This is the first of our five-part preview of UCF Football in 2018, where we break down what we think are the five biggest questions facing the Knights as they begin the season. First up: McKenzie Milton and the offense.
For any offense, 2017 would be the stuff that dreams are made of. UCF smashed team offensive records all over the place - most total yards, highest average per play, most points, and the list goes on. The Knights averaged a nation-best 48.2 points per game, and they were nearly a field goal per game better than the team behind them. It was a revolution for a program making a drastic transition from George O'Leary's 20th Century ground-and-pound to Scott Frost's 21st Century high-octane spread option.
I mean, look at this:
Now comes another transition: From Frost to Josh Heupel. But perhaps fortunately, the transition on the outside won't be as drastic as the previous one.
Mac Attack is Back
The big reason for this is the guy pulling the trigger, McKenzie Milton.
As a true sophomore, the Hawai'i native wrote his name all over UCF's record book, setting new season marks for passing yards (4,037), 300-yard games (7 - tied with two others), total TDs (45), yards per attempt (10.2), passing TDs (37), and rating (179.29). In all, he set or ties nine single-season records and five single-game marks. He finished 8th in the Heisman voting and is getting hype for it this year as well.
So what could he possibly do for his next act?
I don't know but Josh Heupel wants to find out.
Believe the Heup
Where Frost's offense was actually predicated on the run - UCF's run/pass ratio was 54%/46% in 2017 - Heupel wants to attack more downfield. Mizzou's run/pass ratio (53%/47%) was very similar in 2017 to UCF, but the Tigers averaged more yards per completion (16.24) than UCF did (15.0) despite attempting about the same number of passes (430 for Mizzou, 424 for UCF).
Under Heupel's tutelage as his offensive coordinator for two years in Columbia, Drew Lock threw 44 TDs to just 13 INTs in 2017, up from 23/10 in 2016. And as you can see in the video below, much of that was attacking upfield:
Pace might not be all that different. Mizzou averaged 70.3 plays per game in 2017, where UCF averaged 71.1. But we'll likely see a lot less running from Milton, who was UCF's second-leading rusher with more than 600 yards on the ground, and that's including sacks.
Exploring His Options
Given that, perhaps the most encouraging sign for UCF is the total offense they return at the skill positions.
UCF returns 68% of its production in total yards from scrimmage last season and 69% of its touchdown production.
But most of that is on the rushing side. In all, UCF returns five of its top six non-QB rushers from 2017 - Adrian Killins, Otis Anderson, Taj McGowan, Greg McCrae and Marlon Williams - and 88% of its total rushing yardage production. The Knights lost only Jawon Hamilton, who left for James Madison after a season-ending injury against Maryland, and Cordarrian Richardson, who transferred to Texas A&M among their running back corps.
The receiving corps is a different story. Tre'Quan Smith took his team-leading 59 catches, 1,171 yards and 13 TDs to the New Orleans Saints, and TE Jordan Akins takes away another 32 receptions, 515 yards and 4 TDs - all good enough for third on the team.
So the Knights bring back only 56% of their receiving yardage production and 53% of their receiving TDs in 2018. But there is one bright spot.
Dredrick Snelson came on very strong in the final three games of the year opposite Smith. He totaled 46 catches for 695 yards for the season, but when the Knights needed him most and teams keyed on Smith, Snelson caught a combined 17 balls for 265 yards (15.6 yards per catch) and scored 5 of his 8 TDs in the final three games. That included 9 for 145 and two TDs against Memphis in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game.
Add in Tre Nixon, a Viera product and 2015 Florida Class 7A High School Player of the Year (!) who transferred from Ole Miss, and UCF's receiving corps should fill that production gap quite well.
And UCF also got some good news about TE Michael Colubiale, who got an added year of eligibility from the NCAA and will be back for one more season in 2018. He'll compete to fill the hole left behind by Akins.
Crazy how things workout. I’ve received notice that the NCAA granted me another year eligibility from an injury I had in 2015 making me able to play this upcoming season! But more importantly, pursue a Masters degree & more ’s. Cant wait to get back to work @UCF_Football— Michael Colubiale (@michael_colub) June 15, 2018
So while UCF loses a fair amount of production in the receiving corps, they are at least deep enough to make up that production, and return a significant portion of their rushing attack. And oh, by the way, McKenzie Milton is back too.
Given the experience and talent they have at their disposal, there's a chance UCf could match its incredible performance from last season on offense.
In Heupel's case, that would answer most questions about him replacing Scott Frost.
In Milton's case, that could earn him the Heisman Trophy.