Welcome to our first installment of the Six Biggest Questions Facing UCF Football in 2017. This series is our preview for the season, and we'll be coming out with a new question every few days.
The future was bright for McKenzie Milton when he made his debut against Maryland.
Although the Era of Unbridled Optimism began with a heart-breaking double-overtime loss to Big Ten foe Maryland at home, the proof was in the pudding for the true freshman quarterback from Hawai'i:
This game was more of a microcosm of the season than anything else. The defense kept UCF in it until things came apart at the very end. And the freshman quarterback looked like, well, a freshman: flashes of phenomenal brilliance alternated with face-palming moments.
In that game, Milton finished 21/36 for 260 yards, 2 touchdowns, one interception, and three lost fumbles (out of six total). He also ran for another TD, but was sacked three times and hurried four more.
This was what we signed up for, right? We knew we'd have to live with the ups and downs of a true freshman QB working with freshman and sophomore backs and a bunch of young offensive linemen who were not only learning a new system but also a new school.
In his first four and a half games, Milton looked like a true world-beater. At halftime of the Houston game, with his team up 21-3 on the road, Milton's season numbers looked like this:
78/131 (59.5%), 1031 yards (229.1 ypg), 8 TDs, 2 INTs
Then something happened. UCF blew the lead at Houston, lost, and from there things went downhill. After that halftime at Houston, Milton's remaining games went like this:
116/205 (56.6%), 952 yards (173.1 ypg), 2 TDs, 5 INTs
For the season, Milton finished with a 57.7% completion rate for 1983 yards, 10 passing TDs, three running TDs and 7 picks.
He certainly took his lumps as well. By the end of the season, he was running for his life more often than not. In the Cure Bowl, Arkansas State sacked him six times.
That's life with a true freshman quarterback.The highs are high, the lows are low, and you just have to let him take those lumps. It's the only way to get better.
"I definitely feel a lot more comfortable with the system," Milton said at Media Day. "I'm excited to get this season rolling around."
But now enter two potential threats to his status on the depth chart: Darriel Mack and Noah Vedral.
The Next Guys?
Mack is a big kid at 6-3 and 215 pounds (compared to Milton's 5-11, 177), so he certainly measures out as more durable.
Then you see the tape:
Mercy. Kid could be a serious problem for defenses.
Vedral, on the other hand, is a Nebraska kid (like his head coach), and his admission to the team seemed like a hometown favor at first, until:
Dude can sling the rock. And Scott Frost says he comes in knowing the offense already.
So we've got some interesting options developing at QB, which is nice, unless you're McKenzie Milton.
For his part, Milton does not view his fellow quarterbacks as a threat.
"It's just competition," he said "Competition is what drives football. I'm OK with it."
Milton Under the Microscope
This year, the pressure is really on Milton. With two talented freshmen breathing down his neck, he will have much less of a margin for error from the coaching staff, let alone the fans.
Toward the end of last year, some of the more vocal fans out there wanted to give up on Milton and put Justin Holman (and his 43% completion rate) back under center, where he started the season. That didn't work out, thankfully, since Holman wasn't the kind of QB for Frost's offense.
But now Frost, QB coach Mario Verduzco and Offensive Coordinator Troy Walters have something they didn't have: Options. Specifically, options that fit the offense.
And should Milton struggle on the level he did at times in the final five games, we may indeed be seeing a freshman QB taking his lumps for the second straight season.