When the University of Central Florida opens its season Aug. 30 against Penn State in Dublin, Ireland — the first game of the post-Blake Bortles era — the Knights' high-octane offense will be placed in the hands of former East Lake High School standout Pete DiNovo. • Not only will DiNovo, a redshirt who the school does not allow to talk to the media, perform in the shadow of history, but he'll also have the chance to make some of his own as the first freshman to start for the Knights since Daunte Culpepper in 1995. • There are easier scenarios than succeeding Bortles, who led UCF to its first-ever BCS bowl win and was drafted third overall by Jacksonville. To add even more glare to the spotlight, DiNovo's debut comes in a nationally televised game nearly 1,000 miles from Orlando.
"The only pressure Pete has is what he puts on himself," Knights coach George O'Leary said. "I spoke to Pete about this. He was the one we chose to lead us into this game. We'll build a game plan around him, and he just has to follow through with the responsibility of the play call. And I feel he's confident in that."
If DiNovo can parlay his one-year apprenticeship into continued success for UCF's up-and-coming program, all the slights he endured to reach this point will be washed away.
At East Lake, DiNovo won a three-way battle to emerge as the starting quarterback in 2010. In three seasons, he set Pinellas County records for career passing yards (6,733) and touchdowns (59) while leading the Eagles to their first region appearance his senior season in 2012.
"Pete always was a competitor and hard worker who always performed well in big-time situations," East Lake coach Bob Hudson said.
Trouble was, college programs measure quarterbacks not only by how many yards they can compile, but by increments of height. That is where DiNovo (listed at 6 feet 2, 205 pounds) fell short. Most major Division I-A programs passed him over. The only two that came through with offers were UCF and USF.
"The biggest things I liked about Pete in high school was he was a competitor and playmaker," O'Leary said. "The East Lake coaches obviously did a good job with him. And Pete just showed a tremendous leadership quality."
In the 2013 season, DiNovo stayed in the shadows as a redshirt while the Knights enjoyed their breakthrough. He entered the offseason as a longshot to earn the starting job, all while trying to regain the swagger and pinpoint accuracy that made him one of the best in high school.
John Kaleo, who runs a quarterback academy, helped fine-tune DiNovo's mechanics.
"Pete was working a quarterback camp with me in January, and I started noticing some flaws in his mechanics," Kaleo said. "I understood what he was going through. He arrived on campus as a freshman with high expectations and he had not met them yet. That's when you start to question yourself.
"Most young quarterbacks go through that, and that's usually when freshmen decide to transfer. We worked most weekends for seven months straight on footwork and tightening his throwing motion to get his accuracy back. Pete always has been a blue-collar worker and by July he was as confident as ever going into camp."
DiNovo won the job by beating out Tyler Harris, Justin Holman and Boise State transfer Nick Patti. The other quarterbacks are taller and possess stronger arms, but DiNovo stood out with his command of the playbook and the huddle.
"Pete's going to outwork just about everybody," said his father, Pete DiNovo Sr. "That's the way he's always been ever since he was playing in youth leagues. I went to every practice that was open to the public, and I could tell he had a chance to win the job just by his work ethic and the way he was performing."
Now, DiNovo has to perform well enough to keep the job.
"We anointed Pete as the starter for this game," O'Leary said. "He has three other guys behind him, and he has to execute and work to keep it, but he has shown he can do that, especially with his responsibility and accountability."