There is an unmatched level of confidence among UCF players this summer. They truly believe this is their year to win the Conference USA crown. They truly believe this is their year to win the first bowl game in school history.
There is reason for optimism, with 15 starters returning to one of the most experienced teams in C-USA. But there is still one major question that will not be answered until well past the season opener Sept. 4 against South Dakota:
Is Rob Calabrese the right man to start at quarterback?
His previous attempts at leading the Knights have not gone so well. Calabrese went into last season as the starter, but was yanked from the first two games because he was ineffective, and then benched in favor of the more experienced Brett Hodges.
Coach George O’Leary admits he made mistakes in the way he handled Calabrese, who also saw playing time as a freshman. O’Leary says he pushed Calabrese to play before he was ready to handle the responsibility.
It was evident Calabrese was not ready last season. He was nervous, had no poise, and made his teammates jumpy. He sat on the sideline and learned from the steadier Hodges. Now a junior, Calabrese won the starting job again after spring practice and has looked good during fall camp.
O’Leary and his teammates say Calabrese appears more confident. Calabrese says he feels much better, too, even though the pressure on him to perform this season will be greater than it ever has because of all the talent on the team.
“There’s always going to be pressure at the quarterback position,” Calabrese said. “I’ve learned not to look at other things or worry about other things. I just have to control what I can control and just go out there and execute every single day.”
Calabrese spent the summer working out with his receivers, for two and sometimes three hours after conditioning drills. He worked on his accuracy, he worked on building chemistry, he worked on being a leader. He made more of an effort to hang out with his teammates off the field, too.
On Saturdays, receiver A.J. Guyton would call Calabrese up and ask him to throw. Calabrese would always show up.
“Last year, he was trying to prove something, trying to do too much at one time instead of letting the game come to him,” Guyton said. “My locker is right next to his and I tell him every day don’t get down on yourself. Everyone makes a bad throw. It doesn’t have to be pretty -- it just has to get there. He’s matured a lot over the summer.”
If Calabrese struggles, you can bet there will be howling from UCF fans to put in freshman Jeffrey Godfrey, who broke Jacory Harris’ county passing yards record last year at Miami Central. Godfrey enrolled in school in January and participated in spring practice. He is more athletic and has a better arm than Calabrese, and may even have more confidence, too. When asked about how he compares to Harris, Godfrey said, “He’s a great quarterback, but I think I’m better as a quarterback than he is even though he has a lot of experience in college. I love him to death. He’s a great friend. I just think I’m better than him.”
He will get his opportunity to show that. O’Leary says Godfrey will play this season.
“He definitely has to get on the field,” O’Leary said. “He’s a talented guy. Rob could be doing great -- he’s still going to play. He’s the kind of kid who puts defenses in different positions as far as how you prepare for them.”
Calabrese says having Godfrey competing with him has made him better. But for all the high expectations and high confidence in Calabrese, nobody knows for sure how well he will do until kickoff next month.
“He’s athletic enough do the right things,” O’Leary said. “I think the confidence level’s grown, but game day is when he has to be productive. That’s the key thing.”