And now, time to follow up on a perfect 2017. That’s it. That’s all.
How do you equal, much less top, last season’s 13-0 record with a New Year’s Day Peach Bowl triumph over SEC power Auburn?
Well, UCF has that task and their first steps begin Saturday afternoon with their Spring game in Orlando.
The good news for the Knights is that despite a new coaching staff, they’ve got the most talented, proven playmaking quarterback in the state to lead them. And, he begins our three things to watch.
McKenzie Milton is back
The talented junior QB from Hawaii is at the controls after a 2017 that was literally one for the UCF record books. He set the new UCF highs for passing yards, completion percentage and touchdown passes (35) in a single season. And, being the dual threat that he is, Milton ran for another 497 yards and seven more TD’s on the campaign.
He also threw a record five TD passes in the Knights thrilling double OT American Conference Title Game win over Memphis last December. Milton is a preseaon possibility for AAC player of the year and also going to get early Heisman consideration, if he performs well. Now, can he live up to expectations?
New coach Josh Heupel and his staff lead the Knights for the first time
Heupel is a former National Championship winning quarterback from Oklahoma, and most recently, was the very successful offensive coordinator for Missouri in 2017. Last season, the Mizzou offense broke records themselves, including QB Drew Lock breaking the SEC single season touchdown pass record, and also the Missouri single game TD pass record with seven.
Scott Frost did an amazing job resurrecting UCF from a winless 0-12 in 2015 to an unbeaten 13-0 just two years later. In the History of NCAA football a school had never been at least 0-10 in a season and then at least 10-0 two seasons after that. Well, as you now know, Frost moved on to coach his alma matter, Nebraska.
So, Heupel takes the baton. He will call the plays and former Miami Hurricanes coach and last year’s Gators defensive coordinator and interim head coach Randy Shannon is the new Knights defensive coordinator.
Will be able to sustain the level of play on both sides of the ball? That’s a good question.
Replacing Stars on both sides
As with any successful college program, you have good and even, great, players, but they eventually move from graduation to leaving for NFL dreams. The Knights have three such players off last year’s outstanding team that are now gone and maybe drafted fairly soon in the upcoming NFL Draft.
First, Milton’s favorite target, Tre’Quan Smith left a year early after a spectacular 2017 where he caught for over 1,300 yards. He is projected to be a 2nd-3rd round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Who will step up starting with this Spring game to replace that production?
On defense, the intriguing story of LB/safety Shaquem Griffin culminated with him winning the AAC Defensive Player of the Year, and starring in the Peach Bowl win with two sacks. He’s now gone, but has a great portion of the NFL fans are now aware of his story and rooting for him to get selected in the NFL on the second or third day of the draft.
And finally, you lost arguably the best defensive back in the American Conference, Mike Hughes. Hughes has excellent speed and cover skills and may end up being a first round pick himself in two weeks. He also was an explosive kick returner, including his game winning TD return to beat arch rival USF last November.
These names won’t be easy to forget, but others must now start trying to take their places.
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