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Josh Heupel on Opt Outs: ‘We support those guys and we’ll continue to help them’

Heupel talked Tuesday about players opting out of the 2020 season, his takeaways from the Knights’ first fall scrimmage, and McKenzie Milton’s continued progress

Stanford v Central Florida
UCF Knights head coach Josh Heupel.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

UCF Knights head coach Josh Heupel stressed Tuesday that he supports and understands why 10 of his players have opted out of the 2020 season.

“Each of these kids that chose to opt out have different reasons behind their decision; they are valid, they are real,” Heupel said. “We support those guys and we’ll continue to help them. Obviously, they are going to be away from our program ... but we’ll continue to help them in other areas of their lives.”

Heupel also said the players who are still planning to play this fall “understand the concerns, absolutely” that went into their teammates’ decisions because some of those concerns were shared throughout the team. To alleviate that, Heupel said he and his staff have and will continue to educate the players on how UCF plans to keep them safe during the season ahead and the best practices they can follow to help that effort.

“[COVID-19] is the most unique thing that most of us have ever encountered in our lifetime,” Heupel added.

While it’s possible that the Knights’ season could be interrupted at some point by COVID, the fact is their season-opener at Georgia Tech is just 18 days away. Heupel said his players have adjusted to how different this fall camp has been compared to previous years, and they can also sense that football — real, meaningful football — is on the horizon.

“Just because of all the things that are new with COVID and how you’re going to operate, there’s all that anxious uncertainty and all that energy that builds up,” Heupel said. “I thought our kids after maybe day 3 or 4 (of training camp) really settled in. Just enjoyed being around each other, competing and having fun. Now that leads to the point where they feel like they’re getting close to being able to play a football game and go hit somebody else in a different color. They are excited about that.”

It was announced Tuesday that the UCF-Georgia Tech game is officially scheduled to kick off at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Sept. 19. The game will be aired on ESPN.

KZ is En Route to ‘playing at a really elite level again’

McKenzie Milton won’t play in UCF’s first game; Heupel shot that down when asked Tuesday. But the coach struck perhaps his most optimistic tone yet as he talked about Milton’s football future.

“The guy just continues to defy the odds and push through every obstacle that comes in front of him — there’s been a bunch,” Heupel admitted. “You just can’t say enough about his physical, mental, psychological endurance and the strength that it takes to navigate a rehab like he’s been going through.

“I think he’s on his way to becoming — coming back and playing at a really elite level again. How fast he gets there, we’re going to continue to see.”

Heupel also said cornerback Brandon Moore, who recently recognized the one-year date of his major left knee injury, “is getting more and more confident in what he’s doing well.” Although Moore isn’t practicing yet, Heupel makes sure to point out to his players how the senior is shadowing everything being done on the field from his sideline location.

“Those are two guys that have had traumatic injuries that have done a remarkable job in the rehab process,” Heupel said of Milton and Moore.

Tight Battle at TE

Jake Hescock is UCF’s No. 1 tight end. That is undisputed. But the Knights could certainly use more production from that position; Hescock’s nine receptions last year led all UCF tight ends.

To that end, Heupel said Hescock is playing with more speed and better technique this fall, which has enabled the team to move him off the line of scrimmage more often, split him out wide and generally use him in ways they could not last season.

“Looking for a huge year from him this year,” Heupel said of Hescock.

A “great battle” is being waged to see who will grab the No. 2 TE spot, according to Heupel. The top candidates are JUCO transfer Zach Marsh-Wojan and true freshman Tony Forrest Jr.

“Zach Marsh has continued to get better and more confident and comfortable in what we’re doing,” Heupel said. “Schematically, the tempo is something that he’s had to adjust to with him getting here this summer. Just seeing a signal, getting lined up and knowing what to do, (he has) gotten better through training camp.”

Forrest Jr. has a little more knowledge of what UCF’s offense demands since he arrived on campus in January.

“I really like the way that he’s played. He’s played with a ton of speed inside of the core. He’s been really physical. I really feel like he’s got a chance to continue to develop here and continue to climb,” Heupel said of Forrest Jr.

Scrimmage Tidbits

UCF held its first team scrimmage of fall camp last Saturday. When asked what stood out, Heupel immediately mentioned the play of a couple of linebackers as well as defensive tackle Cam Goode:

“Coming out of the scrimmage the other day, I thought our linebackers played extremely well. Eriq Gilyard had a great day. Young linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste was running all over the field, sideline to sideline, and played really physical.

“Cam Goode had a really good scrimmage the other day. Played his most intentional football from snap to whistle. Played extremely hard and made a bunch of plays.”

The Knights’ second scrimmage is scheduled for this Saturday, Sept. 5

Preseason Poll? Who Cares!

The Knights are the AAC’s preseason favorite for the third year in a row. The conference’s preseason media poll was released Tuesday morning, and the Knights received 10 of a possible 20 first-place votes to win the American.

In the least shocking news ever, Josh Heupel doesn’t really care.

“I don’t think anybody really remembers preseason picks. They don’t remember preseason Heisman Trophy candidates,” Heupel said. “It comes down to what you do during the course of the season. I do like our football team. Love the way that they compete, love the way that they love one another. We’ve got to continue to grow. We’ve got to control what we can control this year. There’s a lot of outside forces, factors that we don’t control. Enjoy today and win every day.”