ORLANDO, Fla. – Ever since University of Central Florida coach George O'Leary came to Orlando, two of the mantras he's repeated most during his seven seasons with the Knights are the ideas of "the next play" and "the next man."
After several years of building, UCF posted the program's most successful season in 2010 with an 11-3 finish, a Liberty Bowl win over Georgia and a year-ending national ranking — all firsts for the program.
But now, following several losses of key players who've graduated, O'Leary is hoping his next young crop can live up to the program's expectations.
The Knights have one of the nation's most highly-touted young quarterbacks back in sophomore Jeff Godfrey, but they must quickly fill the gaps on a defense that for the past two years has been Conference USA's best.
"I'd rather be sitting here where people have genuine interest in you," O'Leary said of fans expecting the Knights to duplicate their run last year. "I don't think you can go up and down. You've got to keep climbing."
In all, UCF will begin the season without 11 starters (seven on defense, four on offense) that were on the field last season. They include offensive lineman Jah Reid, who went in the third-round of the NFL draft to Baltimore.
The departures are more glaring on defense, where the missing faces include linebacker Bruce Miller, a seventh-round selection by San Francisco who led the Knights defense with 8.5 sacks last season.
There are key players returning, though, led by junior defensive backs Kemal Ishmael and Josh Robinson. Both are preseason all-conference selections, along with senior offensive lineman Nick Pieschel, senior tight end Adam Nissley and junior kick returner Quincy McDuffie.
"There's tradition here on defense now," said defensive coordinator John Skladany, who returned for his second stint coaching the Knights' defense in 2010. "We have some kids that have done some really great things and we talk about all the time that it's now their turn to step up. It's the next guy up to bat...There's a lot of pride there."
Ishmael, who led the Knights with 93 tackles and two interceptions in 2010, said this preseason he has been a lot more comfortable speaking up and directing his younger teammates.
The Knights allowed just 17.1 points per game and 108.4 rushing yards per game to dominate the league, so improvement will be tough, but not impossible, Ishmael said.
UCF will still need to score points to win. That's why a lot of eyes are fixed on Godfrey's development in his second year under center.
The 5-foot-11, 182-pound Davey O'Brien Award candidate shined as a true freshman. He beat out starter Rob Calabrese and racked up 2,159 passing yards, 23 touchdowns (including 10 rushing) and had eight interceptions.
Calabrese has since moved to wide receiver, clearing the way for Godfrey to enter the spring as the starter. He was arrested in the offseason for driving on a suspended license, but both he and O'Leary said the incident is in the past now.
Godfrey said he's spent the summer working on becoming a better leader.
"Personally, I'm very far along," he said. "Last year I kind of came in here, learning from Rob Calabrese when he was the quarterback, but now I'm coming in learning some of the stuff I knew last year and still learning from older guys. I think I'm more comfortable in the pocket and in the offense."
Though the Knights will likely fall short of starting the season in a Top 25 poll, they will have opportunities to get attention early with a home game against Boston College on Sept. 10 and a trip to BYU on Sept. 23.
Preseason ranking or not, Godfrey said their goals remain singular.
"Undefeated," he said.
And where could that get them?
"BCS, I hope."