Opponent Watch 2019: UCF

Knights quarterbacks coach Jeff Lebby offered encouraging comments on Saturday in a pre-Fiesta Bowl media session, per Josh Weinfuss of ESPN.com: “Yeah, I think so. We’ll kind of wait and see. I think it’s day-to-day with him. That’s just the reality of it, and working through it all with him and our medical staff and seeing where it goes.”

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The Knights lose three starters from an offensive line that helped lead the No. 8 rushing offense in the country (5.8 yards per carry) and allowed 1.46 sacks per game (No. 25). The left side will need to be replaced, but the right side was the best in the AAC.

Left tackle Wyatt Miller and left guard Tyler Hudanick graduated, and right tackle Jake Brown is retiring from football. The new left side will include tackle Elbert, a former Texas A&M and junior college transfer who backed up Miller this season. Notre Dame transfer Boudreaux is expected to be the new starting left guard. Elbert and Boudreaux were rated four-star prospects by 247Sports out of high school.

Now, coordinator Randy Shannon’s unit loses several key contributors, including most of the defensive line. Both kickers are also gone on special teams. With quarterback McKenzie Milton likely still out of the picture, more will be asked of the UCF defense next season. Here’s an early look at how UCF’s defense and specialists project for 2019.

UH was getting guys last year…didn’t turn out so well for us.

But perhaps the biggest recruiting get for the Knights and coach Josh Heupel came a little less than a month later when Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush announced he was enrolling at UCF as a graduate transfer.

“There is no question that when UCF becomes a transfer destination for high-profile players, I think that in and of itself illustrates how the perception of the program has changed,” said Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national recruiting director.

And Wimbush isn’t the only transfer looking to continue his career with the Knights.

Defensive backs Jordan Hayes (Duke) and Devin Nixon (Western Kentucky) as well as linebacker Aundre Kearney (Virginia Tech) are already enrolled at UCF.

McCrae was only a sophomore

Killins has essentially put the fast in the Knights’ #UCFast offense with 28 explosive plays of 20 or more yards during the past two seasons, eight of those going for touchdowns. His 96-yard touchdown run against Memphis in 2017 set a school and American Athletic Conference record for the longest play from scrimmage.

Now, like one of his electrifying runs, time is speeding by for Killins.

“Time waits for no man and my time is here my senior year,” Killins said. “I can’t believe it because I remember enrolling June 23 and I was a freshman in 2016 and now time is winding down.”

It’s up in the air when Milton might be able to resume playing for the Knights. Most people believe he’s shooting for a return in 2020.

“That’s what I’m hoping for, but if that’s not in my best-case scenario, if I don’t feel like I’m ready to come back at that point, then I won’t,” Milton said. “I’ll take as much time as I need because I want to play at a certain level where I was at or if not better. I feel like I would be doing myself a disservice if I came back and wasn’t completely ready to play. I don’t think that’s smart.”

UCF Knights

Head coach : Josh Heupel (12-1, second year)

2018 record and S&P+ ranking : 12-1 (18th)

Projected 2019 record and S&P+ ranking : 9-3 (27th)

Five key points :

1. UCF didn’t lose for two whole damn calendar years. Never mind the title claims, internet fights, etc. — that’s absurdly impressive.
2. The Knights probably aren’t going 12-0 this year, but their offense is still loaded with play-makers, and they’re at least slight projected favorites in every game.
3. Either Darriel Mack Jr. or Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush will start at QB as McKenzie Milton continues to rehab from last year’s gruesome leg injury.
4. The defense is thin on known commodities, especially up front (the line is undergoing a major rebuild), but the existing knowns are good knowns, at least.
5. The schedule features non-con battles against Stanford and Pitt, and the AAC slate includes trips to Temple and Cincy. UCF is still your AAC East favorite, but there are some landmines.

The battle with Mack is ongoing. Coaches maintain that all four of UCF’s quarterbacks are in the mix. Mack totaled 186 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, and Wimbush had 122 yards and one touchdown.

“Fundamentally, he’s grown so much as a passer,” UCF head coach Josh Heupel said of Wimbush’s spring, citing his positioning and feet in the pocket.

“We need to really grow our budget,” White said. "We spent a lot of time over the last six months doing some evaluation, bench-marking, looking at where we are and where do we realistically need to be financially to achieve our goals and to sustain it in a consistent way.

“We’ve grown our budget about 20% over the last couple of years and I think we need to grow it again by another 20 or 30% of the next couple of years. The television deal is a part of that and continuing to have great national exposure is a part of that, but continuing to build our fan base and generating our own revenue through corporate sponsorships, ticket sales and donations are important.”

He has been told it typically takes a year for the nerve to fully heal, and only then can he begin rehabilitation.

It’s not hard to add the months and figure a timeline, something Milton refuses to speculate about because, he says, his rehab, “Is in God’s hands.”

“I’ve beat every benchmark the doctors have set for me,” Milton says.

Best-case scenario, he says, is a healthy, strong nerve by January 2020 and rehab that doesn’t take longer than nine months. If it does, there’s no sense in playing in 2020.

A rising senior, Milton will use his redshirt for the 2019 season, and if the rehab rolls into the 2020 season, he’ll have to apply for a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA to play in 2021, a season during which he’d turn 24 years old.

UCF’s talent remains at a level higher than most of its conference. That should help a new starting quarterback adjust, with wide receiver and running back options galore. This offense probably can’t match the same top-10 level without McKenzie Milton running it, but it will still be the strength. A rebuilt front seven needs to fix a leaky run defense, while the experienced and talented defensive backfield should lead that side of the ball again.

An undefeated season may be an impossibly high standard, but that’s where UCF is at right now. If the new quarterback catches fire, we may be debating UCF and the College Football Playoff once again.