UCF takes the field for the first time in eight months when it kicks off the 2018 season at UConn on Thursday night. The game marks the debut of Josh Heupel, who replaced Scott Frost as the Knights’ coach after last year’s 13-0 season, and serves as the start of the team’s championship defense. Despite the hype building up all offseason, UCF is focused on staying level-headed.
“For us, we’re only as good as our next performance,” Heupel said on Tuesday. “In week one, it’s [about] settling into the game early and not trying to do too much. It’s just trusting your technique, trusting the call, trusting your eyes, playing with great execution… Not trying to do something extraordinary, just doing the ordinary at a high level.”
The Knights are under a completely new coaching staff, but a good portion of last year’s roster remains intact. Quarterback McKenzie Milton is back for his junior season, complete with a Heisman Trophy campaign. Even with Tre’Quan Smith and Jordan Akins gone, he still has plenty to work with. Dredrick Snelson, Otis Anderson and Adrian Killins are all back. The team also added former four-star Tre Nixon via transfer. The offensive line largely stayed together, which should help Milton in his quest to remain one of the country’s top signal-callers.
On the defense, there are a few more holes to fill. Jamiyus Pittman, Tony Guerad, Shaquem Griffin and Chequan Burkett are gone from the front seven, while Mike Hughes and Tre Neal also need to be replaced in the secondary. Despite some turnover, senior linebacker Pat Jasinski doesn’t think the unit faces any more pressure than the offense does.
“I think our whole team has something to prove,” he said last Saturday. “We’ve got a new staff on both sides of the ball and some different things than what we used to do, but I think the main goal is just to go out there and prove what we are.”
Opening the season on the road against a conference opponent presents a unique challenge for UCF. What makes it even more of a challenge is that UConn isn’t all that easy to prepare for, with 20 freshman showing up on the team’s depth chart. 11 of those are on the defensive side of the ball.
“I think the difficulty is that you don’t really have a great understanding of what their personnel is,” Heupel said. “You’ve got to be ready to adjust based on their personnel and matchups that you can take advantage of or maybe that you’re having problems with during the course of a ball game. You’ve also got to adjust quickly schematically if they’re changing anything.”
One player that the Knights can certainly key in on is quarterback David Pindell, who totaled 297 total yards and two touchdowns when the two teams met in Orlando last year. He put his mobility on full display, as 96 of those 297 came on the ground. Considering UCF has its own mobile quarterback that the defense sees in practice every day, the defense should be well-prepared.
“I think during training camp, [having Milton] did help [the defense] with securing the pocket and not giving him great rush lanes where he can escape up vertically, the ability to read down the second level of defenders and make plays with his feet… All those things help our defense with McKenzie having that type of mobility.”
The Knights, who are favored over the Huskies by 23 1/2, aren’t putting too much pressure on themselves. More than anything, they’re just happy to be back on the field, lining up against another team for the first time since they clinched a perfect season on New Year’s Day.
“We’ve just been waiting for this opportunity all winter, spring and summer conditioning,” Jasinski said. “This is what it leads up to.”
Kickoff for Thursday’s season opener is set for 7:00 p.m. on ESPNU.