Injuries force UCF to hold open tryouts with Houston looming

Central Florida defensive back Shaquill Griffin (10) breaks up a pass in the end zone intended for Connecticut wide receiver Brian Lemelle (18) during the first quarter of an NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)
Central Florida defensive back Shaquill Griffin (10) breaks up a pass in the end zone intended for Connecticut wide receiver Brian Lemelle (18) during the first quarter of an NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Teams on the cusp of becoming bowl eligible don’t usually have to hold open tryouts on campus looking for players in the middle of the season.

That is exactly what UCF coach Scott Frost did last week.

Injuries to scholarship players have thinned the scout team to near desperate levels and the coach is looking for some walk-on help, although it won’t arrive in time to help the Knights prepare for Saturday’s American Athletic Conference clash with Houston.

“As the season has worn along we’ve had some minor injuries,” said Frost, who hasn’t settled on which walk-ons he will add to the roster. “We’re just looking for a little more depth here and there.”

Depth issues aside, the Knights (4-3, 2-1 in the AAC) turnaround season is going better than expected with the team two wins away from bowl eligibility after coming off a 0-12 season in 2015.

“I didn’t honestly know going into the beginning of the year how quickly we’d be able to accomplish some of our goals and make that work,” said Frost, who was brought in from Oregon to replace George O’Leary last December. “We’ve made a lot more progress than maybe I even thought to the point our record is really good for where our expectations were going at the beginning of the year.”

There weren’t a lot of expectations for a program coming off a winless season. But the Knights have turned it around with a tenacious defense and often just enough offense to squeak by as they sit in contention with Temple and USF for the AAC East division lead.

UCF is coming off an impressive come-from-behind 24-16 road win over UConn on Saturday. The win followed a heart-breaking last-second homecoming 26-25 loss to Temple a week earlier.

“For us to get down the way we did and claw back was great to see,” said Frost, whose team also suffered a double-overtime loss to Maryland on the final play earlier in the season. “It showed the character of our team. And to be in an identical situation as two others where we had to stop somebody at the end of the game was good to see. This team just continues to impress me with its character.”

After enduring last season, the players wanted to be improved. They worked hard during the offseason to be better.

Now they are enjoying seeing the results of the work they put in.

“It’s been crazy,” said junior defensive end Tony Guerad, who leads the defensive linemen with 25 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. “Last year was downfall, we didn’t play that good. But this year we have a chip we have a chip on our shoulder.

“It’s a different environment so we are (happier), playing fast and physical. So it’s been fun this year.”

The Knights have certainly caught the attention of Houston coach Tom Herman.

“Obviously you go from zero wins to three wins in four games, that’s pretty good,” Herman said. “Really good scheme, (Frost) has his guys playing really hard.

“So yeah, he’s done a really, really good job in a short amount of time.”

A defense that ranks in top five in most major categories in the AAC has been a major reason for the progress. But there is no denying the progress of freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton, who was first inserted into the starting lineup in the third game of the season, has gotten better as the season has progressed.

Milton is coming off his best game so far, throwing for 317 yards three touchdowns while completing 29 of 45 attempts while leading the comeback.

“I thought we took a big step forward on Saturday,” Frost said. “There has been improvement every week. Seeing the passing game click like that is a big part of what we need going forward.”

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