For UCF Football, the 2017 season will never be forgotten. The Knights finished a perfect 13-0 with a conference title, a Peach Bowl win over Auburn and a claimed national championship. But the fact is, that is now in the past.
Scott Frost and his staff are long gone, meaning new coach Josh Heupel and his regime are now in full control. Heupel’s first recruiting class was a good one, especially considering the wild circumstances he and his staff faced throughout December. His case is also helped by a strong core from the Knights’ historic 2017 team returning for another year. UCF looks to be in a good position heading into spring ball.
With that said, there are still some questions about the 2018 team as spring practices get underway on March 20.
How much of an adjustment, if any, will the UCF offense have to make under Heupel?
Considering how prolific the Knights’ 2017 offense was, this is probably the biggest question heading into spring ball. UCF finished last season with the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation (48.2 points per game). Should similar success be the expectation in 2018?
The unit loses a couple of offensive lineman, tight end Jordan Akins and top receiver Tre’Quan Smith, but returns much of its young core. Of course, that includes quarterback McKenzie Milton and talented backfield members Adrian Killins and Otis Anderson.
Dredrick Snelson presumably enters the spring as Milton’s go-to guy with the departure of Smith. Gabe Davis and Marlon Williams both had strong freshman seasons and likely figure heavily into the Knights’ plans for 2018. Then, there’s Emmanuel Logan-Greene, Cam Stewart and Tristan Payton, who could also work their way into the wide receiver rotation.
The talent isn’t anything to worry about. The bigger question surrounds Heupel and how much will change under his direction. His offense is also of the up-tempo variety and he has said he won’t change much. Even still, there has to be some adjustment under a new coach, right? Spring ball is when those adjustments, whatever they may look like, can be made.
How will the backfield shape up?
How the offense as a whole looks is something to keep an eye on this spring, but there are specific questions about the backfield. Killins emerged as the top running back last year after Jawon Hamilton went down with an injury early in the season. Anderson, who started out with a lot of work in the slot as a receiver, showed a lot of promise as a runner too. His versatility is a big weapon for UCF.
Killins and Anderson will undoubtedly lead the way for the backfield, but the pecking order from there is interesting. Hamilton was supposed to bounce back and contribute, but UCFSports.com’s Brandon Helwig recently reported that the 2016 standout is no longer with the program. Cordarrian Richardson, a four-star recruit in 2017, originally announced his intention to transfer back in January. Now, per 247Sports’ Juan Toribio, he is sticking around for the spring to test things out with the new coaching staff. With Hamilton apparently gone, the chances of Richardson staying could be higher.
Taj McGowan, Greg McCrae and Bentavious Thompson should all be in the mix for carries as well. How Heupel goes about assembling his backfield could be an intriguing process to follow throughout the coming months.
What does UCF’s defense look like with new leadership?
On the other side of the ball, the Knights will have a very different look. Gone from the defensive line are Jamiyus Pittman and Tony Guerad. The secondary will be without potential first round pick Mike Hughes. Linebacker Chequan Burkett is also gone. Then, of course, there’s the loss of Shaquem Griffin. UCF will miss him the most, both production and leadership-wise. The unit will also go through a transition of coordinators, from Erik Chinander to Randy Shannon.
The Knights have some experienced guys that will be called on to lead. There is also plenty of youth ready to step up. Up front, Trysten Hill, A.J. Wooten and Joey Connors return. In the linebacking corps, Pat Jasinski, Gabriel Luyanda, Titus Davis, Shawn Burgess-Becker and Dedrion Bacote should be ready to step in. The secondary is a group ripe with talent. Nevelle Clarke, Brandon Moore, Tre Neal, Kyle Gibson and Antwan Collier are all back as proven commodities.
Shannon comes in as a steady presence that has been there and done that on multiple different levels of the college football spectrum. His recruiting prowess has already paid off early. Now, he can get settled in Orlando and get to work with his defense. Chinander primarily ran a 3-4 front and Shannon is known more for a 4-3, though he said back in December that he would run whatever gets the best players on the field. Spring practice could be an early gauge on whether the current roster is more suited for a 3-4 or 4-3.
Will the program capitalize on the buzz created by its perfect season?
UCF’s marketing and social media teams have proven to be extremely good at what they do. There’s no question that they will be able to continue building the brand effectively during the spring. The rest is up to the Knights’ fan base. Last year, the UCF faithful came through with sellout crowds for the War on I-4 and AAC Championship Game, then a strong showing in Atlanta for the Peach Bowl. But for most of the season, crowds at Spectrum Stadium were lacking. Can that change this year?
One continuous knock on UCF’s status in the college football world is that its fan base isn’t committed enough. It’s up to UCF students, alumni and the city of Orlando to continue to prove otherwise. The latter part of last season was a good start, but consistency is the key. Season ticket sales are higher than ever this year, which bodes well for the fall.
The national championship claim built up tons of buzz early in 2018. Once the team gets back to work and eventually takes the field at Spectrum Stadium for the spring game, can fans continue to show up? Two years ago, 23,147 fans showed up for the “#UCFastival.” Expecting that kind of number again might not be fair, but based on the buzz, it should be interesting to see what kind of crowd shows up on April 21.
Will the “college football elite” be able to get over UCF’s national championship claim?
The short answer? Probably not. It’s been over 70 days since the Knights won the Peach Bowl and claimed a share of the national championship. But that hasn’t stopped SEC fans, college football analysts and many folks on the outside of the program from continuous chatter. Social media platforms are good for at least one stab at UCF per day.
Some are arguing that it hurts the UCF brand. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, considering the Knights are still being talked about even with focus shifting to a new season. Ask athletics director Danny White about the status of his program’s brand:
We are building our brand, while also advocating for change. The CFP needs expansion. College FB is the only sport in America that doesn’t settle it on the field. That’s why (like 2017) there have been so many seasons with multiple National Champions. https://t.co/0CgfBd1ihl
— Danny White (@UCFDannyWhite) March 15, 2018
The national championship claim has more than served its purpose. While the rest of the country keeps arguing about it, UCF is turning its focus toward repeating its 2017 success.
Spring practice gets underway on March 20. The spring game is set for April 21 at 6:00 p.m.