With the loss of key people like linebacker Shaquem Griffin, end Jamiyus Pittman, and cornerback Mike Hughes, UCF faces some issues on defense this fall that could put an end to their national-leading 13-game winning streak.
But with the return of quarterback McKenzie Milton, a 1-2 punch at running back in Adrian Killins Jr. and Otis Anderson, and receivers like Dredrick Snelson and Gabriel Davis, the Knights also have the makings offensively for another run at another American Athletic Conference title and even a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
Just which it will be will begin being unveiled when the No. 21 Knights open the 2018 campaign on the road Thursday night against a young Connecticut team that is very much in rebuilding mode. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. ET.
The Huskies are coming off a discouraging 3-9 season and will go into the nationally televised American contest with as many as eight freshmen slated to see action, six on defense.
“They’ve got a lot of new personnel on the defense so it will be interesting to see how much they are different schematically,” Knights coach Josh Heupel said. “We’ve got to be ready to adjust on that side of the ball.”
Heupel will be making his head coaching debut against veteran Randy Edsall, who is in his 14th season in two stints with the Huskies and 19th season overall as a head coach. Heupel acknowledges a myriad of feelings — excitement, nervousness, anxiousness, and more — with the game approaching.
“You’ll have all those feelings,” he said. “You put eight months into something, you should have all those feelings if you care deeply about it. That’s the great thing about this game. You work a lot of hours for a very few, limited amount of opportunities — 12 that are guaranteed.”
“I’m excited to get out there and compete with our players.”
Heupel comes to UCF after spending the last two years as Missouri’s offensive coordinator and will have the conference’s returning Offensive Player of the Year to work with in Milton. Milton passed for 310 yards a game in 2017 and was the team’s No. 2 rusher with 613 yards.
Milton won’t have his top receiver, Tre’Quan Smith, back to throw to, but Snelson caught 45 balls for 695 yards and eight touchdowns and Anderson snagged 30 for another 351 yards.
Milton’s dual-threat abilities are Edsall’s concern.
“He’s another guy who can get back there in the pocket and if things break down, he can take off and run with the ball,” Edsall said. “So you can do a really good job covering people and all of a sudden he finds a little seam and he can take off, which makes it tough on a defense.”
UCF’s leading rusher, Adrian Killins Jr. with 790 yards, also returns.
Those veterans will be going against a UConn defense that could start as many as six true or redshirt freshmen and up to five sophomores.
“Being a young team that we are, the big thing for us is that we allow them to go out there and play as fast as they can and there’s not too much thinking going on and for everybody to go out and execute as best as they can and as quick as they can,” Edsall said. “Defensively we’re going to be a work in progress as we continue to move through the season.”
Two freshmen, including running back Zavier Scott, could start on offense, but the leader is senior quarterback David Pindell. Pindell passed for 937 yards in seven games (four starts) last year. Senior Hergy Mayala, who led the Huskies with 43 catches for 615 yards and seven scores, is back.
“Their wideouts are all back, a lot of veteran guys up front,” Heupel said of UConn’s offense. “They have a lot of pieces coming back and will pose some threats on the outside as well.”
After the opener, UCF will entertain South Carolina State at home Sept. 8, but the Huskies will face their second ranked opponent when they travel to No. 22 Boise State the same day.