ORLANDO, Fla. — Before his team left Tuesday on an eight-hour flight to Ireland, UCF coach George O’Leary made an observation about the conditions under which the Knights have practiced.
"It’s probably been the hottest August since I’ve been here," said O’Leary, who is beginning his 11th season at the school.
Maybe he should think of the sun as an intense spotlight which comes with making an impact on a national scale. Even with quarterback Blake Bortles now in the NFL after being the third overall pick in the draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, UCF returns so many starters on both sides of the ball that expectations of something close to a repeat of last year’s 12-1 record and Fiesta Bowl victory are not unrealistic.
But with a schedule outside the American Athletic Conference which includes Penn State this Saturday at Dublin, a trip to Missouri in September and a visit by Brigham Young in October, the Knights are aware of the challenge which lies ahead of them.
"I know of many teams that have brought back plenty of starters and haven’t performed to the level they should have," senior middle linebacker Terrance Plummer said. "We have to make sure we keep stepping it up and keep doing what we have to do."
"We have a bunch of players back," O’Leary said. "But the one thing I look at is how much have they retained from last year — in practice habits and what it takes, work habits. And I think they’ve done a good job of that."
Plummer, who was the defensive MVP of UCF’s 52-42 win over Baylor in its first New Year’s Day bowl appearance, heads a group of nine starters back on defense. On offense, three of Bortles’ top four receivers from a year ago return — seniors Rannell Hall and J.J. Worton, plus junior Breshad Perriman. And sophomore running back William Stanback (443 yards, six touchdowns) appears fully capable of replacing Storm Johnson, who was also drafted by the Jaguars.
But what the Knights do for an encore depends in large part on who fills the void left by the departure a year early of Bortles. In something of a surprise, redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo will open ahead of sophomores Justin Holman, who backed up Bortles in 2013, and Nick Patti, a transfer from Boise State.
"The coaches have a game plan set for him to get him comfortable back there in the pocket," left tackle Torrian Wilson said. "And I feel like we’re going to take it one day at a time."
O’Leary thinks otherwise, saying he prefers to judge DiNovo and all the quarterbacks weekly rather than daily. And those judgments can be downright blunt.
Asked if he was pleased with the progress of his quarterbacks, O’Leary replied: "No. I’m not. Sometimes you get spoiled a little bit. But I think it’s a constant work in progress with the quarterbacks. They need to continue to understand that every day they’re being evaluated and every day they need to be productive players."
He described the 6-foot-2, 205-pound DiNovo as "a typical freshman that needs to understand consistency is the key." But when O’Leary said one of his best attributes was the ability to take a bad play and make something good out of it, he almost could have been describing Bortles.
Resisting the urge to compare DiNovo or anyone else to UCF’s starter of the past two years is something O’Leary insists he’ll find easy to do.
"I’m not looking at them compared to Blake," he said. "I’m looking at them compared to other freshmen that we’ve had at that quarterback position. And they’re a heck of a lot further ahead than any of the freshman quarterbacks we’ve had in the past, as far as getting things done. So I’ve been very pleased that way. It’s just that, as a head coach, you always want it done now."
Except for when they went 5-7 in 2011, the Knights have gone to a bowl every year for the past five years. The experience on this year’s team extends to the special teams, where Shawn Moffitt made 21 of 23 field goals as a junior while kickoff specialist Sean Galvin is a native of Cork, Ireland and will thus probably receive the loudest cheers of anyone Saturday.
"It helps that each year, the culture has been getting better and better as far as what it takes to win," O’Leary said. "Every team on the schedule, if we do what we’re supposed to do, we have an opportunity to win. That wasn’t the case when we first started here."
Bowl games and overseas trips to where both sets of O’Leary’s grandparents were from are all well and good. Getting a second victory over Penn State in as many years and repeating as conference champions would be even better.
"We can’t have a bowl game mindset, even though we’re being allowed this opportunity to travel," Wilson said. "With a bowl game, that’s the end of the year and you still want to win that game. But at the beginning of the year, you’ve got to be focused because you’ve got to win the first one to prepare for the rest."
Added Plummer: "Even though we have a big target on our backs, it makes you that much more on edge because somebody’s trying to take something that’s yours. It’s always how it’s been at UCF. We always want to win more because we still don’t feel like we’re at where we need to be."