On the Rise [and Conquer]
It feels like forever since the University of Central Florida stood as one of college football’s best teams after winning the Fiesta Bowl in 2013. It was a defining win for both former head coach George O’Leary and the university. But in the course of nearly three years, so much has changed.
The feel-good mood was subdued by a winless season in 2015, when UCF finished 0-12. That collapse drew O’Leary out by Week 8 and saw the team back on their heels searching for answers.
In December 2015, the university turned to Scott Frost—a former national-championship quarterback at the University of Nebraska and offensive coordinator at the University of Oregon—to lead the Knights into a new era.
“These guys were hungry for a different direction and kind of a new culture. I think that’s natural coming off a tough season.” Frost said at the team’s media day. “We talk very little about last year. We talk about today.”
In nine short months, Frost has overhauled the Knights on both sides of the ball. The 41-year-old, first-time head coach has implemented his spread offense—a scheme akin to the University of Oregon “Quack Attack” he was immersed in over the last seven years—and has shifted to a 3-4 base defense.
It’s a new identity predicated on speed and tempo that will certainly encounter a mix of failures this season, but it’s also a necessary process UCF must sift through before it can relish newfound successes again.
“Coach Frost brought in a new system, and we just bought in quickly,” redshirt senior linebacker Mark Rucker said at Monday’s weekly press conference. “It feels like we’re going to give so much effort towards Coach Frost and those coaches because they gave us a system that [says], ‘Do not be afraid to mess up.’ And last year, we were afraid to mess up.”
It might not look pretty right away, but given last year’s finish, Frost knows he has the freedom to rewrite this once optimistic success story.
Familiar Names and Fresh Faces on Offense
After landing the second-best recruiting class in the American Athletic Conference in a matter of months, Frost comes into UCF with a team full of three-star talent at every skill position.
“There’s more talent on this team than the record showed,” Frost said. “We’ve got quite a few good football players coming back for us.”
The Knights offense is loaded with young playmakers who have shown flashes of potential. Returning are redshirt sophomore receiver Tre’Quan Smith, the 2015 AAC Rookie of the Year, who led the team and set a UCF freshman record with 724 reception yards on 52 catches; sophomore D’erren Wilson, who averaged 14.8 yards per catch; the leading rusher in senior C.J. Jones, who boasted 5.1 yards per carry; and junior tight end Jordan Franks, who had a breakout game against Tulane last season, turning in seven catches for 93 yards and a touchdown.
UCF also brings back redshirt sophomore tight end Jordan Akins (leg), senior co-starting running back Dontravious Wilson (leg) and senior quarterback Justin Holman (hand), who all return after suffering injuries in 2015.
“The biggest thing I want to do is put my playmakers in position to make plays, and in this offense, we’re going to spread guys out; we’re going to try to outnumber the defense to one side or the other; we’re going to try to create matchups,” offensive coordinator and wide-receivers coach Troy Walters said.
Incoming freshmen speedsters Adrian Killins and Jawon Hamilton also have the potential to create explosive plays for the Knights. Per NCSASports.org, Killins runs a 4.31 40-yard dash, while according to ESPN, Hamilton runs a 4.68 40-yard dash.
Odds are that some other new faces will emerge as weapons given the rapid substitutions that will take place between snaps. The Knights have added depth now in freshman receiver Dredrick Wilson, sophomore receivers Tristan Payton and Cam Stewart and sophomore running back Taj McGowan.
Rebuilding a Swarming Defense
If Oregon showed anything during their championship-contention run over the last decade, it’s that they’re at their best when they strike the opposing defense with a solid gain and race back to the line within 15 seconds to repeat it again. Knights fans could see a similar dynamic at UCF mixed with an aggressive, ball-hawking defense.
Last season, the Knights were the 114th-best defense out of 128 schools, according to CFBStats.com. They allowed 464.1 yards per game, 37.7 points per game, ranked 116th in total turnovers gained (13) and 123rd in opposing third-down conversion rate (47.46 percent).
Switching to a 3-4 defense should allow for UCF’s secondary to play press coverage and provide pass rushers the opportunity to blitz on third downs if the defensive line can protect against the run.
Five of 12 starters are seniors, including safeties Drico Johnson and T.J. Mutcherson and cornerback D.J. Killings, who combined for four tackles for loss in 2015. Senior cornerback Shaquill Griffin batted away a team-best 13 passes.
In the box, redshirt junior linebacker Chequan Burkett totaled 56 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and junior defensive lineman Jamiyus Pittman recorded a team-high 4.5 sacks last season. True freshman defensive lineman Trysten Hill, who recently turned 17-years-old, impressed coaches enough to earn a starting job.
“He’s a monster. Now he’s a freshman, he’s not there yet, but he’s got the tools, he’s got what it takes,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “He’s going to make some mistakes, there’s going to be some bumps in the road, I know that, and we’re going to be there with him.”
First Frost is Here
Headed into this Saturday’s season-opener against the South Carolina State Bulldogs, the Knights are heavy favorites to rebound quickly with their first win in over a year and a half, according to ESPN.
It seems difficult to predict a loss against a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team, but the Knights did lose to Furman University 16-15 at home last season.
South Carolina State won their conference in 2013 and 2014 but regressed last season after finishing 7-4. In their only meeting in 2008, UCF shut out the Bulldogs 17-0, holding their offense to just 126 total yards.
SCSU boasts incredibly young offensive and defensive units, which are expected to play up to 18 freshmen and redshirt freshmen this season. Sophomore quarterback Caleb York will look to build upon his performance from last year of 11 touchdowns, six interceptions and 1,723 yards on 142-of-254 passing (55.9 percent).
The biggest strength last season for the Bulldogs was their team pass defense, which recorded an FCS-high 46 sacks. However, only 16 of the 46 sacks come from players still on the roster. Redshirt junior linebacker Darius Leonard anchors the unit, who exploded for 70 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, en route to being named the preseason Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference defensive player of the year.
“I don’t want our guys looking anywhere else other than this week,” Frost said. “I think it’s really important for us to get off on a good foot, get our guys familiar with what it feels like to win again.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday at Bright House Networks Stadium.