Preview: UCF kicks off 2018 against UConn with more swagger, attention

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — No. 21 UCF comes into its season opener at UConn on Thursday night with the nation’s longest winning streak at 13 games, a bit of swagger and a lot more attention than it had a year ago.

Junior quarterback McKenzie Milton, the reigning American Athletic Conference player of the year, says that after last year’s undefeated season and a self-declared national championship the Knights are anxious to show they remain one of the nation’s top programs.

“We want people to be watching us,” Milton said as his team prepared for the Huskies. “We want the spotlight, not just for us as individuals, not just us as a team, but for this university. They’ve been good for a really long time and it’s about time that we started getting some national recognition.”

Milton, eighth in the Heisman voting a year ago, has a chance to put up some big numbers early in this year’s race. After throwing for 4,037 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2017, he will face a Connecticut secondary that starts three sophomores and a true freshman.

Randy Edsall’s UConn team went 3-9 in 2017, his first year back as head coach. He says he’s not focusing on wins and losses right now and is just hoping his young team improves week-to-week.

“The big thing is that we allow them to go out and play as fast as they can and that there’s not too much thinking going on,” he said. “We’re going to be a work in progress as we continue to move through the season.”

Here are some things to watch for on Thursday night:

NEW COACH, SIMILAR STYLE

Josh Heupel takes over from Scott Frost, who turned UCF from an 0-12 team in 2015 into a 13-0 team last year before leaving for Nebraska. Don’t expect the team’s fast-paced style to change much. UCF averaged 48.2 points and 530 yards while running Frost’s high-octane offense last season. Heupel was offensive coordinator at Missouri, which scored 37.5 points and put up 502 yards a game.

RETURNING POINTS

The Knights return players who accounted for 62 percent of the team’s points last season. Running backs Adrian Killins Jr. (790 yards and 10 TDs) Taj McGowan (235 yards and eight touchdowns), and Otis Anderson (494 yards rushing, 351 receiving and seven total TDs) are all back. Anderson, who scored twice against UConn last year, is expected to again see time both running back and receiver.

YOUNG HUSKIES

UConn plans to start eight or nine freshmen and has 30 freshmen and sophomores on its offensive and defensive two-deep roster for the season opener. The Huskies also will start either a freshman or sophomore punter, kick returner and holder on special teams.

“We still may need to get some techniques and assignments cleaned up, but nobody is scared,” said defensive end Caleb Thomas, a redshirt freshman. “That’s the thing I’m most proud about. Nobody is shaking that UCF is coming.”

HE SAID IT

UConn head coach Randy Edsall said his depth chart is not set in stone, especially because it includes so many young players who have done well in camp, but have not proven they can handle the pressure of a nationally televised college football game.

“All of the sudden, you get a little bit closer to game time and that sphincter gets a little bit, you know, tighter with some of these young kids,” he said.

HONORING ALEX

The Huskies plan to honor a 14-year-old student who was killed in the mass shooting at a Florida high school in February.

Alex Schachter dreamed of attending UConn and playing trombone in the marching band. The band has invited the Schachter family to the game. It plans to play his favorite song, Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” Thursday night and spell out the name “Alex” on the field.

The university sent a posthumous letter of admission to Alex’s family shortly after his death and his parents have set up a band scholarship at UConn in his name.