For the second time in three years, UConn welcomes UCF to Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field for the annual homecoming game. Sports Editor Dan Madigan talked with Senior Sports Writer Tyler Graddy of UCF’s Knight News to talk about new Knights head coach Scott Frost and his team, Big 12 expansion and of course, the Conflict.
Madigan: How has head coach Scott Frost’s first season at the helm gone so far as a whole, and what are the biggest changes he’s brought to the program compared to last year’s team?
Graddy: At 3-3 you can say that the Knights are a better team than last year, but there are still serious growing pains for Frost’s first year as a head coach. He has been fantastic in energizing the program in its entirety, revitalizing a forlorn fan base and giving hope to a team that seemed completely hopeless in 2015.
He insisted before the season even began that numbers aren’t everything, and that’s a fair assumption when grading the performance thus far. Frost inherited the bulk of this team and implemented a system and mentality on both sides of the ball that is 180 degrees from the past decade.
The team has completely bought in. They’re better conditioned, fast to the ball and refuse to quit; it’s a team having fun again. Little things like relaxed policies on letting players grow facial hair or wear armbands and such on the field have been a small, significant step in changing the culture as well.
Frost’s coaching staff is more player-centric than the organization that preceded them, something visible in this team’s hustle. They are a far more competitive team, a team playing for the guy next to him as much as for themselves. It’s the relationship and attention to this relationship that has been the most significant change.
Recruits are more involved as well, a direct result from that improvement. UCF’s new, exciting brand of football, even in it’s infancy, has been huge for gaining interest from recruits and keeping big-name local talent in the conversation.
Who has been the most dynamic player on offense for the Knights so far this season?
It’s an odd situation, because the team’s most dangerous playmaker – Adrian Killins – is an ‘x’ factor who is still really establishing a rock-solid role in this new offense. Killins is a true freshman but has had more exciting plays than anyone else on this offensive unit, scoring on special teams, as a receiver and as a running back.
His 87-yard touchdown run against Michigan tied a school record for longest run, his 100-yard kickoff return sparked a huge momentum run for UCF against East Carolina; he’s breaking a 20+ yard gain every 4.5 times he touches the ball.
The curveball? Killins is a clear-cut third on the running back depth chart, and only sees a handful of touches a game to this point. Fans have been clamoring to see more of him week in and week out.
How has McKenzie Milton looked in his first season under center for UCF, and will UConn see another play-caller split time with Milton on Saturday?
Milton is clearly the best fit for Scott Frost’s offense of any of the quarterbacks on the Knights’ roster, but has been called upon earlier than anyone anticipated. Milton is quick to the line, able to take off when needed, and has excellent chemistry with his receivers.
He is still working on the timing of college football, however, often times holding on to the ball too long or taking a sack while trying to create positive yardage than giving up on a play.
Barring any serious injury, don’t expect a time-share at quarterback for UCF. Milton’s redshirt has been burned, and Justin Holman is completing only 41 percent of his passes this season. Stay aware of this caveat though – Milton’s brand of football results in a ton of quarterback hits, so if the true freshman foes down, Holman will be the next man up.
UCF boats one of the best run defenses in the country, ranked No. 19 and holding opponents to under rushing yards per game. What has been the key to the Knights’ strong rushing defense this season?
It all started with the UCFast mentality. Frost wants his players to play fast, not just to be fast, and to be able to play at that tempo for a full 60 minutes. His methods have shown up most clearly on defense, where the Knights have been able to attack the ball without quit.
Linebacker Shaquem Griffin made the move from defensive back this season, taking every bit of his speed and hustle into the position switch. He lives behind the line of scrimmage with six sacks and eight tackles for a loss this season.
The linebacker corps as a whole have been enthralling to watch, holding six-of-seven of the team’s top tacklers in their ranks. That being said, defensive lineman and true freshman Trysten Hill – who squatted just about 700 pounds in a viral social media post – looks the part of veteran presence on the line. He eats blockers for breakfast, and has made four stops for a loss this year.
What are UCF fans and students’ thoughts on the Conflict? Have Frost and the team mentioned the rivalry at all?
Coach Frost had never heard of The Conflict before arriving at UCF, and many of the players repeated similar sentiments. When the trophy came to Bright House last season it was in the midst of a complete and total implosion for UCF Football, making it seem like a pretty low priority on the totem pole. Returning players haven’t wanted to relive anything from last year, and as such, The Conflict doesn’t appear to hold much weight through the Knights’ ranks.
Fans may be more aware, but are hardly any more serious about it. Their true rivalry with USF leaves little room to focus on another, newer occurrence. It’s worth noting that as much as the players want to forget the 2015 campaign, fans are looking to erase any memory of it as well.
Lastly, what are your thoughts on the Big 12 electing not to expand, and what was the reaction like on campus?
There is mild disappointment around the announcement, but nothing too major. Yes, UCF fans would love to see their school enter into a power-five conference, but it eases the sting that no other school was admitted either – and that no school was even announced as an official finalist.
In the end the school loses no face for not gaining entrance to the conference, but there is now more national awareness of the brand and an aggressive stance towards evolving and growing the scope of UCF Athletics was on full display.