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Making His First Collegiate Start, Dillon Gabriel Didn’t Get Caught Up in the Moment

The true freshman took the promotion in stride and helmed a UCF blowout Saturday night versus Florida Atlantic.

Central Florida v Florida Atlantic
UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

BOCA RATON, Fla. — Josh Heupel told Dillon Gabriel on Thursday night that he would be the UCF Knights’ starting quarterback for their showdown against Florida Atlantic.

It confirmed that Gabriel made the right decision when he committed to UCF last winter. He had traveled nearly 5,000 miles to chase a dream, and it was already coming true after just one game. The future was the present.

The news excited Gabriel so much that he didn’t even tell his family about it until they arrived in South Florida on Saturday.

Wait...

“it just wasn’t that big of a deal,” Gabriel said. “I was just getting the first snap. That’s all it was.”

Alright.

But as the Knights broke their huddle for that first snap, there was no doubt that this was his show now. Gabriel was UCF’s field general on this day, and the gravity of the situation took the teenager aback.

Or definitely not.

“I got my first college snap last week. This was just my college snap for the second game. It just so happens that I was the first guy to get the ball,” he said.

So many people want to compare Gabriel to McKenzie Milton because of where they come from and where they are now. In this instance, comparisons regarding their demeanor are spot-on. Milton has talked before about how people from Hawaii have this generally laid-back disposition that serves you well in stressful times that would possibly cause other people — including young football players — to wilt.

You saw that quiet confidence in action all night from Gabriel versus the Owls. If there was any worry that he might shrink in the spotlight, just take a look at all of the deep passes he uncorked early on. They weren’t all hits and a couple weren’t on target, but in those attempts, one thing was crystal clear: Dillon Gabriel ain’t scared.

“He took a couple shots in the pocket. I thought he was steady throughout it,” Heupel said of his starter. “He had a great look in his eye and ultimately made enough plays to give us some balance and allow us to go win a football game.”

Gabriel completed just seven of 19 passes but because of the chances he took down the field — and also in part because FAU totally forgot that Adrian Killins existed on his way to a 74-yard catch-and-run TD — Gabriel accumulated 245 yards in less than three full quarters of work.

“Tonight, Dillon showed that he’s capable of playing at any type of level and anywhere,” Killins said

Now, why did Gabriel start Saturday? Heupel said in his postgame press conference that Brandon Wimbush “wasn’t 100 percent” and was only available in an emergency situation. I’ll take his word for it but while reserving some skepticism. I hope we get more details Monday. Heupel added that it was too soon to say if Wimbush would play against Stanford next week or if Gabriel would get the next start.

Wimbush was on the sidelines throughout the contest Saturday and did what he could to help the freshman.

“The FAMU game, he got the nod, and I was going to be the best backup I could be. Be the second eyes. Likewise, I felt like when I came on the field, I got the first snap, and he was the first guy to talk to me when I sat down in the chair,” Gabriel said of Wimbush. “We’re in a unique situation at the QB position. Every guy has the talent to play; it’s just whoever gets the nod, we’re going to support him and we’re going to be the best team that we can.”

I guess it’s appropriate that Gabriel thought getting his first start was no big deal because, really, he wasn’t the leading cause of why the Knights won 48-14. The defensive line bullied its way to 16 tackles for loss and five sacks. And as Gabriel’s passes kept hitting the turf in the first half, the Knights all but scrapped their aerial attack and leaned almost entirely on their RB Hydra. Florida Atlantic was no Hercules.

UCF topped 300 yards on the ground for the second consecutive game as Otis Anderson, Greg McCrae and Bentavious Thompson netted at least 75 yards each. Even Gabriel got into the act with his first rushing score as a Knight, a 4-yard scramble in the third quarter which ended up being his final snap.

So, no, Gabriel didn’t think there was much to be made of his promotion up the depth chart, and he wasn’t actually the story of the outcome.

But Saturday night was the beginning of a new chapter for the UCF football program. The hopes may now lie on Gabriel to lead it, as Milton has, to another storybook season.