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McKenzie Milton wants to lead UCF-like turnaround at Florida State

The former UCF star says he doesn’t want to have any regrets when he looks back on the career that has taken him from Orlando to Tallahassee.
Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton continues to recover from the awful leg injury he suffered as UCF's star quarterback in 2018.
Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton continues to recover from the awful leg injury he suffered as UCF's star quarterback in 2018.
Published Jan. 15
Updated Jan. 15

Two weeks into his Florida State career, quarterback McKenzie Milton can already see the parallels between the Seminoles and his old school, UCF.

The Knights experienced a disastrous fall, from a 12-1 season and Fiesta Bowl win in 2013 to a winless campaign two years later, just before Milton’s arrival. Then Milton led them on an equally epic two-year climb that ended with a perfect season and Peach Bowl triumph.

“It’s a similar deal here,” Milton said Friday in his first FSU news conference since transferring from UCF last month. “There’s a lot of talent here. There’s great coaching. So there’s all the tools and all the pieces here to have success.”

Related: Former UCF star McKenzie Milton transfers to FSU

A New Year’s Six bowl seems like a reach for a Seminoles team coming off a 3-6 season — the program’s worst since 1975. But if nothing else, FSU has a veteran quarterback coach Mike Norvell can build around.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Milton was one of the best players in UCF history. He set Knights single-season passing records with 4,037 yards, 37 touchdowns and a 179.29 efficiency during the program’s historic 2017 season. Clearly, he’s talented enough to make a difference on an offense that had more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (10).

Assuming Milton’s healthy enough to do so.

His football career nearly came to an end against USF in Tampa 26 months ago, when he suffered a gruesome right knee injury that could have resulted in a leg amputation. A year ago, he still couldn’t run.

McKenzie Milton's playing career nearly ended in Tampa in 2018.
McKenzie Milton's playing career nearly ended in Tampa in 2018. [ MONICA HERNDON | Tampa Bay Times ]

Milton recovered enough to lead the Knights’ scout-team offense this season, and he describes the range of motion in his leg as “functional.” Milton said he feels 90 percent and expects to be fully cleared by the start of spring practice. The message from his specialist in Minnesota during a checkup Monday: Go ahead and go play ball, KZ.

“If we had to play this weekend, I feel like I’d be ready to go,” Milton said. “I just know come Sept. 5 when we play against Notre Dame, I’ll be feeling even better.”

Milton said the decision to leave the Knights was difficult. He had a strong connection to the school and remembers how special it felt after his injury when the stands were full of fans wearing leis to honor his Hawaiian heritage.

But Dillon Gabriel’s ascension at UCF —he led the nation with 357 passing yards per game — made it clear that Milton’s time there was over. He quickly turned to Norvell and the ‘Noles.

Milton played (and beat) Norvell three times when Norvell was coaching Memphis. Milton saw enough from the opposing sideline to be excited by the way Norvell uses his quarterbacks and the freedom he gives them.

“I feel like it’s something that I can flourish in,” Milton said.

McKenzie Milton was one of the best players in UCF history.
McKenzie Milton was one of the best players in UCF history. [ KAIJO, CHARLIE | Tampa Bay Times ]

Milton and Norvell didn’t know each other well in the AAC but spoke a little during AAC media days before the 2018 season. The injury kept them from meeting on the field again in that year’s conference title game. Instead, Norvell had his team sign a ball to send to Milton as a get-well-soon gesture.

Now they’re united in Tallahassee, working toward the same goal of trying to rebuild FSU, the same way Milton helped turn around the Knights.

Related: College football has a problem. Blame Florida.

“It’s just something that you dream about as a kid, playing at a school like this,” Milton said. “... The history here, it’s second to none, in my opinion. Just extremely grateful for the opportunity.”