UCF football has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 25 years.
The Knights have seen it all from the early days as a Division IA independent to the program’s first steps in the MAC and CUSA before moving into national prominence in the American Athletic Conference. For many of its former players, the tremendous growth and success the program has undergone is nothing new.
“Even when I was here and the guys that I was here with, we all realized the potential [UCF] had,” said former Knights quarterback Blake Bortles. “We’ve seen that kind of come to fruition. After George O’Leary and Scott Frost and Josh Heupel and now Gus Malzahn, it’s been outstanding coaches. Gus is going to do great stuff, and he’s got a great staff and really good players.
“It’s only going to continue to grow. It’s a special place with a unique environment and a great atmosphere.”
Bortles was among a group of former football players to participate in an event for Mission Control, a collective that provides name, image and likeness opportunities for UCF athletes. He helped guide the Knights to their first AAC title and a Bowl Championship Subdivision bowl win over Baylor in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl.
“My years here at UCF will always be one of the highlights of my football career and my life in general,” Bortles said. “To me, it was the group of guys I was able to do it with. The recruiting class of 2010 — the guys that came in with Clayton Geathers, Josh Reese, Jeff Godfrey, Torrian Wilson and the McCray’s [Jordan and Justin] — it was a special group of guys, not to mention many more. We all went through it together and it culminated at the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona.”
Joining Bortles were fellow quarterbacks Daunte Culpepper and McKenzie Milton and former players Aaron Evans, Adrian Killins, Tre’Quan Smith and Shaqueem and Shaquil Griffin.
Culpepper helped lead UCF during its transition into Division IA football in 1996, while Milton guided the Knights to a perfect 13-0 season in 2017, capped with a win over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.
“I’ve always been proud of the program from afar,” said Culpepper, who became the first UCF player selected in the first round of the NFL draft when the Minnesota Vikings picked him with the No. 11 pick in 1997. “I’ve always been a great supporter no matter where I’ve been. I’m just so thankful and proud of the steps forward UCF has taken.”
“What McKenzie was able to come in and do and take from there. It’s been, it’s been unbelievable,” added Bortles.
The latest on UCF football, recruiting, basketball and more.
Smith was part of the 2017 team that went undefeated, leading the Knights with 1,171 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He would go on to be selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints.
Even now, he still gets grief from teammates about the UCF’s claimed national championship in 2017.
“All the time,” Smith said. “I tell them you didn’t let us prove ourselves, so yes, we are national champions. If you had let us prove ourselves and we lost fair and square, we would have been happy with that, but you didn’t let us prove ourselves, so yes, we are national champions.”
Players like Bortles and Smith believe UCF is more than ready to compete at the next level when the school makes the transition to the Big 12 next season.
“What Coach Malzahn and his staff are doing and the guys they’ve brought in this year — I don’t think there’s any reason they can’t go play big-time football week-in and week-out and compete at a high level,” said Portles.
Added Smith: “What he’s [Malzahn] doing with the program is amazing and he’s got things trending in the right direction. We’ve [UCF] been ready for it, but they [Big 12] just didn’t make a move. I’m happy they made a move now and I feel like we’re going to dominate.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Matt Murschel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @smattmurschel.