The issue for the UCF Knights this season will be straightforward – how much the offense has improved versus how much the defense has regressed. The offense gets its key pieces back, but there are many starters to be replaced on defense, especially in the secondary. If the Knights can finally run a Scott Frost offense the way it ought to be run and can come close to last year’s production on defense, UCF will be a dangerous team.
In 2016, the Knights rode a 6-6 regular season record to the Cure Bowl, where they were hammered by a fired-up Arkansas State team that overwhelmed the Knights’ porous offensive line. But don’t let the 6-7 final record make you think Knights fans were feeling down. As frustrating as that last loss was, after a winless 2015, 2016 is was just about the best losing season a fan could ask for.
The story was simple – the Knights beat the bad teams on the schedule, including drubbings of Cincinnati, Tulane, and ECU. But UCF just could not beat any good teams. Though they came close in a literal last second loss against conference champion Temple, a seven point loss against Houston, and a double overtime loss against P5 program Maryland, the Knights could not get over the hump.
Frost wants to run a spread offense focused on the running game and he wants to run it fast. Last year, the Knights did not come close. The offense was abysmal, hampered by an inability to find success on early downs. The reason was obvious – the offensive line played poorly (and got worse with Tyler Hudanick’s season-ending injury and continued to get worse as the season wore on) and did no favors for freshman QB McKenzie Milton (who also struggled with accuracy and turnovers).
I predict that will change this year, and in Frost’s second season we’ll now see an offense that executes substantially better. Though I remain concerned about the line, meaningful improvement should be expected with another year of adjusting to the blocking schemes in this offense.
Quarterback play is the other big question on the offensive side of the ball. McKenzie Milton is the obvious choice to start and will need to have improved since last year. And he better not get injured. Behind him, the Knights are thin – UCF has a pair of true freshman in Noah Vedral and Darriel Mack, Jr. Spring game warrior Pete DiNovo left the program earlier this month. This leaves Milton as the only quarterback on the roster who has played in a game. Not ideal.
Elsewhere, Knights fans can feel confident. The running back position is excellent and deep. Expect it to be led by a pair of sophomores in Jawon Hamilton (more the every down back) and speedster Adrian Killins, Jr. The Knights also have a serviceable back in junior Taj McGowan (who had significant playing time in 2015 and meaningful opportunities in 2016) and the aforementioned Richardson. This position group is in good shape for the foreseeable future.
The receiving corps will shine if Milton improves. Redshirt Junior Tre’Quan Smith consistently impresses with spectacular catches. Sophomore Dredrick Snelson shows promise. And this could also be a great year for TE Jordan Akins. Unfortunately, UCF is without the reliable option of WR Tristan Payton for half the season as he serves a suspension for a failed drug test (tested positive for marijuana).
On Defense and Special Teams
The strength of DC Erik Chinander’s 3-4 defense carried the team in 2016. And though the defense will feature numerous new starters, it doesn’t necessarily have to fall off too much.
Be confident in the front seven. Jamiyus Pittman moves from noseguard to end (with Tony Guerad on the other end) and Trysten Hill slides over to NG. The back-ups are also reliable, ensuring a solid rotation behind what should be a great starting unit. Expect them to build on last year’s very good performance.
Behind them, linebacker Shaquem Griffin (last year’s AAC Defensive Player of the Year) will continue to be the heart and soul of the defense. In his second year at the position, he’s now gained more weight and gotten stronger. Junior Titus Davis will hold down the other OLB spot. The starting ILBs are Pat Jasinski and Chequan Burkett (who flirted with leaving the program, but did not ultimately do so). The two have 19 career starts between them. Also keep your eyes peeled also for when Shawn Burgess-Becker, the redshirt sophomore transfer from Alabama at OLB, appears in the rotation; he’s one of the most physical players on the roster.
But the secondary may be a weakness that limits the ability of the front seven to create havoc. With presumptive starting CB Nevelle Clarke suspended for six games for failing a drug test (the same test Payton failed, and also for marijuana use) both CB positions were up for grabs. The first depth chart has redshirt senior Chris Johnson (a former WR who had all of two tackles last year as a DB) and redshirt freshman Brandon Moore as the starters. This looks dicey. The safety position is in steadier hands with Tre Neal and Kyle Gibson.
Special teams should continue to be mostly productive for the Knights, especially with the reliable Matthew Wright kicking field goals. Killins has the speed to take kick returns to the house. The punting game may not be terribly impressive, however.
The schedule is heavily front-loaded. After an opener against FIU that UCF should win, the Knights’ next three games are against Memphis, Georgia Tech, and Maryland. UCF ought to be the underdog in each of those, though all are plausibly winnable. It would be great if the Knights could get through the initial stretch at 2-2 or better. It’s an excellent opportunity to get an all too rare win over a P5 program. But 1-3 is possible. That’s the kind of start that will dampen fan enthusiasm, but which shouldn’t be realistically viewed as a crisis unless the Knights are getting blown out.
The conference slate is manageable – though not easy – with the Knights also facing Navy and SMU as foes from the west division. If the Knights don’t reach seven wins, it would be a disappointment. In terms of conference standing, finishing second in the east is an attainable goal for the Knights. And the potential ceiling on this team is high – if things click in just a few key areas, UCF could wind up being a great team.