This week, we’re answering what we think are the five biggest questions facing the UCF Knights as they enter the 2019 college football season. We begin with the most obvious one: Who will be the quarterback?
This shouldn’t be a question, really. But when McKenzie Milton went down with his devastating leg injury on Black Friday, the surest thing became the biggest question mark.
Enter Darriel Mack Jr., his second half for the ages against Memphis, and his valiant performance against LSU.
Enter Brandon Wimbush, the grad transfer who holds Notre Dame’s all-time record for touchdowns in a season.
Enter Dillon Gabriel, the lefty freshman phenom from Milton’s same high school who threw for more yards than anyone in the history of the state of Hawai’i.
Then enter Mack’s off-season non-football ankle injury.
All Love in this QB room ❤️ pic.twitter.com/5BCZFYRQ20— Quadry D. Jones (12)⚔️ (@QuadryJones) August 2, 2019
There’s a lot going on here when there probably shouldn’t be. But here we are. And here are the contenders:
Even though he’s out to start the season for an indefinite period of time, we start where we left off, with the top returning QB from last year.
Mack showed out well, if not spectacularly, in Milton’s absence vs. ECU, as he did when Milton went down at South Florida. And in the wake of perhaps the most emotional week in program history, and a disastrous three-fumble first half, Mack had his best 30 minutes of football in the second half of the American Football Championship, rushing for a school-record 4 TDs and adding one more through the air to give the Knights 35 second-half points and their second straight conference title.
Then this happened:
#UCF QB Darriel Mack Jr. broke his ankle in a non-football activity this week, the school announces.— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) July 10, 2019
“There is no specific timetable for his return. He will not be available for training camp.”
Brandon Wimbush, you're up.
Though it’s not season ending according to Josh Heupel, you don’t have to look too far to see the disappointment in the coaching staff’s eyes with how this went down. Mack was the prohibitive favorite to start, and certainly had room to improve from his 51%, 619-yard, 3 TD/1 INT campaign last year.
Darriel Mack Jr. - 2018 Stats
|South Carolina St.||1||4||25.0||7||0||0||39.7||4||41||10.3||0|
One solid spring like he had this year may have done the trick a-la Milton from 2017. But alas, Mack will start 2019 on the bench in a walking boot while others vie for the spot that was his.
The graduate transfer from Notre Dame made a big P.R. splash for Josh Heupel when he announced he was heading south. Wimbush is, after all, 13-3 as a starter and That said, it cannot be ignored that Wimbush lost his job as the starter at Notre Dame to a true freshman due to one major issue: inaccuracy.
In the four games Wimbush played significant snaps last year, he was barely above 50% passing, throwing for 719 yards and 4 TDs to go with 6 INTs. This was a clear step back from his record-setting season at Notre Dame, where he completed just under 50% (49.5 to be exact) for 1870 yards, 16 TDs and 6 INTs.
But for his difficulties hitting his targets through the air, Wimbush was a menace on the ground, running for 1,156 career yards (5.4 ypc) and 16 TDs over his career in South Bend:
It’s that dual-threat game that drew Heupel to him when it was clear Wimbush would transfer.
Wimbush has played in the big games on the big stage at Notre Dame. The stuff around the field isn’t a problem. But the big challenge will be how he runs a new offense with one spring under his belt as a one-year player.
Brandon Wimbush’s Career Stats
Of course, Josh Heupel could go the other way entirely like Scott Frost did with McKenzie Milton in 2016, and decide the future is now.
By all accounts, Dillon Gabriel is a wizard with the ball. He is probably a much more seasoned passer than Milton was at the exact same point in his career:
But he’s still a true freshman.
One thing that’s going for him is the changes in the redshirt rules, which would allow Gabriel to play up to four games - one-third of the regular season - and not lose his coveted redshirt. Heupel may indeed take full advantage of that.
To his credit, Gabriel says all the right things heading into camp:
True frosh Dillon Gabriel may be short on experience, but he's got confidence to spare.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) July 31, 2019
"I'm ready," he said about competing to be #UCF's starting QB. "I have that confidence. It's up to the coaches. I just know that if it's August 29th and my name is called, I'll be ready." pic.twitter.com/hH27xUmlh8
But whether he does the right things in camp to unseat a 5th-year grad student is another thing entirely.
Lost in all this is the Wild Card of the group, Quadry Jones.
Jones has been the doting teammate and unwavering cheerleader for the group, but with all the chaos around him, this summer could be his chance to flash what he flashed in one trick play at ECU over the course of a whole season:
Gotta thank God for the moments like this @UCF_Football pic.twitter.com/nmygcNUOo7— Quadry D. Jones (12)⚔️ (@QuadryJones) October 21, 2018
That was Jones’ lone play of action in 2018. He redshirted.
He’ll definitely push Gabriel at the younger end of the depth chart, but never rule out the chance that we might see more of him than just one play in 2019.
So what happens now?
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the least satisfying answer on the internet: We don’t know.
Credit to Josh Heupel, because he’s playing his cards extremely close to the vest. While we’re all assuming Wimbush will get the nod, no one knows for sure. And one shouldn’t rule anything out, either. Remember that ECU game that Mack started? No one knew about it until Mack literally walked out onto the field for the first snap:
BREAKING: McKenzie Milton Not Starting vs. ECU; Darriel Mack Steps In at QB. #UCF https://t.co/1Qp3FB7NeV pic.twitter.com/HZJ4GvmccE— Black & Gold Banneret (@UCF_Banneret) October 20, 2018
Officially it was a “gametime decision,” although one gets the impression it was much earlier than that. We might see the same exact thing this year, with Heupel also trying to keep defenses off-balance by not letting them know what he’s going to do.
The likely (and probably safest) path might be to start Wimbush against FAMU in the opener, but let Gabriel get some work in with the first team, and then make a decision based on practice and in-game work.
Coach Josh Heupel talked today about his QB battle.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) August 5, 2019
Upshot: It's still early. #UCF pic.twitter.com/YCPTfxMZWC
But then what happens when Mack is healthy? Does he get the job back? Does he sit if someone else is killing it out there? Does he play Gabriel at all? If so, does he shut down Gabriel after four games or burn his redshirt if he gets hot and the offense is humming?
UCF’s QB situation in the absence of McKenzie Milton is both a blessing and a curse. Which one it really is will depend on the results, and those results won’t be based on expected completion percentage or yards per play, but wins and losses.