It’s the second year for UCF Head Coach Scott Frost who rebounded the Knights of the University of Central Florida back from a winless 2015 season to post a 6-7 record in 2016 and a berth in the Cure Bowl. Going into 2017, the hope is that #UCFast is less of a social media hype campaign and more of an on-field reality.
One way to do that is to build on sophomore McKenzie Milton, a quarterback that set a freshman record for completions last season. Pair that with established chemistry from sophomore running backs Jawon Hamilton and Adrian Killins, Jr. and you have a backfield that sets the stage to post better numbers and more wins.
In the air attack, Tre’Quan Smith’s return as the top wide receiver in his junior season isn’t a surprise. 2016’s 853 receiving yards is a convincing nugget that supports Smith’s placement at the top of the depth chart ahead of sophomores Cam Stewart and Dredrick Snelson along with 4 freshmen. While that represents a lot of youth, most of these players have only played under Coach Frost’s #UCFast system. Gone are the days of Former Head Coach George O’Leary’s ground and pound method. UCF fans are hoping it is a change for the better.
Yet with all the new talent, the program boasts, UCF still has the experience where any offense needs it most — the offensive line. Jordan Johnson, the center and only sophomore on the O-line, is the youngest of the bunch as he converts from the guard position.
I asked starting Right Tackle, Junior Wyatt Miller about what impact #UCFast had the beef up front when moving the ball. “#UCFast has an effect on us too because we know that we have to get on the ball . . . everything we do has to be fast. If those guys wanna be fast we have to be fast. I enjoy it because it allows us to kind of play free.” When I inquired if the conditioning was more intense, Miller said, “I wouldn’t be scared to say double what we used to run. . . that way, practice is really hard and the games are easy.”
While building on success is the theme for the offense, maintaining it is certainly the mantra for Central Florida’s defense. Last year, they were ranked in the top 18 nationally in takeaways and among the top three in defensive touchdowns with five recorded for the season.
Expectations remains high for this squad, led by 2016’s sack leader for the Knights, Shaquem Griffin. Named as the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore, Griffin is going to his junior year as a 2nd Team All-American and a candidate for several NCAA honors such as the Dick Butkus award for the Most Outstanding Linebacker. Showing a captain’s devotion by sleeping on campus in the Wayne Dench Athletic Center during the team’s training camp, he is a leader for a unit who only allowed 29% of 3rd Down Conversion attempts last season ranking them 6th in the nation.
“It put me on another level.”, Griffin commented on his living on campus during camp. “. . . I was able to do things, lift weights, watch film and kinda better myself when the coaches are not there. To see the mistakes for not only myself but my teammates.” He expressed the desire to quickly correct things on the field without intervention from coaches or a discussion on the sideline. Perfect for a young man who declares that he wants to go down is,”someone whose known as a selfless person, not a selfish person”.
The defensive back corps seems to be the vulnerability in the personnel on paper. Yet, with the depth in the defensive front with seniors Jamyius Pittman and Tony Guerad at the ends, don’t be shocked if the duo at corner featuring senior Chris Johnson and freshman Brandon Moore with juniors Tre Neal and Kyle Gibson at safety still find a way to keep the Knights nationally ranked in the top 25 for interceptions.
The opening contest is against an intrastate institution, Florida International University. On the surface, FIU may seem like a mere tune up game since UCF beat them 53-14 last season, but the Golden Panthers are a mere 2 years removed from edging out Central Florida in a 15-14 contest.
I asked Jamyius Pittman about his feelings going into such a potential “trap situation”. “I keep my mind right by remembering that I went 0-12 and that was the worst feeling I ever had in my life — and that team started it all”. He punctuated his sentiment by saying, “We’re gonna take it to ’em like as if they’re the number one team in the country”.
Coach Frost mentioned that he and his staff, “were totally guessing” when it came to what to expect from the Golden Panthers in Spectrum Stadium under the new regime of Head Coach Butch Davis. Davis coached Frost the quarterback for a short stint with the Cleveland Browns in his playing days. Despite the uncertainly, UCF’s headman on the sidelines still expressed confidence in his squad. “We might have to make some adjustments in the 1st and 2nd quarter . . . [but] I believe we are ready.”
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