ORLANDO, Fla. — McKenzie Milton took over the Knights starting job in the third week of the season, rushed into his role as the heir apparent to Justin Holman after Holman went down with a hamstring injury at The Big House. Since then the true-freshman gunslinger has had to adjust on the fly, adapting to the speed of Division 1 College Football at a moment’s notice, relying on the unrefined playmaking skills that first caught the eye of UCF’s staff.
It was never in Frost’s blueprint for his debut as a head coach to tie his fate to the talents of an eighteen-year old, but if you want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.
The internal debate raged on for a week, but the decision to burn Milton’s redshirt season came down the simple desire to win games. UCF fans across the nation remembered the bad taste left by last year’s spot starts from Nick Patti, and in no way could this coaching staff fall into the same trap of just getting by with the expected status-quo.
Risk and reward were calculated and the tough choice, the only choice at the time, was made. UCF would start a true freshman quarterback for the first time since 2010, but only because Frost believed it was the most effective way to win ball games.
“I think we’ve got a lot of young guys playing on offense, I think it will help us in the future to get our young quarterback some experience,” Frost explained at the time, “but it’s not fair to the whole team to play young guys just because they are young guys. Every single game we’re going to decide who gives our team the best chance to win.”
Since then, McKenzie has had the successes and struggles one might expect from a smaller quarterback who is quick to extend plays with his feet behind a shaky offensive line. He has been both exciting (see the 63 yard rushing touchdown against Temple) as he has been frustrating (total completion percentage of just 57.3% and 6.21 yards per attempt) – often extending a play too long, taking negative yardage or turning the ball over while trying to do too much.
As time has progressed this season, the questions soon followed from a fan base starving for victories about his unusual side-arm, low-elbow throwing angle and his happy feet. Passes are sailing, the offense is struggling and the masses are demanding answers to Milton’s development at the position.
UCF Quarterbacks Coach Mario Verduzco has been working to tame these things all season, but says the focus is pre-snap and not as mechanical as one might think.
“The preparation from snap to snap [is what we’re working on], the detail required from snap to snap, he’s a fast blinker. He can sense information really fast and sometimes he gets himself into trouble thinking he can make a play that he used to make in high school – but this is college ball,” Verduzco offered.”
It seems obvious that he should be focused on reading the field, but what about the odd mechanics? Week after week, those who file out to the games are greeted with the same style of spastic quarterback play, rarely seeing a long completion or true dominance from their signal caller.
“The worst thing you can do with a young quarterback is start messing around with his stroke,” he continued. “There are certain things that you can do with his feet, and those things can be corrected, that doesn’t create any issues – but as far the sequencing of his stroke, that is something that you just don’t want to mess with.”
It can be too much for a player taking on a thousand other adjustments to alter his natural throwing motion, a motion that has molded him into the quarterback he is today. Confidence issues aside, if a quarterback is busy thinking about his arm there are more pressing matters that affect him; seeing pressure, reading his receivers, ‘blinking fast’ as Verdusco puts it.
“You don’t want to make a wholesale change, that’s going to happen over time. The worst thing that you can do is to have him continually, particularly during a game, think about those things. Those are things that we do in practice, you guys have seen that we work every day after practice, he and Pete [DiNovo].”
By all accounts, Milton is doing all the right things in this evolutionary season. Mechanics and experience will be refined in the offseason, but right now it comes down to study and communication. He is Verduzco’s very first appointment Sunday mornings, showing up on a voluntary basis to break down game film.
“[We] grade every snap, and then he gets a grade in regards to his feet, his eyeballs, and his final grade; mental errors, critical errors and any loafs,” said Verduzco. “We grade, I grade, every snap and then we go over it, talk about what he was seeing, what the problems were. Every snap is a new snap.”
He has one more regular season game to showcase the progress made from those early morning sessions, from the after-practice work, from the beating he has taken all year in a new offense.
Just don’t expect him to change his stroke.
Photo Credit: Aileen Perilla