The Knights rank No. 79 in Athlon’s Top 130 for 2017
UCF went 6-7 in head coach Scott Frost’s debut, which is impressive considering he took over a team that didn’t win a single game in 2015. What Frost and the Knights do for an encore likely depends on the progress the offense makes. Plenty of weapons return it’s just a matter of identifying the right quarterback to run Frost’s up-tempo attack. The defense brings back only four starters, but having the American Athletic Conference’s reigning defensive player of the year is a good start. UCF will be challenged right away and may not be ready to vie for a conference title just yet, but a second straight bowl appearance should be attainable.
Previewing UCF Football’s Offense for 2017
The “UCFast” offense was largely a work in progress in Scott Frost’s first season — although not unexpectedly, as that side of the ball was in full rebuild mode coming off the previous winless season. The good news is that virtually every key player on that side returns. All eyes will be on the quarterback spot and offensive line to show the most improvement, two areas that had their share of struggles in 2016.
Sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton enters the season as the presumed starter after earning the top job a few games into his rookie season. He’s shown to be quick and agile, important traits for a quarterback in Frost’s offense, but questions linger about his overall arm strength. True freshman Darriel Mack Jr., who likely enters the season as the backup by default, could challenge Milton for starter status depending on how quickly he can pick up the nuances of the system.
The offensive line took a step back when top blocker Tyler Hudanick was sidelined in mid-October with a season-ending injury. He is expected to return to full strength. One player to watch is Jordan Johnson, who is moving from guard to center.
The Knights have a bevy of skill-position talent, notably junior wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, the team leader in receptions and yards the past two seasons. Sophomores Jawon Hamilton and Adrian Killins provide a formidable 1-2 punch in the backfield. Killins averaged 6.5 yards per carry in a reserve role last season.
Previewing UCF Football’s Defense for 2017
UCF’s turnaround from winless to a bowl team last season was due in large part to the consistent play of the defense, a unit headlined by outside linebacker Shaquem Griffin, the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Now a senior, Griffin will try to top the league-leading 11.5 sacks he posted a season ago.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander does have holes to fill — all four starters in the secondary and three of four linebackers have graduated. That’s a lot of experience to replace as those players comprised seven of the team’s top nine leading tacklers. Though inexperienced, UCF does have players waiting in the wings such as cornerbacks Brandon Moore and Rashard Causey, safety Tre Neal and linebackers Nate Evans and Dedrion Bacote. And big things are expected from safety Shawn Burgess-Becker, a highly touted transfer from Alabama.
The defensive line should be a strength with the return of all the key players. Senior nose guard Jamiyus Pittman, the most experienced of the bunch, is considered the leader of the defense. End Trysten Hill, a weight room warrior, has a promising future.
Previewing UCF Football’s Specialists for 2017
Killins has electrifying speed that makes him a home run threat in the return game, evident from his 100-yard kick return for a TD last season against East Carolina. The ever-reliable Caleb Houston has graduated after four seasons at punter, passing the torch to junior Mac Loudermilk. Matt Wright has been a solid performer his first two seasons as UCF’s field goal kicker, making 17-of-22 attempts a season ago.
Attaining six wins and reaching a bowl game in Frost’s first season was a solid starting point — if not a bit ahead of schedule. With questions at several key positions, it’s likely too early to start thinking about a conference championship, but another bowl trip should be achievable if the offensive line takes the necessary steps forward and there isn’t too big of a drop-off on defense.
UCF will be tested early with a challenging first month that includes a Week 2 date against Memphis and non-conference matchups against Georgia Tech and Maryland.
National Ranking: 79
AAC East Prediction: 2
(Shaquem Griffin photo courtesy of UCF Athletics)