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2008 NCAA Football Preview
Big hole to fill
WHAT TO DO?: 'Do we miss Kevin? Ues,' UCF coach George O'Leary, above, said of Kevin Smith, an All-American running back last season who is now in the NFL. JOE MURPHY / GETTY IMAGES

It is safe to say UCF's offense was carried by Kevin Smith last season.

A consensus All-American, Smith had 450 carries for 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns in his junior season.

Smith, a Miami native, departed for the NFL, being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the third round. So where does that leave UCF's offense?

"It's not just a hole, it's the Grand Canyon," offensive coordinator Tim Salem said.

The Knights have talent in their backfield, but experience is at a premium. UCF enters the season with five running backs who are competing for playing time, but not one has ever playing in a college game.

The only running back with any college experience is redshirt freshman Ronnie Weaver, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship because of his diligent work on the scout team last season. The other four running backs are freshmen.

"The scout team is a developmental period that I think could help every player," Weaver said, "whether you are a running back or just a student of the game. You learn so much about football in that role. I understand not everyone can play, so I was able to help the team by running against our starting defense. You learn about making certain reads, and I think it really helped my game grow."

The incoming freshmen have quality résumés. Brandon Davis was a preseason All-American last year before his senior season in Suwanee, Ga., where he finished the season with 1,097 yards. Latavius Murray was Gatorade's Player of the Year for the state of New York after rushing for 28 touchdowns and nearly 2,200 yards. Brendan Kelly was All-Long Island (N.Y.) after his senior year and Brynn Harvey set the Pinellas County rushing record (2,567 yards in 2007) at Largo High.

"There is some strong talent here," said Salem, who also is UCF's running backs coach. "I think there is a rosy future for these guys. Rosy is a four-year duration, but they're going to get a chance to play right away. We have to get that going right now. Those flowers we're planting better bloom real quick."

Phillip Smith, who was Kevin Smith's backup the past two seasons and rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns in 2007, was kicked off the team before fall drills for violating undisclosed team rules.

Phillip Smith was expected to be the front-runner to start in the backfield for the season opener Aug. 30 against South Carolina State.

"I gave Phillip every opportunity to do what he was supposed to do," coach George O'Leary said. "We don't have many rules around here, but the policies we do have I'm going to enforce."

Now it appears the Knights will have a backfield in motion -- running back by committee.

The Knights also will have to replace quarterback Kyle Israel, who graduated. They have a solid offensive line, which gives O'Leary and his staff some sort of comfort.

"I'd be real concerned if we didn't have an offensive line," O'Leary said. "As long as you have an offensive line, I'm going to get 3 yards a carry. You can book that. Potentially, we have the chance to be good. Do we miss Kevin? Yes. He's the kind of guy who wanted the ball 40 times a game and I obliged him. We're not going to have that kind of guy this year. But we're going to play some guys."

UCF is coming off one its best seasons in its history, winning its first Conference USA title. The Knights reeled off seven consecutive victories to close the season -- including a blowout victory over Tulsa in the conference title game -- before losing to Mississippi State 10-3 in the Liberty Bowl.

They have a demanding schedule for 2008, playing host to South Florida and road games against Boston College and Miami.

That means they must develop a cohesive offense -- and quickly.

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