After eight months, UCF Football will make its long-awaited return this coming Thursday night. The Knights hit the road to square off with UConn, marking the first game of the Josh Heupel era. After the first game week practice of the year on Saturday, Heupel and a few players took the podium to speak with the media.
Attracting Attention: The No. 21 Knights are one of the first teams in America to take the field this season, with Thursday’s kickoff coming at 7:00 p.m. on ESPNU. Eyes from all around the country will be on them, which is nothing new for a team that is coming off a season that included a 13-0 record, a Peach Bowl win and recognition as a co-national champion.
“I think we love that,” junior quarterback McKenzie Milton said. “It’s not necessarily pressure. We want people to be watching us. We want the spotlight not just for us as individuals or us as a team, but for this university. They’ve been good for a really long time and it’s about time that we start getting some national recognition.”
Since completing its perfect season on New Year’s Day, UCF has gotten a lot of publicity. There is plenty of criticism surrounding the way the program went about their championship campaign. At the same time, there are supporters that feel the Knights did a great job of shaking up the college football world. But now, as a team, UCF’s eyes are solely on 2018.
“ConFLiCT” Still Dead: A lot has been made about former UConn coach Bob Diaco manufacturing a rivalry with UCF, one he dubbed the “Civil ConFLiCT.” Many jokes have been centered on the name itself, while the geography and history also failed to make much sense. The rivalry that was never really a rivalry officially died when UCF left the trophy up in Storrs after a victory in 2016. Diaco then got fired after that season.
Former Knights coach Scott Frost always downplayed the “ConFLiCT.” Is Josh Heupel treating it any differently? Well, no. When asked if he had heard of the fake rivalry, his answer sounded just as subdued as Frost’s.
“I’ve heard bits and pieces from some of the fans around here,” he said. “But not a lot.”
Linebacker Pat Jasinski, who is seeing the Huskies for the fourth time in his career, said there have been no Civil ConFLiCT jokes in the locker room.
Same Role, New Title: One of the breakout stars in UCF’s 2017 season was true freshman Otis Anderson, who came to the team from University Christian High School in Jacksonville. In his first year at the collegiate level, he ran for 494 yards and four touchdowns on 69 carries. He was also a threat in the passing game, catching 30 passes for 351 yards and three scores. He split time between running back and wide receiver last year, but when the team’s first depth chart of 2018 was released on Friday, his role had the new, albeit fitting, title of “utility.”
“It’s pretty much the same as last year, just a different name,” Anderson said. “It’s fun being able to go to two different meeting rooms, learn two different positions and really master my craft at both.”
Considering he presents a challenge for any defense trying to scout how he will be used in any given game, the 5-foot-11 sophomore will figure heavily into the Knights’ 2018 offense.
Garvy Center Opens Up: The Garvy Center for Student-Athlete Nutrition recently opened up, which will help with health and overall player experience. Since Heupel and his staff arrived in January, they have focused on improving player nutrition. The effects are evident through one offseason.
“I think it’s shown in their ability to perform and how they look and how they feel,” he said. “I think that’ll pay dividends into how healthy we are as we go throughout the course of the season. It’s important to me that we do everything we possibly can to give our kids everything that they need to be successful— academically, socially, in their faith and certainly on the football field as well.”
Program Icon Visits Practice: Last Wednesday’s practice was a special one, though it wasn’t just because it was one week away from the season opener. Former UCF coach George O’Leary, who spent 11 1/2 seasons in Orlando, stopped by to check out the 2018 Knights. It was the program’s past meeting its present, something special to see.
“Coach O’Leary put a ton of time and energy into building this place,” Heupel said. “I’m thankful for the building blocks that he put in place and Coach [Scott] Frost as well. I’m able to take over a program that’s continuing on an upward trend and we’re trying to continue to build it and make it better every day.”
In his time with the Knights, O’Leary compiled an 81-68 record, led the team to four conference championships and won a Fiesta Bowl. He was a four-time Conference USA Coach of the Year and a one-time AAC Coach of the Year and also played an influential role in the on-campus stadium process. He continues to be a somewhat polarizing figure, but his impact on the program is undeniable.