It's time for UCF's annual spring game!
I know, you're probably about as excited as we are. The truth is we can rarely glean much from spring games. They are glorified practices designed to take the edge off for the fans for a few months. Still, there are a few things to look for when you have a new coaching staff coming on board, as is the case with Josh Heupel and his crew. So this is like opening your smallest present on Christmas Eve.
That said, here are four small things we'll be looking for during the game:
1. How will McKenzie Milton look in Josh Heupel's offense?
Milton is a sleeper Heisman candidate heading into 2018. But even after last year's record-setting season, a transition to a new offense is never easy.
Heupel's offense is actually quite similar to the Run/Pass Option-heavy Scott Frost ran, even down to the terminology. So there might be some subtle differences, including a few more read-option looks. Case in point: Take a look at highlights of Drew Lock, Heupel's QB at Mizzou last year:
Granted, no coach worth his salt is going to put much on tape in a spring game, but we can at least see how comfortable McKenzie looks with the new scheme.
Best case scenario: New offense? What new offense?
Worst case scenario: McKenzie does his best Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn impersonation out there for two hours.
2. Which receivers will fill the holes left by Tre'quan Smith and Jordan Akins?
Akins and Smith combined for 91 catches, 1,686 yards (!) and 18 TDs last year. BREAKING: That's a lot of production to replace. However, the one thing the Knights have post-Frost is depth at the skill positions.
Look for Gabe Davis (27 catches, 391 yards, 4 TDs in '17) to fill the hole left by Akins as Milton's security blanket in the middle of the field. Davis showed flashes of what made him a standout at Seminole High School last year and has very comparable size (Akins is 6-3, 237, while Davis is 6-3, 219).
The Smith Problem is another thing entirely and might be filled by committee. Dredrick Snelson is the top returner by production (42 catches, 656 yards, 7 TDs), and emerged later in the year. But this is also a spot where some younger, highly-touted talents may also emerge, such as Cam Stewart, Otis Anderson, and Marlon Williams.
Best case scenario: One or two guys out of Davis, Anderson, Stewart, and Williams have big days.
Worst case scenario: None of them get going at all and we're wondering who the freshmen are.
3. Who will take the place of Shaquem Griffin on the defense?
Question: How do you replace 168 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 18.5 sacks, 10 passes defended and two picks the last two years?
Answer: I don't know, but it probably won't take one guy.
This is really a two-pronged problem: There are the measurable differences, as mentioned above, and then the intangibles: leadership, attitude, etc.
Chances are someone will emerge to make up for the tackles and sacks. Pat Jasinski (104 tackles, one sack and an INT in '17) looks to be the likeliest candidate, along with perhaps Titus Davis (67 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an INT in '17), since both spent a fair amount of time in the vicinity of the ball last year. Jasinski was the team's leading tackler, after all.
It's the intangibles that we just don't know yet. My money is on senior safety Tre' Neal taking over, but we may not yet know who will take the mantle of the Heart of the Defense, much like we didn't know until Shaquem himself came along.
Best case scenario: You'll see someone all over the place on defense.
Worst case scenario: Lots of this after blown coverages and broken tackles: ♂️
4. How will UCF's defense adapt to going back to a 4-3?
With Randy Shannon now calling the shots on defense, the Knights are going back to a 4-3. We saw growing pains in 2016 with the Knights moving from a 4-3 to Erik Chinander's 3-4, but those got ironed out last year and were it not for a hellish bye week switch, chances are the defense would have been fresher in the USF and Memphis games, when they gave up a combined 97 points.
His emphasis, naturally, is speed, speed, and more speed. UCF has no shortage of that.
But adjusting the front seven takes at least a little bit of time and reps. Hopefully, there's enough institutional memory among elder players that the switch back to 4-3 won't take long. However, this will put even more pressure on the middle linebacker (likely Jasinski at this point) to match up with whatever the opposing offense throws at him.
If Jasinski doesn't work out, someone else will have to grab the baton. Otherwise, we could see a lot of games like the USF and second Memphis game.
Best case scenario: Jasinski or Titus Davis are in absolute control and make sure everyone is where they need to be on defense to make plays.
Worst case scenario: The Knights look like they're only playing nine or ten guys on the field on defense.
The 2018 UCFastival Spring Game begins at 6 p.m. at Spectrum Stadium. It will not be televised or streamed, so follow @Spokes_Murphy on Twitter for details.