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The Rise (Sort of) and Fall of UCF Running Back Will Stanback

UCF has booted running back Will Stanback off the team for repeated violations of team rules (widely-reported to be drug-related). We look back on Stanback's once-promising UCF career and its eventual decay.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Ferdinand: [. . .] Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,  like diamonds we are cut with our own dust.
-        John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

And so Will Stanback, a favorite of many UCF fans, has been kicked off the team for "continuous failure to comply with athletic policy or team rules." The Orlando Sentinel says that this is drug-related (according to unnamed sources). ESPN put a finer point on it, citing "a source" claiming that Stanback failed "multiple" marijuana tests. In a little over two seasons at UCF, Stanback went from promising future star to a disaster on the field for the Knights, and now will not play another down for the Knights.

Stanback came to UCF unheralded. UCF was his only Division I scholarship offer, and Stanback received little attention from the national recruiting services. But during his freshman season he shined in relief of Storm Johnson and looked poised to be the next in a line of UCF greats[1] at running back. He turned in solid statistics for a back-up running back - 443 yards on 105 attempts (plus 186 yards receiving) and seven total touchdowns. And he was important on special teams.

Stanback made some of the most memorable and impactful plays in the 2013 season, for which Knights fans will always appreciate him. In a very dicey game at Memphis, he rushed for a touchdown and delivered this huge hit to force a fumble the Knights recovered for a touchdown:

And then of course there was this:

Then 2014 came along. And with Storm Johnson leaving early for the NFL draft, it looked like Stanback would be "the guy." Many (including me) figured that given George O'Leary's proclivity for running the ball, and a first-year starter at QB in Justin Holman, Stanback would be a big focus on offense.

It was not to be.

Stanback was hampered by injuries throughout the 2014 season, playing in ten games and starting seven of them. He remained an important contributor on a team that won its second AAC championship in a row (albeit sharing the honor with Memphis and Cincinnati).

There were some shining moments - he had three games in which he went over a hundred yards and had two touchdowns. But his performance was not the magic that Knights fans had been primed for following his freshman campaign. Poor play from the offensive line and his perpetual state of being dinged up did Stanback no favors.

So 2015 also came to feel like it would be Will Stanback's year. Surely, he would finally be healthy. Surely, the offensive line would be better (it hasn't been). And surely, with a rebooted wide receiver corps, Stanback and the run game would be a focus. My "bold prediction" from our Underdog Dynasty AAC Preseason Poll was, "This is the year UCF's Will Stanback explodes."

I should have said "immolates," I guess.

The 2015 season is of course shaping up to be a near-historic[2] disaster for the 0-3 Knights. Dontravious Wilson (now injured) started over Stanback in the brutal 15-14 home opener loss to FIU. Stanback averaged 0.6 yards on ten carries, including an uninspired effort on the final drive when UCF was looking to run down the clock and make the final field goal try a bit easier.

And then it was time for Stanford. With Wilson out, freshman Taj McGowan leaped over Stanback on the depth chart (and averaged a workman-like 3.3 yards a carry). Stanback did have two carries. The second one was a terribly-timed lost fumble on what was one of the Knights' few promising drives. UCF would go on to lose 31-7 in a game that was not so much heart-breaking for UCF fans, but sad and some of the least interesting Knights football ever played.

Stanback did not play in the 16-15 home loss on Family Weekend to Furman. Instead freshman C.J. Jones played the Stanback role - I refer of course to coming off the bench to lose a critical fumble.

On Monday, George O'Leary foreshadowed an announcement regarding Stanback. And on Tuesday the announcement was made: Stanback was off the team and his scholarship pulled. It is the latest blow to a Knights team that seems cursed on the field and off it, having lost numerous starters to injury since the season started. Oddly enough, it may not have a significant impact on the team this year given how little Stanback had contributed on the field (though to be sure, the depth at running back is worse).

This is a departure that will no doubt have UCF fans wondering: what might have been?

So long William Stanback, and thanks (mostly) for the memories.

[1] And the Knights have produced some great running backs in recent years. Storm Johnson, the Canes transfer who was crucial in 2013, Latavius Murray (now starting for the Oakland Raiders), and Kevin Smith (the paragon of UCF running backs).

[2] I say near-historic because the Knights have already gone winless under "0-and-11 O'Leary" back in 2004. But the first lost to an FCS school since moving out of Division II in 1996 stings.