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Knight Moves: Talking UCF Football With Iliana Limon of the Orlando Sentinel

The Central Florida Knights are the favorite to win the C-USA East.  Iliana Limon of the Orlando Sentinel was nice enough to give us Miner fans the inside scoop on George O'Leary's bunch.  Limon, by the way, is a native El Pasoan and a graduate of Eastwood High School.  For the latest news on the Knights check out her blog, the Knights Notepad.  She can also be found on twitter here.

Miner Rush:  Rob Calabrese will enter fall as the team's starting quarterback. How do you see his return to the starting line-up playing out? How did he look running the offense this spring? 

Iliana Limon:  Rob Calabrese is a wild card entering this season. He showed signs of significant improvement coming off the bench late in the 2010 season. Calabrese always has been a strong practice player, but he struggled under game pressure his freshman and sophomore season. He went through an especially brutal game at UTEP his freshman year during the 2008 season.

Calabrese seems like a more mature, more confident leader. He was effective during the spring and preseason practices. With talented true freshman Jeff Godfrey participating in spring football and preseason camp, the coaching staff really used the quarterback competition to push both players and get a sense of how they would respond under pressure.  All indications are that Calabrese is handling the starting job better than ever before, but it will take a few games to really evaluate whether he can lead the UCF offense this season.

Miner Rush:  Brynn Harvey had a monster 2009 campaign but was knocked out of spring ball with a knee injury. Can he be back at full strength by opening day? If not, who do you expect to step up and fill the void in the backfield?

 Iliana Limon:  Brynn Harvey is still recovering from the knee injury. The coaching staff hopes he will be cleared for contact by mid-September, but it's really unclear when he will be back at game speed. If sophomores Jonathan Davis, Jeff Brinson and Brendan Kelly perform well early, there's an excellent chance Harvey will redshirt this season.

The coaching staff challenged Davis to elevate his play during the offseason. He operated on pure instinct his freshman year and now has a better understanding of how to read a defense. Davis is fast, but he  also is a ball of muscle capable of powering ahead for big gains.  He is doing a better job of blocking and executing his plays on offense, which helped him earn the starting job.

Brinson, who transferred from Iowa and earned immediate eligibility thanks to a hardship waiver, is a power runner who looks a lot like Harvey. He's tough and he has learned the playbook pretty quickly. He gives UCF a bit more brawn in the rushing attack.

Kelly has the most size and is a fundamentally-sound blocker. He probably will transition into more of a fullback role if the other two running backs continue to be effective.

Miner Rush:  Judging from news reports out of Orlando, George O'Leary seems like a no-nonsense kind of guy.  First, in March, he suspended nine players from spring practice for missing fall classes. He also released coveted DL prospect Jose Jose from his scholarship after he was charged with a felony- a move that a lot of coaches probably wouldn't have made.  First, I was wondering what impact the suspensions had, if any, on the team?  Second, what's it like covering Coach O'Leary?

Iliana Limon:  The suspensions were designed to get players' attention and set a high standard for off-the-field behavior. UCF coach George O'Leary is strict, but the players know what to expect and seem to respond well to challenge. The players who were suspended were shocked they were pulled out of the lineup for leaving class early, but they have been among the more focused and disciplined players since the spring.

What is like to cover coach O'Leary? I've had a good experience covering his teams. He has friendly media policies, providing a lot of access to his players and assistant coaches. The access helps me do a better job of covering the team.

Miner Rush:  Bruce Miller is obviously the star of the UCF defense. Who's the best player that the league doesn't know about?  Any new signees, or someone new to the lineup, that you expect to have a breakout season?

Iliana Limon:  Sophomore safety Kemal Ishmael could have a pretty big year. Pound-for-pound, he's the best tackler on the UCF team. He played most of his true freshman season last year and performed well on instinct. Now that he has a better grasp for the playbook, I would expect him to have a strong year.

In terms of newcomers, I think a lot of people will be watching to see how Godfrey performs. He is a gifted athlete with a strong arm and tremendous foot speed. If he had been a few inches taller, he would have been a five-star recruit with his pick of schools. The question is how well he can manage a college offense.

Miner Rush:  What are reasonable expectations for UCF fans to have this season?  In your eyes, what will make 2010 a successful season?

 Iliana Limon:  I think expectations are really high because UCF returns 18 seniors and has a favorable schedule. College football analyst Phil Steele rated it the No. 114 toughest schedule in the nation out of 120 total teams. If UCF can find a calm manager at quarterback, the offensive line lives up to its potential and some young defensive tackles step up, the Knights should be in contention for a Conference USA title.

I would guess that UCF could win 10 regular-season games. Anything less than eight regular-season wins will be a disappointment given the team's experience and strength of schedule.