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Down one dual threat, UCF turns to another for AAC title game

Burly redshirt freshman Darriel Mack Jr. replaces McKenzie Milton as Knights quarterback.
UCF quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. (8) gets tackled by USF defensive end Kirk Livingstone (94) during the third quarter of the Knights' 38-10 victory Friday at Raymond James Stadium. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
UCF quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. (8) gets tackled by USF defensive end Kirk Livingstone (94) during the third quarter of the Knights' 38-10 victory Friday at Raymond James Stadium. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Nov. 29, 2018

TAMPA — Fortitude resides in a private room at Tampa General Hospital. Even at the bleakest juncture of his career, UCF dual-threat extraordinaire McKenzie Milton keeps making dazzling improvisations.

Still recuperating from the first of at least two surgeries to repair extensive leg damage sustained in Friday's 38-10 win against USF, Milton is remotely helping Knights backup Darriel Mack Jr. prepare for Saturday's American Athletic Conference title game.

Around dawn Wednesday, he was speaking via FaceTime with Knights quarterbacks coach Jeff Lebby, who indicated the conversations would continue all week.

"I have not experienced anything like that," Lebby told reporters in Orlando.

If Milton had his druthers, he'd will himself to the sideline or coaches box Saturday to offer firsthand counsel to Mack. As it stands, his attendance is doubtful. Even so, his inspiration and input would carry his burly backup only so far.

Saturday against resurgent Memphis, Mack must fly solo. And a Knight nation can only wonder how effectively the 6-foot-3, 230-pound redshirt freshman — widely known as DJ — will navigate UCF's warp-speed offense.

"He's a big, talented young man that can do both (run and pass)," Memphis coach Mike Norvell said. "I think that he will present a great challenge for us. He's surrounded by a lot of great playmakers."

A consensus three-star recruit out of Norfolk, Va., Mack has delivered solid — though hardly spectacular — relief efforts twice previously this year.

With Milton sidelined for "overall health" reasons at East Carolina in mid-October, he totaled 189 yards (including 120 on the ground) and watched his defense force five turnovers in a 37-10 triumph.

Following Milton's second-quarter injury against USF, coach Josh Heupel called a conservative game (40 run plays) the rest of the way, and watched his team outscore the Bulls 28-10 with Mack under center. Mack ran for 51 yards on 10 carries, and finished 5-for-14 for 81 yards in the air.

RELATED: No. 8 UCF, without McKenzie Milton, throttles USF, 38-10

"He managed the pass game, run game and the clock at the end. He handled every situation he was in really, really well," Heupel said.

"That's true of who and what he's been throughout the course of the season. Ever since having the chance to play against ECU, he's had a heightened sense of urgency in his preparation and that has led him to play the way he did."

Yet Saturday's challenge is steeper.

Memphis (7-4, 4-3), riding a four-game win streak, is neither a moribund team (like ECU) nor a reeling one (like UCF). Moreover, the Tigers rank third in the AAC against the run (154.5 ypg), meaning Heupel likely must diversify more than he did against the Bulls, who rank 11th (244.7 ypg).

Fortunately for Mack, he's got the FaceTime tutelage of Milton to help him cram for the biggest test of his career.

"We have complete confidence in (Mack) and we expect him to play in a great way Saturday," Heupel said.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Up next
No. 7 UCF vs. Memphis, Spectrum Stadium, Orlando, 3:40 p.m. Saturday
TV: ABC