ORLANDO — For most of its time on college football’s top level, UCF has been content to wear the “sleeping giant” label that Knights coach George O’Leary gave the program when he arrived in 2004.
A decade and their first 12-win season later, the Knights enter 2014 no longer as the little team that could. And that’s just fine by them.
“Oh, yeah, in the conference we are the target, and everyone wants to beat UCF now,” senior offensive lineman Torrian Wilson said. “That’s the price we pay right now for being the conference champion, for going to the Fiesta Bowl and for just doing great things last year.
“We wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The Knights’ 12-1 finish in 2013 was their best in school history, and their third 10-win season in the last four years. It signaled their arrival on the national stage, but it also led to personnel casualties in the offseason, with starting quarterback Blake Bortles and running back Storm Johnson departing for the NFL.
Overall, nine starters on defense and six on offense return this season, though losing Bortles was clearly a big hit for a unit that expected to have more time to develop his younger understudies.
O’Leary held off on naming a new starter in the spring, before ending early preseason speculation by naming redshirt freshman Pete DiNovo of East Lake High as the starter for Saturday’s opener in Ireland against Penn State.
It was a bold move by O’Leary, opting for DiNovo over sophomores Justin Holman and sophomore transfer Nick Patti.
O’Leary, though, is quick to point out that the team’s success this season will depend on more than that position.
“I feel comfortable with our football team,” he said. “We’ll be solid. We have more depth than we’ve had in the past as far as at all the positions. It’s just a matter of getting a couple of positions straightened out and getting the guy in there that can make things happen for us and just maintain the game, not necessarily have to win the game, at quarterback.”
The learning curve at all positions will be short. The Penn State opener is followed by a trip to Missouri, and an 0-2 start could stifle a lot of the buzz last year’s run created.