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UCF Football Notebook: Important Camp Battles on the Field, Important Conversations off the Field

Head coach Josh Heupel spoke with the local media about a bunch of topics Thursday

UCF center Matthew Lee has performed well in fall camp.
Photo: UCF Athletics

At least a few college football teams decided to not practice Thursday for the same reasons why many professional teams and leagues opted against playing Wednesday.

The UCF Knights carried on with their plans as scheduled, holding a walk-through in their indoor facility today. But head coach Josh Heupel indicated that he and his players are definitely not turning away from the on-going efforts in sports to raise awareness about racial and societal injustice.

“Everybody is aware of what’s going on, and it’s not just one conversation; it’s a continuing dialogue that you have to have with your players,” Heupel said.

Heupel and AD Danny White have talked with and listened to their athletes throughout the summer. As those dialogues continue, Heupel lauded his players for their involvement and contributions. Their words and ideas “have helped grow me as a coach, and I try to serve them better,” Heupel admitted. He also said it is his responsibility to present his players with a platform to speak their minds, educate them, encourage them to find their voice and continue to support them. To do those things “are ways that we can help change the dialogue here in America,” he said.

Football’s innate ability to bring people from all walks of life together isn’t lost on Heupel either.

“When you come into a team setting, everyone is treated equally. You’re focused on a mission, a common goal. And you’re ultimately working next to somebody that’s got a completely different background than you do,” he said. “But all of a sudden, you find out that there are a lot of things that are way more similar than they are different. To me, that’s the great platform of sports. Ultimately, hopefully sports can help continue to change the dialogue, change the conversation and change society.”

Covering the O-Line

Heupel hit upon each of the offensive line spots Thursday — tackle, guard and center. The plurality of his compliments went toward redshirt freshman center Matthew Lee, who is the favorite to replace Jordan Johnson in the middle. Heupel singled out Lee’s technique, intelligence and ability to get this up-tempo offense organized quickly.

“Love the understanding. Extremely smart player. The tempo we play at, the ability to communicate after he recognizes what he’s seeing from the other side of the line of scrimmage,” Heupel said of Lee. “... As multiple as we are, the defensive front is probably as hard and as complicated as you’re going to see throughout the course of the season.”

Whom UCF will start at tackle is more undecided at this point, but Heupel name-dropped Edward Collins, Josh McMullen and Marcus Tatum as having a productive first 10 days of camp. Specifically on Tatum, the grad transfer from Tennessee, Heupel said he got stronger throughout the winter and has “come back a much better player.”

The Knights have depth and versatility at guard with the likes of Cole Schneider and Samuel Jackson. Both men may be atop the depth chart there, but Schneider has the ability to move over to center if needed, and Jackson has slotted in all across the line during his three seasons at UCF.

“That flexibility is critical for us,” Heupel said.

Transfer Update

Three of the four transfers UCF recently added to its roster have been medically cleared and are practicing with the team. We knew that was the case with Divaad Wilson last week. Heupel said Thursday that Jaiden Francois and RJ Harvey are now on the field as well and trying their best to get up to speed in a short amount of time. Dionte Marks is the only new Knight of the four who has yet to practice. Each man is still waiting to receive a waiver to play in 2020.

Heupel said Francois, a defensive back from Nebraska, is “getting comfortable” with what the Knights do on defense and special teams. Meanwhile, Harvey, an Orlando native who played quarterback during his one season at Virginia, is getting used to being a full-time running back for the first time in his career. Heupel remarked that Harvey has come in “with a great attitude and demeanor.”

With only about three weeks remaining until the start of the regular season, these Power 5 defectors may not have enough time to learn everything necessary to contribute in a big way immediately. But being ready to play ASAP will be especially important this season.

“With COVID(-19) and potential positive tests or close contacts, the depth that you’re going to need is more than any other year than we’ve had as a staff,” Heupel said.

Who Else is Standing Out?

Here is a rundown of other players whom Heupel talked up during Thursday’s presser:

QB Dillon Gabriel heading into his second season: Gabriel proved to be a quick study in 2019, but Heupel said his sophomore leader now has “just complete knowledge and control over what’s going on.

“His ability to check at the line of scrimmage when the play is not right, to understand those checks and to get us into a good play, to change protections, it changes what you’re able to do offensively when your quarterback has that kind of command because he can get you out of the bad situation.”

Among all of the improvements Gabriel has made, Heupel said his increased understanding of exactly why each play call is being made “is the huge difference for him.”

Good has been great: Damarius Good has had a great training camp. Just a completely different player than he was a fall ago. Just understanding and confidence.”

Heupel added that depth of UCF’s running back group “is really promising” thanks in part to the early progress shown from Good and and true freshman Johnny Richardson.

Young LBs: Heupel mentioned that second-year linebackers Tatum Bethune and Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste as well as true freshman Quade Mosier are “really starting to grow.”

He continued: “Their physicality and their ability to communicate and make plays in the middle portion of our defense is critical.”

Kicking competition: Daniel Obarski, who handled kickoffs last year, is trying to win the place-kicking gig over Dr. Phillips High grad and true freshman walk-on Riley Stephens.

Heupel on Obarski: “Love his leg. He’s been really consistent in his operation time and putting the ball through the uprights. He banged one the other day from 52 (yards) and had plenty of room to spare and really good operation time and height on the ball.”

Heupel on Stephens: “Riley has got a really promising career in front of him. A guy that’s continuing to get better, just fundamentally — plant foot placement, all the little things that are critical for that guy to be successful. (Special teams) Coach (Nick) Toth has done a great job with him fundamentally.”

Closing Knotes

— The Knights will hold their first team scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday. What questions does Heupel want to see answered during that scrimmage?: “You’ve got questions at every position group.” OK.

— Heupel didn’t elaborate on how many or which Knights have decided to opt out of this season, citing again that there is still paperwork to complete.

“Our athletic department is putting the finishing touches on the opt out form,” he said. “Those guys haven’t signed that yet, so I will not talk about that yet. Hopefully the next time I’m up, we’ll be able to talk about that.”

Defensive back Devunte Dawson and Josh Kelly are the only two Knights who have gone public with their choice to opt out of the 2020 season so far.

— Shortly after the press conference ended, the American Athletic Conference announced date changes for a handful of football games. A couple of the changes impact the Knights, who had two of their games pushed back: The Thursday, Sept. 24 game at East Carolina is now scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 26. Also, the Friday, Oct. 16 game at Memphis will be played on Saturday, Oct. 17.

If there is a positive to glean from this, it’s that the Knights won’t have to travel from Georgia Tech (Atlanta), back home and then off to ECU (Greenville, N.C.) in the span of five days. They will be able to have a full practice week between each road trip.