Another long offseason of conditioning and preparation is in the books for UCF. As Thursday night’s season opener approaches, excitement is building.
“Knowing that it’s so close, you can literally almost grab it now, the emotions and excitement, it’s just so wild,” redshirt senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin said.
The Knights return to the re-branded Spectrum Stadium on Thursday night to host FIU. The game was originally set for Saturday, but CBS Sports Network decided to feature the game as part of a Thursday night doubleheader. This matchup with the Panthers is the Knights’ first chance to see just how far they’ve come since last year.
Coming into the 2016 season, everything was different for the Knights. There was a new coach, new systems on both sides of the ball and even new uniforms. Establishing a new identity for the program was a process, one that is miles ahead of where it was at this time last year. That process is only helped by the experience that the team returns this year.
“We’ve been looking forward to this since the end of last year,” coach Scott Frost said on Monday. “I think our players gave everything they had in the offseason. I love this team. This is a lot tighter-knit group, a lot of guys that do everything you ask them to do, a lot of guys that love the game and they show it on the practice field. It makes it a fun group to coach.”
Despite the initial learning curve, UCF saw a six-win improvement after a disastrous winless campaign in 2015. However, the season ended with three straight losses, which has players anxious to prove that they are stronger heading into this fall.
“We want to come out fast and strong,” sophomore running back Jawon Hamilton said. “[We want to] let everyone see how well we step it up from last year. A lot of people are looking at us off of last year, but we have a lot to show the world.”
Offensive coordinator Troy Walters echoed Hamilton’s thoughts when talking about the differences he sees heading into this season compared to last.
“Offensively speaking, we’re a lot more confident,” Walters said. “We know exactly what we’re doing out there. At this time last year, guys weren’t sure. Now they know what we’re asking them to do. The biggest thing I want to see is the enthusiasm and excitement. Play with passion. Play with excitement. We’re playing at home. I think if we do that, we’re going to be fine.”
Opening up the season in front of the home fans is just another factor in the team’s excitement. UCF is 7-2 in home openers since its stadium opened in 2007, including a 38-0 win over South Carolina State last September to kick off Frost’s head coaching career.
“We’re looking forward to seeing our campus show up,” Frost said. “It’s a Thursday night. I expect a huge part of the campus to be in our stadium and loud and rocking and rolling. I think our players will feed off that.”
There’s a lot of excitement that stems from the home crowd. Sophomore quarterback McKenzie Milton is looking forward to that, but sees excitement in even smaller details.
“I love the grass,” he said. “The grass is super soft.”
Kickoff for Thursday’s season opener is set for 6:02 p.m.