UCF on the rise

George O'Leary's sales pitch of a winning record, new facilities and location is working

Originally Published: April 14, 2011
By Jamie Newberg | ESPN Recruiting

For those college football fans that don't follow the University of Central Florida you might want to start paying attention to the Knights. Since George O'Leary took over the program back in 2004 he has transformed this program inside and out. From their most recent won-loss record to their spectacular facilities, UCF is a college football program on the rise.

George O'Leary
Chris Livingston/Icon SMIGeorge O'Leary has done a tremendous job turning the UCF Knights around.

"When I left the pro game to come to this program I knew that UCF had the capacity to win," O'Leary said. "It was facilities first and I had to trust the people of UCF to do the necessary things to get the program in the right direction. You have to have commitment first. Second, we had to improve the facilities. We got that done."

And the Knights are also getting it done on the field. In 2010, UCF won 11 games and the Conference USA championship. It also upset the University of Georgia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Between the results of last year and the upgrades on campus, recruiting has greatly benefited. In fact, UCF has put together two very good recruiting classes and things are only going to get better for the Knights on that front.

"We have been in our championship game three out of six years and won it twice," said UCF associate head coach David Kelly. "Then we beat Georgia, so that was two big hurdles for us last year. We beat a tradition-rich SEC school. That was a tremendous barometer of where we are. "I sincerely feel that the long term potential is there for us to compete and win a national championship. We are putting together outstanding recruiting classes and we are going after some of the best prospects across the country. Now we can attract those athletes. The facilities are there. NFL coaches and scouts can't believe our place because all of the elements are there."

NFL coaches aren't the only ones impressed with the Knights, just ask UCF signee Leilon Willingham. The surprising thing is that Willingham is not from the Sunshine State or the state of Georgia. Willingham starred at Denver Mullen High School in Colorado.

"I saw that the Knights have been prospering as of late and that coach O'Leary has a very high graduation rate," Willingham said. "I saw that the Knights are a very underrated team and they work for every bit of credibility they get. I loved the area surrounding the campus. Who wouldn't want to go to college under sun and palm trees? The direction of the program has me very excited. After getting down there for my spring break to actually see the team work, I really feel anxious to get on the field and make plays with the fellas. It's a great group of guys who are focused on putting UCF on the map as one of the top up-and-coming teams in the NCAA."

Of course in today's era of college football you have to have the facilities to really compete in the recruiting wars. Under O'Leary's watch the Knights raised millions of dollars to pour into an indoor training field (Nicholson Field House), weight room, coach's office, etc.

They used to play in the city of Orlando at the Citrus Bowl, but their latest achievement was their on-campus stadium, Bright House Stadium. That has been a huge boost to their recruiting efforts.

[+] EnlargeBright House Stadium
Justin Dernier/Icon SMIBright House Stadium has been a huge selling point to incoming recruits.

"Getting that campus stadium was huge for us," Kelly said. "We played in the Citrus Bowl and recruits would come to see UCF but not see UCF. They were not getting exposed to campus. Now we get prospects on campus and this is a huge selling point for us in recruiting. Now the thrust is to continue to get recruits on campus to see what we have to offer. We can compete with everyone and that's what's important."

With around 12 or so scholarships available in the Class of 2012 you likely won't see UCF climb into the top national recruiting rankings on national signing day because the quantity won't be there. But if things get better in recruiting as the UCF coaching staff anticipates, the quality certainly will.

"There is a newness about us," Kelly said. "I think we are becoming somewhat of a fad. We have a beautiful resort-like campus, brand new facilities and we are in an international city like Orlando. There's recognition there with young people with Orlando and Disney. We are looking for the special type of kid who is looking for something a little different.

"We want to get a little bit better each and every day. We are inching closer and closer every year. People are becoming aware of what we are bringing to the college football landscape. We are a sleeping giant."

Big weekend in the South
There are over a dozen spring football games this weekend in the Southeast, highlighted by the national champion Auburn Tigers as well as SEC powers Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas. Florida State and Miami headline the spring games in the ACC. Other schools with spring games this weekend are Tennessee, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt (Sunday), N.C. State, Wake Forest, UCF and Louisville (Friday).

The spring practice sessions culminating with the spring games themselves has turned into a wonderful recruiting tool for teams throughout the country. It's just one more way to get prospects on those respective campuses. You can bet that this will lead to commitments this weekend and next week.

The Razorbacks are expecting five dozen prospects for Saturday afternoon's spring game with 10 or so already holding Arkansas verbal scholarship offers. For many, it will be their first time on the Arkansas campus so coach Bobby Petrino and his staff want to make a great impression.

[+] EnlargeBobby Petrino
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireArkansas coach Bobby Petrino is just one SEC coach that is preparing for a big weekend.

"We are very excited about our spring game this weekend and it's a great opportunity to get a good number of kids on our campus from both in and out of state," Arkansas' recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Tim Horton said. "We are not as close [proximity wise] to as many prospects as many of the other schools. There are so many more kids in that three-hour radius at Florida and Georgia. So any time we can get kids on campus it excites us. And we have a high success rate if we get them on campus.

"It's going to be a great day in Fayetteville, we are playing on ESPN in front of a great crowd. We are very excited about it."

Louisville has its spring game on Friday evening. Coach Charlie Strong and his staff are expecting as many as 50 recruits to be in attendance.

"It's [spring game] now vital because you want to get as many opportunities as you can to get kids on campus," Louisville recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Clint Hurtt said. "Our spring game is huge for us with recruiting. Prospects and parents can see what our team looks like in future. The best recruiting tool is winning and this is a big part of it."

Some prospects that will be at the UGA game on Saturday are OLB/DE Leonard Floyd (Eastman, Ga./Dodge County), WR C.J. Curry (Gainesville, Ga./North Hall), 2013 CB Darius Curry (Gainesville, Ga./North Hall), DT John Atkins (Thomson, Ga./Thomson) and WR Jason Croom (Norcross, Ga./Norcross).

Florida State, who finished with the nation's top recruiting class this past season, has some super prospects headed to Tallahassee this weekend for its spring game including QB Chad Kelly (Buffalo, N.Y./St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute), ATH Nelson Agholor (Tampa, Fla./Berkley Prep), S Marcus Maye (Melbourne, Fla./Holy Trinity Episcopal Academy), DT Alphonse Taylor (Mobile, Ala./Davidson) and TE Chris Kourtzidis (Orange, Calif./Lutheran).

Alabama is expecting WR Chris Black (Jacksonville, Fla./First Coast), DB Deion Bonner (Columbus, Ga./Carver), TE Darrion Hutcherson (Dadeville, Ala./Dadeville) and ATHs Cyrus Jones (Baltimore, Md./Gilman School), Beniquez Brown (Florence, Ala./Florence) and Ricky Parks (Hogansville, Ga./Calloway) to all attend their spring game.

Tennessee is expecting ATH Brian Kimbrow (Memphis, Tenn./East), DT Corey Johnson (Pensacola, Fla./Pensacola) and DE Leonard Williams (Daytona Beach, Fla./Mainland) to attend its spring game.

QB Zeke Pike (Edgewood, Ky./Dixie Heights) will attend Auburn's spring game.

Last week, South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi State, LSU, Clemson, and North Carolina all had their spring football games. The Gamecocks received a commitment from LB T.J. Holloman (Atlanta, Ga./St. Pius X) following the game, while DB Dwayne Thomas (New Orleans, La./O. Perry Walker) committed to LSU and J.J. Patterson (Roanoke Rapids, N.C./Roanoke Rapids) made his pledge to the Tar Heels.

Next weekend Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech will all have their spring games while Maryland's will be on April 30.

Rice lands Spain Park safety
Projected strong safety Justin Carter (Hoover, Ala./Spain Park), 6-foot, 190 pounds, committed to the Rice Owls earlier this week.

"Justin is a great person and kid and he's one of our leaders," said coach Chip Lindsey, who will be coaching his first season at Spain Park. "I haven't really seen him on the field yet but he looks great on film. Justin is a big hitter and very physical. He's just a hard hitting safety."

According to Lindsey, Carter is heading home to play for Rice.

I know he's originally from the Houston area and has family there in Texas," said Lindsey. "They were the first to offer and he jumped on it. He has familiarity with the program and he loves their academics. He's a great student here at Spain Park. Justin went and visited and fell in love with Rice so he wanted to make his commitment."

Suggs is a sleeper OT
Last month, Wake Forest picked up its first commitment for the Class of 2012 from OT Joel Suggs (Randleman, N.C./Randleman) and according to his head coach Shane Handy, the Demon Deacons got a steal.

"Joel is going to be a great player for them," Handy said. "He's a big, young OL with lots of ability. Joel is really under the radar. He works hard and has done a great job for us since he was a freshman. He's well-rounded and has good flexibility. He does a great job in pass pro and in run blocking. He's long and a real good fit in their offense."

Suggs, who plays at a small school, was also being recruited by West Virginia and N.C. State.

"I know he has a real good relationship with coach Lobo [Steed Lobotzke]," Handy said. "He went there for a visit and really enjoyed it. That's when Wake offered and he committed about a week later. He likes their academics and the overall institution. Joel also loves the coaching staff. Wake Forest is a perfect fit for him."

Keep an eye on this QB
Randleman is also home to 2012 quarterback Kyle Farlow, the grandson of the racing icon Richard Petty. Farlow, 6-2 and 175 pounds, is your classic drop back passer.

"Kyle is a pocket thrower with great touch and a strong arm," Handy said. "He has real good fundamentals and can really throw the ball."

Farlow is being recruited by N.C. State and East Carolina and plans on attending the Nike Elite 11 regional quarterback camp at the University of Georgia Friday night.

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.