Can the UCF Knights Sustain their Rise?

After a winless 2015, there was nowhere to go but up for the University of Central Florida football program, and in 2016, new head coach Scott Frost piloted UCF to six wins and a bowl game. Now the real challenge begins, as Frost and the Knights look to climb from mediocrity to championship contention in the American Athletic Conference.

With an offense that returns nine starters and a defense led by AAC Defensive Player of the Year Shaquem Griffin, hopes are understandably high. In fact, if preseason optimism won games, the 2017 Knights would be a juggernaut. Pundits are generally bullish on UCF and Frost was ebullient after the Knights’ opening practices, praising the players’ offseason progress.

“Walking out here, we look like a different team,” he said. “If we play as good as we look, we’re going to be a lot better team.”

But being bigger, faster and stronger is only part of the promise at UCF. With a full year complete in Frost’s regime, players also enter the 2017 season far savvier than a year ago, fortified by a deeper understanding of the playbook.

“It’s so much of a different experience from last year,” said Frost. “This year, everybody is so much more familiar with what we’re trying to do.”

UCF Head Coach Scott Frost

That also includes the coaching staff, which Frost expects to benefit from familiarity and continuity. But for all the preseason positivity, the former two-way playing standout knows that victories won’t come easy, especially during a tricky first quarter of the season with games against three 2016 bowl game participants: Memphis (8-5 overall in 2016; 5-3 AAC West), Georgia Tech (9-4 overall; 4-4 ACC) and Maryland (6-7 overall; 3-6 Big Ten).

“Nothing’s gonna be given; it’s gotta be earned,” said Frost. “We’ve gotta find the little things that are gonna get us over the hump in some of these games.”

UCF Quarterback McKenzie Milton

For sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton, those little things involved honing his footwork during the summer to be in better rhythm on gameday. A harried true freshman campaign forced him to learn under fire, and now the Hawaiian signal-caller is hoping to put those lessons to good use syncing with a receiving corps regarded as one of the Knights’ major strengths. That group is led by junior Tre’Quan Smith, who racked up 853 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season. Cam Stewart, Dredrick Snelson and Tristan Payton are also back, and they’re joined by Case Harrison, an intriguing graduate transfer from the University of Florida.

UCF Receiver Tre’Quan Smith

Further complementing the UCF passing attack, wide receiver-turned-tight end Jordan Akins returns ready to build on his team-leading 15.1 yards per reception last season. He’ll line up outside an offensive line that includes four of its five starters from a year ago.

On defense, the Knights have some holes to fill after all four of their starting defensive backs were drafted or signed by NFL teams. The good news, however, is that UCF will rebuild around its star linebacker, Griffin, who finished last season ranked 12th in the nation in sacks (11.5) and 13th in tackles for loss (20).

Griffin decided to begin his search for Frost’s little things in the Wayne Densch Sports Center this summer. He’s staying there overnight until camp ends to sharpen his focus on film study and weightlifting.

“Getting the full experience, because once it’s gone, it’s over,” said the redshirt senior from St. Petersburg.

With Griffin charging through offenses, and a UCF defensive line that returns seven of its top eight from last season, the Knights will aim to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks in an effort to keep it off their retooled defensive backfield in 2017. If all goes according to Frost’s high hopes, it’s likely that UCF will once again be bowl bound and rising in December.