Jacksonville Sports Day

UCF: Milton Headed Elsewhere to Continue College Football Career.

By John Heisler

ORLANDO – McKenzie Milton is moving on.

The Hawaii heartthrob quarterback–who airmailed all the exhilarating highlights any UCF fan could have prayed for—is headed elsewhere to continue his college football career.

Despite all his success with the Knights, he’s doing this with the most unselfish of motives. He still believes he can play football—and he has no interest in competing for the UCF quarterback job against his best friend, Dillon Gabriel.

So he has decided his best move is to say his good-byes in Orlando and find an opportunity somewhere else.

Yet, as UCF head coach Josh Heupel says emphatically, he qualifies as “the most influential person in the history of our program.”

As hard as it is to leave a place that has become home to him, Milton is moving on.

It didn’t take long for new UCF football coach Josh Heupel to appreciate the abilities of Milton.

Named Knights’ head coach two days after the team’s 2017 American Athletic Conference Championship Game victory over Memphis, Heupel was a spectator for UCF’s Peach Bowl win over seventh-rated Auburn—a victory that earned the Knights a 13-0 season and a national championship.

“That was the first chance to see him live,” says Heupel.

“There was a play where he moves right, puts on the breaks, scrambles and hits a receiver breaking a route off in the back of the end zone.

“Somebody caught my reaction to that and it went viral. Just a dynamic playmaker and just a unique player, right?

“You watch his game, his heart and passion, his drive and competitiveness—you see it all when he’s out there on the football field.”

And that never changed.

Milton recalls meeting Heupel for the first time the day UCF’s head coach was hired:

“I knew he was a great player at Oklahoma, won a natty (national championship).

“It’s been a special relationship we’ve built. He helped me take my game and go from a 19-year-old kid at the Peach Bowl to a 23-year-old man.

“He said, ‘You guys had a great year–I can help you take the next step to get to that next level.’

“His resume spoke for itself. And when you have a guy who has done it, he knows what it takes—it’s easy to listen to him. I was all ears.

“He helped me take the next step to being a leader and a better quarterback.”

To understand Milton’s priorities is to appreciate the totality of his five years with the Knights. He made the long trip from Hawaii in early 2016 for official visits to Navy and UCF—and fell in love with the Knights’ campus and program.

“I just loved the vibe from the moment I got here,” he says. “I looked at my mom and she knew this was where I wanted to go.

“I saw a young school with a new AD (Danny White) who was ambitious and a program that was not far from winning the Fiesta Bowl (over Baylor to end the 2013 season).

“I knew the potential with the talent in Florida. I felt it was the best opportunity to play ball and that turned out to be right. I still feel like we’re still just scratching the surface here.”

Milton became the starting quarterback three games into what became a 6-7 freshman season in 2016.

“It was a rollercoaster, trying to win a team over with a bunch of seniors and a bunch of upperclassmen who really did not know a lot about me,” he says.

“I thought we could have done a lot better, but you have to go through those woes sometimes. It was an interesting journey, for sure, that first year. I felt like I had to go through that to take the next step the next year and then the year after that.

“Just lessons learned that year–and all of those are blessings, for sure.”

Milton decided quickly his sophomore season that big things might well be on the horizon for the Knights.

“I knew we had a special team in spring ball in 2017.

“I told the guys, ‘Why not us?’ I looked at the schedule in the springtime, and I thought, ‘We can beat all these guys.’ I thought we could have been a 10-win team the year before.

“There was a lot of leadership in the locker room that year—it started in there. We won a lot of close games, and I think it was because of the guys in that locker room. The wins were great, but being in the locker room was the special part about it.

“The Peach Bowl validated what that team was all about. No matter who was lining up across from us, they were going to get our best. Didn’t matter if you were a Goliath or a David, we were coming at you all 60 minutes. That’s when UCF football is at its best. That’s what that team was about.

“Seeing the tenacity those guys played with—just find a way to be plus-one, as Coach Heup would always say. We found a way to do that against Auburn.

“My favorite memory was just being with the boys on the plane-ride back–it was the last time that group was going to be together. The wins and losses come and go, but the relationships you build with your teammates and coaches–that’s forever.”

To listen to Milton is to understand that he values his relationships with the guys he plays with far more than any statistics.

“He’s been a captain for us all year long,” Heupel says of the 2020 campaign.

“We break every huddle with the saying, ‘One team, one heartbeat.’

“His heartbeat is in the middle of our football team. That’s the competitive spirit he has always brought and that’s just who he is and how he lives. He instilled things into his brothers every single day.

“You ask KZ about his memories and it’s always about the people–his brothers, the relationships.”

Milton found that out more than ever after that fateful November afternoon in 2018 when a gruesome right knee injury sent him to the sideline during a game in Tampa against South Florida with his UCF team again unbeaten. That set in motion a two-year story of rehabilitation and visits to the Mayo Clinic—but, more than anything, endless and painstaking work by Milton to give himself a chance to play again.

Says Heupel, “For KZ over the last couple of years, it’s been going through a traumatic injury, being one of the greatest players in college football and 30 seconds later wondering, ‘Am I going to be able to keep my leg?’

“And then to have the ability to withstand all the surgeries, all the hardship, all the pain, all the questioning of whether he would get the opportunity again to compete at the highest level.

“To see someone walk that mountain and pick themselves up every single day and fight and strive—it’s lessons I’ll forever take with me and it’s something that’s been demonstrated to our entire football team.

“He’s lived it in a remarkable way.”

A week after the injury UCF dedicated the 2018 AAC Championship Game victory over Memphis to Milton, distributing 40,000 leis to fans at the Knights’ stadium. UCF player helmet bumpers read 808 (for the Hawaii area code), with stickers on the back that said 10hana, a combination of Milton’s jersey number and the Hawaiian word “ohana” (it means family).

“10hana became the theme of that conference championship game,” says Heupel. “This place will be ohana forever with the Miltons.”

Ironically, it was only two weeks before Milton’s injury that current Knight sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel (a high school teammate of Milton) first came to UCF for his official visit. That set the stage for the next chapter of a relationship that explains even more about why Milton is choosing to leave UCF.

Milton threw for 8,683 career yards and 72 touchdowns in 2016-17-18, also leading UCF to 25 straight victories over one stretch.

Gabriel has thrown for 7,006 and 59, respectively, in 2019-20.

They may not have quite been Bono, Cher or Jay-Z—but these two best-friend UCF quarterbacks worked their way into the hearts of Knight fans in such intimate ways that they became as well known by their initials as their actual names.

“I met him when he was a wide-eyed freshman at Mililani (High School in Hawaii) at our football camp,” Milton says of Gabriel.

“He always wanted to learn, and he was always a baller. I got hurt my senior year and it was crazy, because it worked out then almost like it has in college with him jumping in and leading us.

“He was kind of under-recruited at first, and I told the (UCF) coaches, ‘You’re crazy if you don’t take this guy. He’s a stud.’

“I felt like he was the best QB in the country coming out of high school. I was just an advocate for him and a big brother to him and he’s taken it to a whole different level.

“He approaches it like a professional. I’m older than him, but I look up to him in a lot of aspects with the way he approaches his craft. I’m going to take some of those tools with me and try to apply it to my game.

“One, he’s a leader—he’s the first guy in the building and the last guy out. That’s what you expect from a quarterback, and he’s doing it every day—and guys see that.

“Two, he’s just a baller. The way he anticipates throws for a 19-year-old kid, it’s really impressive. The sky’s the limit for him.”

At the same time this fall Gabriel was leading the nation in passing yardage and total offense, Milton was slowly but surely reaching the point where he could think seriously about being able to return to competition.

And that scenario prompted Milton to consider another option.

“It’s been something I’ve been thinking about since the beginning of the season–because I knew I was on track to be able to play again,” says Milton.

“I came to Coach Heupel during the bye week in November—I didn’t want to blindside him at the end of the season.

“With the trajectory of our team, Dillon has earned the right to be our quarterback. And yet I have one shot to chase a dream.

“If I was a coach, I couldn’t make DG take a back seat. He’s earned it. But, at the same time, I want to play, too.

“I told Coach, ‘It’s hard, one of the hardest things for me to do. but it makes the most sense.’

“I tried to think about it more logically than emotionally because I bleed black and gold—this is where my heart is at. At the same time, I’ve got one shot to go get it.

“Coach got emotional–I love him, he loves me. I think maybe I caught him off-guard—but it’s just one of those things.

“It’s DG’s team now—I feel like the torch is passed. He’s gonna take it to a whole ‘nother level.

“I’ve watched college football all my life, and any time I’ve ever seen two quarterbacks compete it hasn’t worked out. DG is like a little brother to me–and with the trajectory he’s on, I wouldn’t want to slow down his momentum.

“I don’t think anything could come between DG and me—but I felt it was the best decision for both sides.”

Heupel understood where Milton was coming from—yet he wanted to make sure Milton was certain of the decision.

“He first told me where his mind was–and it’s absolutely the most unique of circumstances. These are two guys that absolutely love each other and really are brothers,” says the UCF head coach.

“As he has continued to get better he gets closer to the reality that, ‘I’m actually going to have a chance to play’ and the reality of, ‘How do I do it and give myself the best chance to accomplish my goals and dreams?’

“It’s so unique in that they have great respect and love for each other. It’s been KZ constantly helping Dillon in the QB room, on the field and as a voice on the sideline, too.

“And they do not want anything to come between them.

“The day after the South Florida game I met with KZ and his family—then we sat back and I said, ‘Let’s think about it.’ It was important that we talked through it and that he had time to digest it and really come to terms with it.”

Then Heupel and Milton spoke again early this week—and Milton knew which way he wanted to go.

“I said to him, ‘I love you fiercely. This will always be your home,’” says Heupel.

As much as UCF fans and the media have speculated about the prospect of Milton returning to the field to battle for the starting quarterback job with Gabriel, that didn’t excite anyone within the program.

“They don’t want any part of that,” says Heupel.

“I love ‘em both. But if they’re both out there competing, somebody’s not going to play as much as they want to.”

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