ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Part of the pitch that lured McKenzie Milton from his home state of Hawaii to UCF was a pledge by then-Knights coach Scott Frost to put the quarterback on a path to a post-playing career in coaching.
A horrific leg injury last November turned Milton’s long-term plans into his current reality. He is determined to play again, and confident he will — just not this season.
Milton and the upstart Knights have brashly roiled the college football establishment the past two seasons, going 25-1, proclaiming themselves national champions after an undefeated 2018 and being not at all satisfied with the playoff selection committee’s consolation prizes.
Whether UCF can keep it up without Milton’s magical playmaking is one of the most intriguing stories of the upcoming season. But make no mistake, the guy everyone around Central Florida football calls KZ will contribute to the Knights’ next chapter.
“He’s going to take this year as a coaching role. Absolutely,” second-year UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “And so working fundamentals with our quarterbacks during the offseason. Kind of being in charge of that. Approaching it as a coach in his preparation. He’ll be a part of game planning. I fully expect him to bring ideas to the table, too. He’s not going to sit there and not do that. He did that at the end of last year in the conference championship and bowl games. He’s going to be a critical part.”
Milton has made huge strides since a low, but legal hit by USF defensive back Mazzi Wilkins the day after Thanksgiving sent him into emergency surgery to repair artery damage that could have cost him his leg. Milton got off crutches in April and now wears a thigh-to-calf black brace that supports his tibia while ligaments heal.
“Maybe at first it was uncomfortable, but I’m used to it now. It’s like a part of me,” Milton said in June.
Doctors have told him they want him in the brace until January. It has not kept him out of the weight room with his teammates or from the players-only throwing sessions with quarterbacks and receivers this offseason. He is not yet able to run and walks with a stiff gait. He does 2 1/2 hours of physical therapy five days per week.
For now, being limited to coaching is OK. It comes natural.
“I’ve always kind of felt like an extension of a coach,” said Milton, who accounted for 79 touchdowns the past two seasons. “The hours I put in, it’s very similar to the coaches. The amount of film I watch. The way I try to engage in practice. I mean, prior to the injury, just helping the helping the receivers be in the right spots. Talking to the o-line, just getting to understand what they do and being able to slide protections and all that. It’d be like a disservice to the guys if I didn’t help them because I’ve played more ball than anybody in our QB room, so I know I can help them out. And I can help our receivers with recognizing coverages and just being the best ball players they can be.”
UCF entered the spring with four quarterbacks competing to start, but the competition took a turn in July when Darriel Mack Jr., who stepped in for Milton after the injury, broke his ankle. Mack is expected to be healthy enough to play this season, but not at the beginning. That leaves Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush as the presumptive leading contender ahead of redshirt freshman Quadry Jones and freshman Dillion Gabriel, who played at the same high school as Milton.
Ask Milton about the quarterbacks and he already sounds like a coach.
“I mean they can all throw the rock. They all can ad-lib with their feet. But I just think it’ll be the guy who wins the team over in fall camp. Takes care of the ball and doesn’t turn it over and whoever the coaches feel will give us the best chance to win. But for me it’s all about who separates in that aspect mentally and really who takes care of the ball,” said Milton, who hopes for a seat in the coaches’ box with offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby on game days this season. Heupel said how Milton is used during games is still to be determined.
Wimbush spent four years at Notre Dame and started 16 games before transferring to UCF in January. He and Milton knew each other from their time at the Manning Passing Academy in New Orleans last year. Wimbush rolled Milton in a game of pool there and has been letting his new teammate hear about it ever since.
Aside from making Wimbush feel welcome on a new team, Milton has been working with him on the footwork necessary to run UCF’s scheme.
“It’s been a significant difference for me coming from the offense I ran up in South Bend to this offense. That’s where I had to make my biggest transition and he’s helped me make tremendous strides in doing so,” Wimbush said.
Receiver Gabriel Davis said Milton’s knowledge of the entire offense is expert level.
“He’s the smartest player I’ve ever been around. He will be big-time after football for sure when it comes to coaching,” Davis said. “He will definitely be one of the top coaches in the country.”
Milton said faith in God and the values instilled in him by his parents have lifted him through tough times since the injury. He doesn’t ask: Why me? He says he still has a great life.
“I’ve always felt like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. You know, day by day, the light gets a little bigger,” Milton said. “I’m just working towards the goals that I have, whether it’s coaching, playing. I’m going to work my tail off.
“UCF has given me so much more than I’ve given them. I know I’ll be connected here for forever, when my time is done,” he said, then added: “I don’t think my time will be done here for a while.”