ST. PETERSBURG — A big reason Tropicana Field is sold out for tonight's St. Petersburg Bowl is that Central Florida's campus is just two hours away, but none of the Knights will feel as much at home as sophomore running back Brynn Harvey.
"It feels great being here," said Harvey, a former Largo standout who expects more than 50 family members and friends to drive half an hour south for the game against Rutgers.
"I've only been (to the Trop) for baseball games and graduations, so it's going to be interesting to play football in there."
Among those cheering for Harvey will be his mother, Tiffany Howard, a teacher's assistant at Clearwater Intermediate School. She said her son's success in two seasons with the Knights has surprised even her.
"Last year he was the last one on the depth chart, so to see him now, here, I'm very excited," said Howard, who will watch the game with her mother, Harvey's sisters Ashlei and Ashanti, and many other relatives. "Words can't even express how I feel about this."
When Harvey got to UCF in fall 2008, the Knights were without Kevin Smith, who had led the nation in rushing a year earlier, and had a group of inexperienced backs challenged with filling his shoes.
Asked about Harvey being fourth on the depth chart as a true freshman, Knights coach George O'Leary laughed.
"He's lucky he was fourth," O'Leary said. "Most freshmen are sixth or seventh or eighth. It's hard to play as a freshman running back.
"He's developed. He's a quiet guy, doesn't say a lot, but he's a tough kid, very strong for his size."
Harvey, 6 feet 1 and 205 pounds, wasn't immediately successful as a Knight.
He mustered 53 yards in his first six games last year, then was given his first start against Tulsa and piled up 91.
"I was so nervous before the (Tulsa) game," Harvey said. "Just knowing the coaches were letting me start as a freshman in a big-time game, it was a humbling feeling for me. I had to stick with it, so I said, 'I can't let this position slip out of my hands.' "
He didn't let go of that starting role, later rushing for 150 yards on 33 carries in a win against Marshall.
This season he has been the main threat all year, totaling 1,077 yards and 14 touchdowns, and he has been even more integral during the Knights' strong finish.
In UCF's past three wins, he has totaled 398 yards and seven touchdowns, all leading up to a chance at the program's first bowl win, half an hour from his home.
Largo coach Rick Rodriguez expects no fewer than 300 fans and current and former players to be in the Trop tonight.
"It's exciting for the whole community. You hear all the kids talking about it this week," Rodriguez said. "It's just special to have a kid like that come back home."
Harvey made his first splash at Largo High as a linebacker, with current Mississippi standout Dexter McCluster as the main ballcarrier his first two years. His senior year, Harvey rushed for 2,567 yards.
He chose UCF over offers from Memphis and Arizona State.
Harvey is still good friends with McCluster, and the two trade text messages before and after games, offering words of encouragement and motivation.
For UCF, Harvey can help take the program to another level. The school has aspirations of moving into a BCS conference, and what better way to show it belongs in the Big East than by beating a Big East school?
"It'd be a great feeling, beating a Big East team," Harvey said, "letting everybody know that we can be in the Big East, can do the same things other Big East teams do."