It happens every year.
Freshmen come, seniors go.
Every year, coaches must deal with losing impact players to graduation and higher levels of competition. For college athletes, it is their responsibility to get the most out of a very short tenure while anticipating the moment when they are called upon to accept the responsibility of a leader.
UCF football’s senior free safety Kemal Ishmael has already assumed this role.
Likely stepping into the position of the vocal leader of the Knights’ secondary for the 2012 season, Ishmael has already situated himself as one of UCF’s more valuable players, needing just 35 more tackles (after amassing 39 in 2011) to break into the top-10 list in the Knights’ record books.
Ishmael and A.J. Bouye are alone as seniors leading a very young defensive back corps, predominately consisting of freshmen and sophomores. Together, they must not only show their younger constituents how to practice and improve but also be there for the young players when the bright lights of game day come on.
With Bouye still rehabbing from injury, that leaves a lot on Ishmael’s shoulders.
“Over the last few years, I’ve learned a lot from watching my teammates,” Ishmael said. “Now that I’m in their shoes, I’m teaching the young guys how to do things the right way.”
Ishmael also acknowledges that the Knights sorely underperformed during the 2011 season and knows they evaded opportunity far too often. After the year wrapped up, head coach George O’Leary was vocal about his disappointment in the defense’s ability to get off the field in crucial spots and make big plays – something that Ishmael and many of the returning players took to heart.
“For us, this season is not about coming out there and goofing off. We want to show everybody that last year was horrible and we have a lot of making up to do,” Ishmael said. “We should have been a top team last season, but we didn’t make enough plays or finish games that we had in the bag.”
Still, the Miami-native is very optimistic about the campaign ahead and says his teammates are, too.
“The excitement level is very high,” he said.
Ishmael is closing on some notable career numbers and his senior season could go a long way in deciding if he’ll be suiting up on Sunday following his time in Orlando, but when the rising senior starts talking about his personal goals, he says they are taking a backseat this season.
“When I see a chance to take the ball, I’m not as stagey as I was back then. I need to let my teammates have opportunities and get them involved,” Ishmael said.
The offseason following the 2011 campaign saw plenty of shifting. The defensive coaches have changed, and changed again, and players like Josh Robinson, whom with Ishmael played side-by-side his entire collegiate career, have been drafted.
The change has been a lot for him and his teammates to handle, yet notable improvements in focus have been made, and Ishmael plans to maintain that determination within the locker room.
“[I want to] make sure there are no on- or off-the-field issues,” Ishmael said. “We have been working harder in the weight room and on the field, doing more running. We’ve been watching film and sitting in the film room scouting our future opponents before the season even begins.
“Just putting in a lot of work.”
It’s work with a goal in mind though. Ishmael’s senior season will be a senior season of sorts for the program – 2012 will be the Knights’ last season in Conference USA. Ishmael and the rest of the senior class have united around a common goal: send UCF to the Big East in 2013 with a third C-USA championship to its credit.
“I’m not too concerned about the next level or breaking the tackling record,” Ishmael said. “I’m just concerned about getting coach O’Leary and my teammates another ring.
“You can expect a lot from me this season.”