State Colleges

Here’s how the UCF Knights are using an unbeaten season to boost recruiting efforts

The UCF Knights celebrate defeating the Auburn Tigers 34-27 to win the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta, Georgia.
The UCF Knights celebrate defeating the Auburn Tigers 34-27 to win the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 1, 2018, in Atlanta, Georgia. Getty Images

The UCF Knights finished the 2017 season with a perfect 13-0 record and a self-proclaimed national championship.

The celebration lasted for close to a month, spanning from their Peach Bowl win over the Auburn Tigers to a parade at Disney’s Magic Kingdom to a proclamation by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

But that’s in the past now. While the Knights will relish in their historic season, they know they have work to do if they want to build on that season. That starts with a strong finish on the recruiting trail under first-year coach Josh Heupel, who took over the program after Scott Frost left for Nebraska.

Heupel has already managed to fill some of the gaps during the early signing period.

UCF signed 13 players — all three-star prospects — during the three-day early signing period in December, which started just 15 days after Heupel took over. Four of their top five signees, according to the 247Sports Composite ranking, are Miami natives in Southridge defensive end Randy Charlton, Booker T. Washington safety Jermaine McMillian, Northwestern linebacker Demetreius Mayes and Miami High cornerback Derek Gainous.

For Heupel, though, the biggest accomplishment during the early signing period was landing six offensive linemen.

“I think whenever you’re building a program the trenches are absolutely critical,” Heupel said after the first day of the early signing period, according to the Orlando Sentinel. “You look at some of the great skill players that are currently on our roster and what they’re able to do and a lot of those kids are still coming back here next year or maybe two years.

“Certainly up front, you gotta continue to get bigger, stronger and more athletic. You can’t have enough big bodies inside of your program. Those guys are always going to help you.”

Considering the quick turnaround, Heupel’s ability to sign 13 players and keep some momentum for his transitional signing class was crucial. As of Friday, the Knights’ 2018 class ranked 81st nationally, sixth in the American Athletic Conference and 15th among non-Power Five schools. That’s slightly lower than Frost’s initial class, which finished 65th overall in 2016.

And as the Feb. 7 National Signing Day gets closer, UCF still has a chance to add to its class. According to 247Sports, the Knights are favorites to land at least three more players in three-star prospects Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson athlete Avery Thornton and Fort Lauderdale Dillard offensive lineman Devin Jordan and Largo tight end Isaiah Bellamy.

The Knights do return some talent from the undefeated season — namely quarterback McKenzie Milton on offense and leading tackler Pat Jasinski on defense. However, the team will have to replace a slew of top-tier talent next season regardless of how National Signing Day plays out.

On defense, UCF is losing two of its top linebackers in Chequan Burkett and Shaquem Griffin. Burkett finished second on the team with 82 tackles, while Griffin led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss. Defensive linemen Jamivus Pittman and Tony Guerad, who together recorded 99 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, are also gone as is cornerback Mike Hughes (49 tackles, team-high 15 defended passes).

UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin meets with reporters at the Senior Bowl. Video by Drew Davison.

On offense, UCF is losing its top receiver in Tre’Quan Smith (59 catches, 1,171 yards, 13 touchdowns), its top two tight ends in Jordan Akins and Michael Colubiale (a combined 42 catches, 736 yards and five touchdowns) and two starting offensive linemen in left tackle Aaron Evans and right guard Chavis Dickey.

UCF Class of 2018

Position, player, height, weight, school

TE: Christopher DeLoach, 6-5, 250, East Central (Miss.) Community College

OT: James Collins, 6-4, 306 pounds, Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith

OT: Edward Collins, 6-6; 285, Birmingham (Ala.) Ramsay

OT: Josh McMullen, 6-5, 270, East Central (Miss.)Community College

OT: Trevor Elbert, 6-5, 320, Ventura (Calif.)

OG: Issac Walker, 6-4, 350, Gainesville St. Francis

C: Eric Sidelman, 6-3, 283, Orlando Bishop Moore

DE: Randy Charlton, 6-3, 235, Miami, Southridge

DE: Davonchae Bryant, 6-7, 240, Pensacola

OLB: Eriq Gilyard, 5-11, 225, Jacksonville Trinity Christian Academy

OLB: Demetreius Mayes, 6-2, 234, Miami Northwestern

CB: Derek Gainous, 5-11, 175, cornerback, Miami Senior High

S: Jermaine McMillian, 6-2, 185, Miami Booker T. Washington