ATLANTA — Newsflash: It’s not great to lose your first-team all-conference left tackle to injury before a bowl game. But Aaron Evans had had enough.
The senior, who hasn’t missed a game at UCF since September 2014 and started every game this year, fought through a back injury all season long before finally deciding to have the issue fixed via surgery a couple of weeks ago. As such, he will not play in Monday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
“I told him that this is one game and (his surgery) is determining his future and what happens to him,” offensive lineman Wyatt Miller said. “I just told him to do whatever is best for him. … That’s what we told him as a team.”
In Evans’ stead, sophomore Jake Brown has moved over from left guard to tackle, which has opened up more snaps for junior Tyler Hudanick and freshman Sam Jackson at guard. Those two have made one start between them in 2017. And the first test for this new-look line is one of the toughest defensive fronts in the country. Auburn ranks among the nation’s top 15 in scoring and total defense, is averaging 2.77 sacks per game and have held their opponents to zero or negative yards on 36 percent of their plays.
“Auburn’s front four is as good as we’ve faced,” head coach Scott Frost said. “So I think the guys are excited for that, but they need to be physical. A couple of them are going to have to grow up fast and play well in roles that they haven’t really spent a lot of time in.
“So let’s rock. Here we go.”
A silver lining for the Knights is that they have had a few weeks to acclimate to life without Evans, and Miller said the new group has meshed pretty well. Meanwhile, Evans is now leading with his words since he is unable to lead with his actions on the field. He has been around the team during practices, lending advice and constructive criticism whenever he sees something that needs improvement.
“He has stepped up a lot more vocally since he’s been out,” Miller said of Evans.
Miller also said that despite the new starting lineup, don’t expect any big changes from UCF’s offense versus the Tigers. “We do what we do,” he added.
One thing the Knights have done well all year is protect quarterback McKenzie Milton. UCF has given up just 12 sacks this season, the fifth-fewest in the FBS. That will be a critical component of Monday’s game, and Milton has plenty of confidence in all of the men who are tasked with keeping him upright.
“I think our O-line’s ready,” he said. “We’ve got some dogs up there.”