power-back, it seems that the injury bug is still plaguing him. Stanback was limping heavily at the end of each of his runs towards the end of the day, running stiff between the whistles.
Spring ball is just beginning its infancy, yet it is already apparent that the 2015 squad will be markedly different than the reigning AAC co-champions.