Last season the Knights were forced to start several true freshmen a bit earlier than they would have liked due to injuries or inconsistent play. Quarterback Rob Calabrese and running back Brynn Harvey were notable first-year players that were thrown into the fire for UCF and both players had plenty of growing pains as they adapted to college football. Calabrese was overwhelmed through the season and Harvey didn't get comfortable until the end of the 2008 campaign.
There are several true freshmen that have become regular starters this year as well, but the results have been far from disastrous. UCF's secondary is comprised of two freshmen starters in corner Josh Robinson and safety Kemal Ishmael. A.J. Bouye is also seeing some reps at cornerback and all three have had their moments.
"I'll tell you what, they're going to be outstanding football players, they really are," said UCF head coach George O'Leary. "If I compare them to other freshmen that have played, I think they're way ahead from a standpoint of transition, from a standpoint of just seeing things and playing to the speed of the game. I think all three of those freshmen are outstanding recruits. If they all stay healthy, they'll really develop into an outstanding secondary."
Robinson has inevitably drawn comparisons to current Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Burnett, a four-year starter for UCF who was named to numerous Freshman All-American teams in 2005. Perhaps it's unfair to compare an 18-year-old to one of the best defensive players in school history, but Robinson has handled the pressure well.
During the spring and summer, Robinson had his ups and downs and that trend continued early on this season. Teams routinely picked on Robinson once he broke into the starting lineup during UCF's second game against Southern Miss. Robinson still has a ways to go until he can validate the Smokin' Joe references but he's made tremendous strides in recent weeks. He logged his first career interception against Memphis three weeks ago and returned his second interception for a touchdown against Rice last week.
Ishmael has perhaps been the most impressive of the true freshmen. The team needed more speed at linebacker two weeks ago against Miami and so the Knights moved Derrick Hallman from safety to outside linebacker. Ishmael obviously instilled confidence in his coaches to make the move because they inserted him into the lineup next to Michael Greco, a first-year safety.
An unheralded commit out of high school, Ishmael began making coaches and spectators whisper earlier this summer when he displayed lock-down coverage in individual drills against some more seasoned receivers. He has continued that trend through the season and has been extremely reliable for a freshman, as he's logged 33 tackles and hasn't given up the big play.
Hallman, arguably the team's biggest playmaker, knows that UCF fans have just seen the tip of the iceberg for the player that had backed him up.
"People tell me all the time that I'm good but I think Kemal is going to be a great player," said Hallman.
Offensively, the Knights have had little need for true freshmen because last year's youngsters have taken on to their newfound role as experienced starters. One player that might be making a bigger impact in recent weeks is Jonathan Davis, UCF's highest ranked recruit of the 2009 class.
"He's been getting beat up on the other field all the time on the show team, and we've been talking for a couple weeks about bringing him over to the game field to look at him and he might get a shot this week to do that because he's a kid that has great speed," said O'Leary. "He gives our defense fits on the other side of the field and he has a great passion for the game, he loves the contact end of it and he's just a very upbeat guy as far as football is concerned."
Last week, Davis had two rushes for 44 yards. This is his first year playing running back full time but he's showing signs of improvement and he could be ready to take on a bigger role before long. Quincy McDuffie has been huge for the Knights on special teams, as the freshman receiver has established himself as one of the team's most dynamic players.
As the Knights embark on their final stretch of games for the 2009 season, they will face high-powered passing attacks from teams like Texas and Houston. UCF's freshmen defensive backs have steadily improved through the season and are showing that they can be good to great players in the future but they will certainly be tested in the coming weeks.
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