What do you do when your offense loses a Heisman candidate?
There’s little you can do. College programs are kept in a rigid hierarchy by the geographic and fiscal limits on recruiting, as top programs acquire the few players that are mature enough in their football skills at 18, 19, 20 to be perennially successful. If you lose your Heisman contender, you lose that singular edge that keeps you among the elite.
And if you aren’t already a blue-blood? You shouldn’t really have a Heisman contender to begin with. Such was the case with UCF, who had their Heisman contender in storied quarterback McKenzie Milton. Milton had brought the Golden Knights to an undefeated season and a Peach Bowl victory in 2017, and even after the departure of head coach Scott Frost, wiped the AAC 10-0 and was on the cusp of another College Football Playoff push.
Then the unthinkable happened: Milton was injured in the War on I-4, popping an artery in his knee and enduring extensive nerve damage. His availability for the remainder of the season was not only removed, but his next season was also lost. The Golden Knights had taken college football by storm, but their lightning rod was lost.
Darriel Mack took snaps to end the year; experienced Notre Dame passer Brandon Wimbush transferred in to challenge for the job. Then Mack got injured; Wimbush took the starting job, with true freshman Dillon Gabriel’s strong camp also earning him a spot in the rotation. Gabriel was Milton’s replacement when he graduated from Mililani High School, where Gabriel had transferred with a sole interest in learning from Milton—Milton’s endorsement was the initial reason Gabriel got an offer to play at UCF, as a grayshirt to eventually play in the 2020 season. After Gabriel broke Hawai’i high school records set by Tua Tagovailoa, he started drawing bigger offers—Georgia, USC. But Gabriel denied both programs in favor of UCF and Milton.
So Wimbush took the first three drives against FAMU to kick off the 2019 season; Gabriel took the next one. Four plays, two passes, one touchdown—easy as that. By the end of the drubbing, Wimbush had attempted 23 passes, completing 12 for 168 yards and two scores—Gabriel had attempted 13, completing nine for 127 yards and three scores.
Gabriel started the next week against Florida Atlantic and every other game after that. He went from a 2019 grayshirt to the 2019 starter.
Gabriel was not a Heisman candidate in his rookie year; he wasn’t Milton; he lost some games and threw some picks. UCF would have been better off with Milton, with whom they could have again challenged for an undefeated record. But from an NFL draft perspective, Gabriel brings something Milton never had: the arm.
Milton is a zippy short-area passer who manages a pocket well and plays with accuracy, but he’s never had the distance or velocity on his arm necessary that you’d expect from an NFL passer. He could hit his speed receivers on quick reads, but struggled when challenging tight windows or working deep downfield on scramble drills.
Gabriel has no such issues. As he demonstrated during his freshman season and reminded us in his opening game of 2020 against Georgia Tech, Gabriel has a wicked hose and is willing to challenge vertical routes late and against tight coverage because of his velocity.
Gabriel has strides to make in his ball placement and risk management, as he gets amped up on the octane of the UCF hyperspeed offense and makes dumb mistakes or unnecessarily aggressive throws. He gets away with passes that he shouldn’t and will get punished by smart defenses who take advantage of his emotional play. But that’s an expected hill for a young passer to climb, and he’s shown growth over his double-digit career starts to this point.
So Gabriel is not Milton, and never will be. UCF can continue to build an elite AAC offense and challenge for the crown of Group of 5 programs with him at the helm. In fact, with impressive vertical receivers in Tre Nixon and Jaylon Robinson and a physical slot separator in Marlon Williams, their offense might be able to score in even more furious spurts than it did under Milton, even if it wants for consistency.
There will be times that UCF misses Milton and Gabriel continues to grow through his young mistakes. But the final product of Gabriel, whether it comes out early in 2022 or later in 2023, will be more interesting and translatable to the NFL because of the qualifying physical traits. Given what we’ve already seen of Gabriel, every throw from here on out is an addition to an existing NFL resume, a build on what he’s already established: he’s a future NFLer.