On Thursday August 6, a brand new UCF football season began as the Knights took the field for their first preseason practice.
Sans pads, the Black and Gold worked through individual sessions followed by 7-on-7 skeleton drills inside Nicholson Fieldhouse in the late afternoon hours. Coach George O'Leary told reporters that his veterans exhibited “a lot of retention,” and the whole squad came to the turf prepared with “good effort and enthusiasm.”
The inaugural showcasing of the Knights, which summoned television stations WKMG-6 and WESH-2, along with 50 or so loyal fans, was just one out of 19 total practice sessions that are scheduled at the Fieldhouse this August.
During the first practice, sophomore QB Rob Calabrese, who is highly likely to start this season, played solidly and looked noticeably larger than his counterparts. Along with gaining muscle mass in the offseason, Calabrese also showed signs of increased position prowess, making most of his throws on target.
The highlight of the afternoon for Calabrese was a touchdown pass to WR Kamar Aiken in the corner of the end zone.
Coach O'Leary thought that “all the quarterbacks had their moments.” He cautioned that “it's hard to judge (quarterbacks) until you're on the field with 11-on-11”, making it clear that he's not going to play favorites for anyone at the cost of the team's performance.
To err on the side of caution is the only reasonable way that O'Leary can manage the offensive side of the Knights squad. In the 2008 regular season, UCF was outscored 258-125 by their opponents, a stat that speaks for itself.
However, O'Leary has said that the offensive line has appeared quite confident during the first few practices of the preseason, and are determined to right the wrongs of last season.
Freshman quarterback Nico Flores looked poised to win during the first practice session, hurling a 50-yard ball into the air and into the arms of fellow freshman WR Quincy McDuffie. The offense erupted in cheers, and Rob Calabrese jumped in the air in celebration of his teammates' success.
Monday, the team began practicing with full pads, a time in which O'Leary believes that the strong players are separated from the weak. Coach was proud of the offensive line's ability to fend off the talented defensive line during the first full-contact session.
He noted that both the first and second-string units were “better than we had last year as far as moving the ball getting some movement at the line of scrimmage.”
The more-than-casual fan knows, however, that more confidence and merely getting some movement at the line of scrimmage doesn't necessary translate to a prosperous 2009 season for the offense.
The team is returning 90.3 percent of its rushing yards, 100 percent of its passing yards, and 99 percent of its receiving yards. The coaching staff will have to rely on an immense amount of personal focus, a commitment to hardcore improvement during preseason workouts, and the dedication to athletic advancement that the offensive players either did or did not tend to this offseason.
Unfortunately, Monday was also a day of confirmed tragedy for WR Khymest Williams. The UCF junior tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Saturday while planting his foot and twisting his knee during non-contact drills.
While the loss of Williams should not be a crucial setback for the Knights offense, the team is saddened at the end of their talented teammate's season.
In defensive line notes, redshirt sophomore Chad Alexander has moved from wide receiver to linebacker, a move which has really pleased Coach O'Leary. Since there were already so many options at wide receiver, Alexander was asked to bulk up a bit in the offseason. O'Leary says he's “always looking for places to find a guy to play...that was the opportunity for him to make the travel squad and be a factor on special teams.”
Junior S Derrick Hallman has emerged as a leader in the secondary, compelling his teammates during a post-practice huddle Saturday to stay focused and keep studying the playbook. Hallman has embraced a role as a mentor to his underclassmen teammates, and along with junior CB Darin Baldwin, has been getting the entire team fired up during practice. Miller said that the theme for preseason camp has been “crank it up”.
There will be chances to see the Knights “crank it up” during morning and afternoon practices throughout the end of summer. Camp concludes on August 23.
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