Orlando Overhaul: Replacing Blake Bortles And Storm Johnson
By Matt Seidel
Following a historic season that saw the university vanquish a Top-10 team on the road and claim its first victory against its closest rival, the University of Central Florida traveled to the desert and defeated Baylor in a scoreboard-lighting Fiesta Bowl. Helmed by the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year Blake Bortles and explosive backfield mate Storm Johnson, UCF produced a 12-1 season and winning the first, and ultimately only, BCS game under the AAC banner.
With the Bortles and Johnson no longer plying their trade on Saturdays, George O'Leary must replace his first-team All-Conference tandem.
Replacing Storm Johnson should not be a problem for George O'Leary. In 2012, Johnson saw significant reps behind senior Latavius Murray and the trend of the second-string runner receiving ample playing time continued in 2013.
Johnson's understudy William Stanback toted the rock 105 times as a true freshman, averaging a solid 4.2 yards per carry. He also chipped in 15 receptions, including a team-high six catches for 69 yards in UCF's penultimate game against USF. Whereas Johnson’s success stemmed from his great playmaking ability around the edge and finding daylight in open gaps, Stanback’s strength is his physicality and muscling through defenders up the middle. Possessing a stout, compact frame, the New York native bullied his way to seven touchdowns for the season, which tied him for second on the team with wide receiver J.J. Worton. Expect Johnson's carries to dramatically increase in 2014 as Johnson's vacancy makes available more than 200 carries.
The void left by Bortles will be much harder to fill. Bortles was one of the nation's top quarterbacks in 2013 and is projected to be one of the first quarterbacks off the board in the upcoming NFL draft.
Even though he lacks the size and underrated running ability of Bortles, Pete DiNovo is one of the quarterback candidates for Coach O’Leary. The 6-foot pocket passer was voted scout team player of the year, showing a great understanding of watching film and translating it to the field. In high school, he shattered Pinellas County records for passing yards and touchdowns. After enrolling early in 2013 and redshirting the season, DiNovo has four years of eligibility remaining with the most exposure to the playbook.
Justin Holman received game reps in 2013 in three games that were blowouts. He only attempted 14 passes, completing nine of them and tallying a touchdown and an interception. The former three-star dual-threat quarterback, according to Rivals and ESPN, holds a distinct advantage as a much better athlete over the pocket passer DiNovo, showcasing electric running ability and the arm strength to hit targets downfield.
The quarterback battle figured to be a two-man race heading into the spring game, but a wild card emerged from the West. Orlando native Nick Patti played sparingly for Boise State in 2013 after redshirting in 2012 and decided to transfer back home. Patti’s career at Dr. Phillips High School was wildly successful, as he threw for 5,701 yards and 66 touchdowns. Standing only 5-foot-10, he is undersized for the position and would represent a drastic change from the massive Bortles.
However, NCAA bylaws dictate that a player must sit out for one year after transferring. There are ways to waive that penalty, but the arbitrary nature of the NCAA granting hardship waivers cast a shadow of unknown on the situation. Without any statement from Patti or the university, his situation remains unclear heading into the spring.
Transitioning from upper-echelon quarterback to inexperienced underclassman is never easy. Growing pains should be expected from whichever candidate supplants Bortles as the new general. UCF fortunately returns its top three wide receivers, who are all upperclassmen. Rannell Hall, Breshad Perriman and J.J. Worton provide a stable veteran core of targets that will make life easier for the quarterback battle's victor.
An experienced defense, an emerging running back and a trio of established pass-catchers benefit the Knights in its quest to replicate last season's rise to national prominence. The Knights' success is contingent upon the winner of the quarterback competition and how quickly he acclimates himself to the rigors of leading a team with a target on its back.