Conference USA Offenses: Can UCF Keep Up?

Conference USA possessed some explosive offenses in 2007, and 2008 will not be much different. There will be several new head coaches in the league that will offer a lot of offensive wisdom and they should create some even more prolific offenses. UCF will have a terrific defense to hang with these high-powered scoring machines, but will the Knights be able to match opponents offensively?

With a new starting quarterback and running back, UCF will undoubtedly have to make a rough transition while replacing QB Kyle Israel and RB Kevin Smith. Neither Michael Greco nor Drew Weatherford emerged as the clear-cut favorite to replace Israel this spring, and Phillip Smith, the team's only running back with game experience, was injured and didn't get many repetitions. The Knights will certainly stay competitive in the C-USA because they boast a very imposing defense, but in a conference that will host a plethora of the teams that can run up the score, one question remains; can the Knights keep up?

Tulsa, who UCF defeated twice last year, returns nine starters on an offense that led the nation with 543.9 yards per game. The Hurricanes will need to replace the dynamically efficient quarterback Paul Smith, but senior David Johnson and sophomore Clark Harrell seem to be up to the task. With two talented running backs returning in Tarrion Adams and Jamad Williams, Johnson just needs to be steady and everything else will fall into place.

The Memphis Tigers finished 6-2 in conference play last year and return seven starters on offense. At quarterback and running back the Tigers bring in new starters, but both are talented transfers. Arkelon Hall was a highly touted prospect in high school when he signed with Washington State, and JUCO transfer Curtis Steele emerged as a stellar back this spring, rushing for 94 yards in the spring game.

Three other schools will bring in new coaches which should allow them to have potentially dynamic offenses that at the very least will cause headaches for opposing defenses that will be forced to play in a lot of nickel packages. Houston will have former Oklahoma and Texas A&M coordinator Kevin Sumlin take over at the helm, and he will have six returning starters to work with. Case Keenum was steady last year as a freshman quarterback, but backup Blake Joseph threw for a whopping 421 yards and five touchdowns during the spring game...and he's the backup. However, the Knights will not play Houston unless the two teams meet in the C-USA championship game. Southern Miss has Larry Fedora (former Oklahoma St. offensive coordinator) implementing the spread offense, and with Damion Fletcher at running back, the team will be able to move the ball. SMU landed June Jones, who is an offensive genius and the team should see an instant improvement after winning just one game last season. While there are plenty of issues June needs to resolve, he will guarantee that opponents will have to bring efficient and crafty secondary play every game.

Other conference teams on UCF's schedule such as ECU and UTEP had stellar offenses last season but they must reload. The Miners averaged over 33 points per game while the Pirates put up 31.Both squads return a combined 11 starters, so there will be some growing pains for both teams early in the season.

Fortunately for the Knights, they return all of their starting defensive backs from last season, and all three linebackers as well. Cornerback Joe Burnett is regarded as one of the best players at his position in the country and should be able to slow down some of the talented receivers that reside in the C-USA. Add in a potentially dangerous pass-rush from ends Bruce Miller, Antonio Wallace, David Williams, Darius Nall and Jarvis Geathers, and the Knights should be able to keep prolific offenses from running up the score board.

A budding problem that might cause the Knights to stumble is the lack of experience in the backfield. Last season, UCF cruised to a 35.9 point per game average on the back of Kevin Smith and the Knights will likely rely on some talented freshman running backs this season to pick up the slack. If a freshman back steps up and either Greco or Weatherford emerge as capable players, the Knights should be able to match the high-powered offenses that the C-USA offers. With a stellar defense, UCF's offense doesn't need to do much else than be efficient, and that will be crucial to the Knights' battle to repeat as conference champions.

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