Aug. 12, 2011
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - In UCF coach George O'Leary's eyes, there's a major difference between speed and contact speed. Some players are fast in outright sprints, but tend to slow down dramatically when there's hitting involved.
When the Knights hold a full-scale scrimmage for the first time on Saturday morning, O'Leary will be looking to see which of his incoming players are just speedy and which ones bring the kind of contact speed needed to be successful at the major college level.
O'Leary and his coaching staff have purposefully kept practice plans basic this training camp so that the many young players and transfers expected to contribute this season can focus on execution rather than learning minutia. After O'Leary sees which players are willing to hit, block and tackle with the ferocity needed, then he'll set a depth chart and know which players the Knights can count on this season.
``I really do want to see contact speed. As long as they know what to do you are going to get a lot faster reactions and recognitions,'' O'Leary said. ``We don't want them swimming so much (mentally) that they can't use their athleticism. That's why we've kept it fairly simple defensively. Hopefully, we can see their athleticism and speed and see them react to plays.''
Saturday's scrimmage starts at 9:20 a.m. at UCF's practice fields and it is open to the public. Referees will be used for the scrimmage and it will likely be full contact other than hitting the quarterbacks.
Coming off the finest season in school history - one in which UCF won 11 games, captured the Conference USA and Liberty Bowl titles and climbed into the national rankings for the first time - the Knights have had a business-like approach to training camp so far. The regular season opens Sept. 3 at Bright House Networks Stadium against Charleston Southern. And soon after that, Boston College comes to Orlando for one of the marquee nonconference games of the season.
With 19 seniors gone from last season's team, leadership and accountability among the senior class has been a major focal point so far. O'Leary wants his senior class to set the tone for the team in the locker room and on the practice field. Many of the seniors, such as tight end Adam Nissley, have been much more vocal in trying to steer the team in the right direction.
``We've been working really hard and we've been coming out every day with the intent of getting better,'' Nissley said. ``Right now, I think we're making tremendous strides. We have a lot of potential on this team and some kids are stepping up. I'm trying to be more vocal, but I also let my actions speak louder than my words and lead by example. Sometimes I might need to hype things up when the practice is dull. Being a senior, I'm working to be more vocal.''
Much of the focus for O'Leary and new defensive coordinator John Skladany has been on the linebacking corps for the Knights. Skladany, UCF's linebacker's coach last season, is now the defensive coordinator after Dave Huxtable took a job at Wisconsin. The Knights are young at linebacker with Josh Linam being the only player back with much game experience.
O'Leary and Skladany have been keeping a close watch on freshmen linebackers Leilon Willingham and Terrance Plummer, both of whom have gotten reps with the first-string units so far. Willingham was UCF's most highly acclaimed recruit and could see playing time early because of his size and nose for the football, while Plummer has already shown a willingness to hit.
``They're coming, but we're throwing a lot at them,'' Skladany said. ``They've got a really good work ethic and they're concentrating. I saw more improvement (earlier this week) than I've seen so far. They sometimes take a step forward and then two steps back and start swimming. But I think they are starting to take steps forward now. It's hard playing freshmen in college football, but you have to get the best kids on the field.''
O'Leary said that UCF's depth is better now than at any point in his eight years at the school. Back-to-back elite recruiting classes have allowed the Knights to be at least two deep with talent at just about every position. O'Leary even said he's been able to work four teams on offense and defense in camp so far because the Knights have an abundance of skill players and linemen on both sides of the ball.
And the hope is that after Saturday's full-contact scrimmage that the Knights will have a clearer picture of which players can play with the contact speed that O'Leary deems necessary and can help the Knights this season.
``I think we're way ahead of where we were last year, but you're never really fully happy,'' O'Leary said. ``Still the tackling and blocking have to improve to be a good football team and we have to keep harping on that. Some of the freshmen are still learning how to practice from an effort and finishing standpoints. But we have to give them reps and see if they can be productive players. I want to make sure that we get a look-see at all of these young kids and make sure they understand what to do before we evaluate them and come up with a two-deep.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.