It pains me to some degree to say that in the last 2 seasons UCF has achieved a lot of the things I had dreamed Houston's football program would.
The Knights won 25 games in a row and in that time won a pair of AAC championships, soundly defeated an SEC division champ in an NY6 game and when denied an opportunity to compete in the “college football playoff” decided to claim the 2017 national title and throw themselves a parade.
Whether you found their fans abrasive or their athletic director overly grandiose, they served a purpose in challenging the status quo aggressively in a way nobody has done as a Group of 5 school before. From the end of the 2015 Peach Bowl until early October of 2016 that was what I dreamed Houston would do and ultimately, I had to watch a conference rival do it.
Following the best 2 seasons in program history is quite the act to follow, although the Knights’ head coach Josh Heupel already got a lot of experience last year in dealing with absurd expectations. Most recently Heupel worked as Missouri’s OC with prior experience at Utah State and his alma mater Oklahoma before taking over at UCF. Like his predecessor Scott Frost, Heupel calls his own plays on offense and is a bit younger than the average college head coach.
What impressed me the most was how the new staff clearly adjusted to the talent on hand rather than ‘square pegging’ the players to a scheme.
As much as anything, that’s an encouraging sign as we look at the 2019 team and see the new staff continue to mold the program in their image. There are big questions that still do not have answers, but enough there that it’s easy to talk yourself into a 3rd straight conference title.
The Knights Offense:
Heupel comes from the Air Raid coaching tree as he was recruited to Oklahoma to run Mike Leach’s offense, although he’s hardly been an orthodox Air Raid coach since becoming a coach. His Oklahoma offenses, especially later in 2013-14, could run the ball as well as they could pass and more recently at Mizzou his offenses averaged 200 rush yds/game from 2016-17.
All those teams pale in comparison to a 2018 Knights offense that rushed for 265 yards per game and 43 touchdowns. Individually, 5 players rushed for at least 300 yards and 4 of those players rushed for at least 6 touchdowns.
Here’s Heupel’s first challenge: 3 of those 5 rushers graduated or will not play in 2019 including incumbent starting QB McKenzie Milton.
No one player is more tied to UCF’s recent renaissance than Milton, a Hawaiian who previous head coach Scott Frost knew from his time at Oregon. This somewhat unlikely arrival produced an undefeated 2017 where as a sophomore Milton threw for over 4,000 yards and 37 TDs while being named the AAC offensive player of the year and Peach Bowl MVP. Unfortunately, Milton’s story took an unpleasant turn at the end of the 2018 regular season.
Specifically, he suffered a dislocated knee against USF and with that injury came accompanying arterial and nerve damage. This required emergency surgery to avoid amputation. After a handful more surgeries Milton has staved off all the worst-case scenarios, although football is out of the question for 2019.
The QB battle in spring practice seemed to be a dead heat between Milton’s backup sophomore Darriel Mack Jr and Notre Dame grad transfer Brandon Wimbush. In the 2nd week of July though it was announced Mack had suffered a broken ankle and there was no timetable for his return.
Wimbush was a high 4-star recruit who started 16 career games and holds Notre Dame records for single game rush yards by a QB (207) and single season rushing TDs by a QB (14). The reason Wimbush lost the starting job in 2018 and transferred for his last year is he never developed as a passer. He completed only 49.5% of his passes in 2017 and ultimately lost his job to a better passer, Ian Book.
Still, the QB job is Wimbush’s to lose as his only healthy competition in fall camp will be redshirt freshman Quadry Jones and incoming Hawaiian freshman Dillon Gabriel.
Back to good news though, whoever wins the job will get to work with arguably the best 1-2 at running back in the conference (Cincy might have a case, too).
The biggest breakout player on the team last year was Greg McCrae, now a junior. McCrae took a circuitous path here, starting his collegiate career at the Naval Academy, leaving after a semester and eventually walking on at UCF. McCrae ended up leading the Knights last year in nearly all major rushing categories.
Having just McCrae would be enough for a good rushing offense, but the Knights also return a multi-year starter: senior Adrian Killins. Last year alone Killins had 20 plays of 20+ yards and accounted for 1,398 total yards of offense. He led the team with 19.8 yards per reception on 19 catches and was named 2nd team All-AAC as a running back and return specialist. And yet, the embarrassment of riches doesn’t end with McCrae and Killins.
I wasn’t sure where to list junior Otis Anderson, as he’s listed as both a receiver and back on the UCF roster and last fall was simply listed as ‘Utility’ on weekly depth charts. Anderson had 51 carries and 16 receptions last year and I expect his usage will only increase in the coming season.
This 3-headed monster of McCrae/Killins/Anderson plus a QB who’s a proven above average rushing threat seems like a lock to be among the country’s best rushing offenses. Still, they’re going to have to figure out how to throw the ball sometimes.
Helping the Knights passing offense is the fact that 2 of last year’s top 3 receivers return, including junior Gabriel Davis who led the team in receptions (53), receiving yards (815) and touchdown receptions (7). The other notable returnee is junior Tre Nixon who had 5 TD receptions last year after transferring in from Ole Miss and getting a transfer waiver for immediately eligibility.
The one notable loss from last year: slot receiver Dredrick Snelson, will likely be replaced by junior Marlon Williams who had 18 receptions and a TD in 2018.
Up front the Knights lose 2 starters, including 4-year starter and left tackle Wyatt Miller. Almost unbelievably though, they return 3 starters who were all named 1st team All-AAC last year.
Senior Jordan Johnson comes into the year with 38 career starts and projects as the starting center. Another senior, Jake Brown, started all 13 games at right tackle in 2018.
Despite being one of the lowest rated recruits in UCF’s 2017 signing class, sophomore Cole Schneider started 12 games last year split between right and left guard and was the only freshman named to the all-conference 1st team.
There’s not much proven offensive line depth outside of the 3 players I just mentioned, but proven depth isn’t something any team in this conference has up front.
While I am not dismissing the unknown of this offense trying to pass the ball with a new QB who has been generously hit or miss passing at this level, I think Heupel can create a very good offense with the players he has available.
The Knights Defense:
The most important hire Heupel had to make last year was defensive coordinator and on the balance his hire: Randy Shannon, worked out well. Shannon served in some capacity with either the Miami Hurricanes or Miami Dolphins from 1991 until 2010, including the last 4 years as the ‘Canes head coach. On top of that, he worked as Florida’s DC and for a short time interim head coach from 2015-17.
As Cougar fans found out the hard way last year, there’s a unique challenge to playing defense when your offensive counterparts’ goal is to go as fast as possible. On average, the UCF defense was on the field over 34 minutes per game which will skew the numbers a bit.
That explains in some part the inconsistency of the Knights as they were at times excellent (vs Cincy, USF, Pitt, 2nd half of the AAAC title game vs Memphis) and other times were awful (vs Temple, LSU, the 1st half of the conference title game vs Memphis).
I noticed one statistical oddity that helped the Knights last year, specifically the defense recovered an incredible 73.7% (14 of 19) of all the fumbles they forced. The question of whether fumble recoveries are skill or luck-based is one I don’t have the time to answer, but 73.7% is unbelievably fortunate and probably won’t be equaled this fall.
Fixing a run defense that allowed 222 rush yards per game will be difficult as the Knights’ defensive line was gutted by graduation.
The only returning defensive lineman with extensive experience is senior DE Brendon Hayes. The New Orleans native Hayes was 2nd on the team in TFLs last year (11.0) and tied for 1st in QB hits.
Indiana grad transfer Brandon Wilson comes in at perhaps the team’s biggest position of need: defensive tackle. Wilson spent most of the last 2 years as a rotation lineman for the Hoosiers but is still the most experienced interior D lineman by a wide margin. None of the returning interior linemen had more than 4.5 tackles last year.
In the long-term Cam Goode, a Virginia Tech transfer, has the pedigree to be a good lineman at this level but won’t be eligible until 2020.
The coaching staff attacked the JC ranks hard in this area too, bringing in Noah Hancock (ASA College) and Jalen Pinkney. Plus, their top 3 recruits in the 2019 class were high 3-star defensive linemen and they signed 6 high to mid-3 star recruits the year before. You’d rather not be playing too many redshirt and true freshmen on the line, but at least the Knights are stocked up at the position for the long-term.
Shannon’s base defense last year was the classic 4-3 alignment and the Knights return 2 players with starting experience at linebacker and a backup who got a lot of snaps in 2018.
They lose last year’s starting middle linebacker and one of the team’s emotional leaders: Pat Jaskinski. Though Jasinski’s primary backup, sophomore Eriq Gilyard was one of the top recruits in the 2018 class and played a bunch last year.
The most experienced returner is senior weakside LB Nate Evans who led all linebackers (2nd on team) with 99 total tackles, as well as 10 TFLs and 2 fumble recoveries (1 for a 94-yard TD). Evans was named 1st team All-AAC last year as well.
A couple other names to keep an eye in the Knights linebacker group are junior Eric Mitchell who had 44 total tackles and an INT last year and senior Shawn Burgess-Becker who started his career at Alabama and played in 13 games last year as a reserve linebacker.
The strength of last year’s defense and likely this year’s will be a secondary that excels specifically in on-ball defense. Last year’s Knights had the 26th best completion percentage allowed in FBS and a stellar 16/14 opponent TD:INT ratio.
Last year’s top tackler is back: junior SS Richie Grant who finished with 109 total tackles (69 solo) and team-best 6 interceptions. Grant unsurprisingly was also named 1st team All-AAC.
They also return both of last year’s primary starting cornerbacks: senior Nevelle Clark and junior Brandon Moore. Clark had 46 total tackles, 2 interceptions and a team-best 13 pass breakups while being named 1st team All-AAC.
Duke grad transfer safety Jordan Hayes will probably play a fair amount too after starting 13 games from 2016-18 with the Blue Devils.
There’s no doubt the run defense will be a work in progress with so many new faces, but there’s no shortage of talent here and the pass defense should be nasty once again.
The Knight Special Teams:
It’s basically a certainty that UCF will be running out a placekicker and punter with minimal collegiate experience.
At placekicker it’ll likely be a 3-way battle between senior Dylan Barnas who has some experience on kick offs, redshirt freshman Connor Piazza and incoming freshman Daniel Obarski (247Sports’ #14 kicker in the class of 2019).
The situation is basically identical at punter where redshirt freshman Andrew Osteen and incoming freshman Alan Kervin will battle it out. Ditto for long snapper where 3rd year sophomore Alex Ward and incoming freshman Tyler Paul will compete for the job in fall camp.
Last year’s kick returners weren’t anything special, but everyone who returned kicks a year ago is back. All-purpose dynamo Otis Anderson returns as the primary punt returner after an excellent 2018 where he was named 2nd team All-AAC as a return specialist.
The Season Outlook:
With the exception perhaps of their trip to Cincy on October 4th, the Knights will likely be some degree of favorite in every regular season game next fall.
There are a couple of potentially tricky games in the non-conference schedule as the Knights host Stanford in week 3 and go to Pitt the following week. The Stanford game especially interests me because of the extreme style contrast between the deliberate ground & pound of Stanford and UCF’s constant deployment of breakneck pace.
For the first time though in the program’s recent renaissance they’ll be dealing with a question mark at quarterback. As much as I think Wimbush was a positive addition, especially given that last year’s top 2 QBs are out injured, there’s a reason he lost the QB job there.
Josh Heupel has shown himself to be an intelligent play caller and flexible offensive mind and that’ll be tested more than ever in 2019. If Wimbush (or whomever) can pass at least enough to be a change of pace, then this running offense will put up even more gaudy rushing numbers than they did a year ago.
The conference schedule isn’t too bad as they miss Memphis out of the West division and get UH at home. The trickiest stretch will be in October for the previously mentioned roadie at Cincy and another roadie at Temple at the end of the month. I am already looking forward to that UCF/Cincy game as it features the league’s best 2 teams and could be a de facto East division title game.
Even with a ton of returning talent and a realtively friendly schedule, I think for the first time since 2016 the UCF football program will lose a regular season game. There are just too many question marks and tricky games in the first 6 weeks of the schedule for me to feel much confidence they’ll get through unscathed.
But make no mistake UCF remains the team to beat in the AAC and until knocked from their perch should be the favorite to win the league title a 3rd straight season.
Matching Up with Houston:
The great thing about football is how many different match ups, some obvious and some quite subtle, can decided a game. At the risk of over simplifying what’ll be a good game between 2 of the AAC’s better teams, I think whoever has the better run defense on the day will win.
The Coogs (like UCF) will be trying to revamp a bad run defense with a lot of new faces along the defensive front. By this point in the year the Coogs will have at least gotten tough tests from the rushing attacks of Oklahoma and Cincinnati.
On the flip side though, this will be the first time any of these UCF defensive players face the dual threat dynamism of D’Eriq King and if history is any indicator, Dana Holgorsen won’t have any problem going run-first if UCF proves they can’t stop it.
If you’re looking for a good strength versus strength match-up in this one, King and an experienced receiving corps going head to head with a nasty UCF secondary should be a treat. For what it’s worth, Temple and LSU both shredded the Knights’ through the air last year and I feel confident UH will have a better passing attack than those 2 did.
This will be such a tough game, not just because of how talented and experienced UCF is but because confidence is such a big deal in collegiate sports and this team has so rarely lost any time recently.
My hope is UH has gotten up to speed enough on both sides of the ball by early November to make this close, because make no mistake this is the toughest game outside of the opening week vs Oklahoma on the Coogs’ 2019 schedule.