Who is UCF head coach Josh Heupel, and what Utah connections does he have?
BYU will face an explosive offense in Central Florida. Its head coach is familiar with the Cougars, having coached against them while the OC at Utah State
The last time BYU faced Josh Heupel, it was kind of a shootout in Logan with tractors, snowbanks, freezing temperatures and amazing plays.
In that game, a 51-28 win for BYU and one of Bronco Mendenhall’s final Cougar games, Heupel was the Aggies’ co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach working with Chuckie Keeton. The Cougars ended up winning with big TD pass plays from Tanner Mangum to Mitch Mathews, Algernon Brown and Francis Bernard.
This time, Heupel is the head coach at Central Florida and he’s created one of the most explosive offenses in college football for his 6-3 team, which faces No. 14 ranked 10-1 BYU Dec. 22 in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Central Florida is No. 2 in the NCAA in passing offense behind leader Florida, averaging 373 yards a game. Quarterback Dillon Gabriel ranks No. 2 in passing yards per game at 335.3 behind Florida’s Kyle Trask. BYU’s Zach Wilson is No. 5 (326.7 ypg).
I checked in with the Orlando Sentinel national college sports writer Matt Murschel this week and asked him to describe what Heupel has done at Central Florida and what makes him tick.
Here are a few thoughts about Heupel that I thought I’d share:
“The transition from Scott Frost to Josh Heupel in 2018 was seamless as UCF continued its climb into national prominence. It’s not an easy thing to inherit a team coming off an undefeated season, but Heupel was able to continue that success. Much of that can be attributed to the Knights’ fast-paced, explosive offense, which is an attractive option for players,” said Murschel.
“His development of the quarterback position, particularly, has been huge for the team’s success. He helped McKenzie Milton continue to grow as a player and it worked in getting Dillon Gabriel prepared to assume the starting job in 2019. Gabriel’s growth from year one to year two has been phenomenal.”
Heupel came to Utah out of South Dakota’s Central High and landed at Weber State, where he redshirted in 1996 and played in four games as a freshman in 1997. He tore his ACL during spring practice in 1998, which left him down on the depth chart so he decided to transfer to Snow College.
In Ephraim he beat out Fred Salanoa while playing for Keith Uperesa. He passed for 2,308 yards and 28 touchdowns, despite splitting time with Salanoa. He had a scholarship offer from Utah State but committed to Bob Stoops, who had just taken over the Oklahoma Sooners’ program.
At Oklahoma, Heupel was a consensus All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up to Florida State’s Chris Weinke. A few years after brief roster spots in the NFL, he accepted a graduate assistant coach position at Oklahoma with Stoops. He later became co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma before working at Utah State for a season. In 2016, he left for Missouri to be the Tigers’ offensive coordinator.
Murschel points out how Heupel has created a family atmosphere in the UCF football program, something BYU’s Kalani Sitake has worked hard to fit into the Cougars’ culture.
Heupel’s mother was a school teacher and his father was a high school football coach in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Like Ty Demter with his father Sonny, Heupel spent most of his childhood and teen years watching film with his dad.
“Heupel’s done a great job of creating a close-knit family atmosphere among the coaches and players,” said Murschel.
“The players constantly refer to the brotherhood created at UCF,” he said. “That’s been particularly challenging this season with the pandemic, but to provide some much-needed fun, the team has taken part in an annual softball game against the coaching staff, has held a dodgeball and kickball tournament, and has had fake snow brought in to allow players time to sled down a makeshift hill after practice.”
In these COVID-19 times, all bowl game activities will be scaled back with minimum interaction among teams, coaches and media. Many of the events associated with bowls (banquets, hospital visits, press conferences) will be curtailed.
But that’s 2020, when many teams have opted out of bowls, including the Utah Utes. Other bowl games were simply canceled and this season seems to be appropriately just slowly dripping to an end.
This game, however, should live up to its billing. It isn’t for the defensively weak of heart. It will be an explosive display of offense, led by two of the nation’s top quarterbacks duking it out on ESPN.
Provided it isn’t canceled.