ORLANDO, Fla. -- UCF hit its greatest heights over the past two seasons with an undersized, under-recruited quarterback from Hawaii. To reach them once again, UCF has turned to an undersized, under-recruited quarterback from Hawaii.
How a school in the middle of the most fertile recruiting area in the country went a combined 10,000 miles to build a quasi-pipeline to Orlando is only one piece of the story. The other is how McKenzie Milton and Dillon Gabriel made it happen.
Their improbable journey takes center stage in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl against Marshall in Tampa, Florida, on Monday (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). Gabriel, one of the top true freshman quarterbacks in the country, will try to get the Knights to 10 wins for the third straight season on the same field where Milton suffered a catastrophic injury that caused nerve damage and hindered blood flow in his leg, nearly forcing it to be amputated.
It will be the first time back in Tampa for Milton, who continues to rehab with the goal of playing once again. Milton prefers to look forward, and not back, though stepping onto the field again is sure to bring back a flurry of memories. Once the game kicks off, all his focus will be on his teammates and specifically Gabriel, the player he believed wholeheartedly would succeed him at UCF.
Milton and Gabriel sit on plush couches inside the UCF nutrition center after eating lunch, describing all the dominoes that fell into place to bring them together again. It all started with Milton, who set records and won a state championship at Mililani High School outside Honolulu but had only a few offers. He never even considered UCF until Scott Frost left Oregon for the Knights.
"Did you know the school existed?" Gabriel asks him.
"I heard of them when they beat Baylor [in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl] but never thought to come here until Frost," Milton says.
"Now they're a household name," Gabriel says.
"Got a ton of friends and family sporting our gear," Milton says.
They are sporting all that gear thanks to Milton, who set records of his own at UCF. Under his leadership and performance, UCF made itself a household name in the mainland United States, too, after an undefeated 2017 season that ended with a self-declared national championship.
Milton helped UCF start 11-0 last season, too, and over three years he has thrown for 8,683 yards and 72 touchdowns. But even as he put up big numbers, Milton had his eye on the future for UCF, and he firmly believed the future belonged to Gabriel.
The two met five years ago, when Gabriel decided to leave the private school he was attending and go to Mililani High School his freshman year. One of the biggest reasons he chose it was to learn from Milton, who was getting ready for his senior season. At the time, Tua Tagovailoa was also playing high school football in Hawaii, at St. Louis School, as one of the top recruits in the country.
"The touch Dillon was able to put on the ball at a young age, he was doing stuff I wasn't able to do until my junior year of high school," Milton says. "He was still raw fundamentally and I'm sure the game was a little faster at the time, but he was playing at an extremely high level. I compare him to Tua at the level he was at as freshmen -- him and Tua were pretty similar in the way they could throw the ball. Just the pop, the touch they were able to put on the ball, the feel they have for the game -- they have a sixth sense out there."
Once Milton left for UCF, the two stayed in touch. Gabriel would wake up early Saturday mornings to watch UCF games. As his career progressed, he had one offer from Army, so he committed. His father, Garrett, played at Hawaii and current Army coach Jeff Monken was one of his coaches there. Army felt like family, and though the Black Knights rarely throw the ball, Gabriel figured it would be a good place for him.
Going into his senior season, Gabriel still had no other offers. At 6 feet, 186 pounds, he qualified as undersized, and though the state of Hawaii has a long history of turning out top-notch quarterbacks, it is exceedingly difficult for players to get noticed and offered scholarships unless they attend a bevy of camps on the mainland.
But that all changed midway through the season. Gabriel broke the Hawaii state passing record that Tagovailoa set, and suddenly he started to draw interest. Milton had done his part in Orlando, nagging coach Josh Heupel to take a look at Gabriel on a weekly basis.
"I feel like I have an eye for talent. I can tell if a guy is going to be a guy, and I can tell if he's not. I thought it was obvious since he was a freshman in high school [that] he was going to be something really good," Milton says. "He was head and shoulders above everybody else and nobody offered him. He's committed to Army, and I said it would be a waste of his God-given throwing ability. This is an offense he can flourish in."
Heupel had not been to Hawaii to scout Gabriel, nor had he seen him play in person. In his entire career, Heupel had seen every quarterback he ever offered a scholarship to, but he watched game tape and trusted Milton enough to bring Gabriel in on an official visit last November.
Gabriel left with an offer to grayshirt, which means he would have not enrolled at UCF until 2020. Disappointed, he flew home. Two weeks later, he took a visit to Georgia, then flew back home again. After Georgia offered Gabriel, UCF changed its mind and offered for this year. Gabriel then went to USC for a visit the weekend before the early signing period in December.
That Monday morning, his head was spinning with all the possibilities. What's more, each offer from the three schools came with one caveat attached: He had to enroll early. As in January 2019. Gabriel had no plans to enroll early at Army, so he had to take two online courses in addition to his on-campus classes to graduate early.
"I remember eating breakfast with my dad and mom," Gabriel says. "I wasn't breaking down, but they could tell I was overthinking things. My dad broke it down for me. 'Where do you see yourself playing? Where do you see yourself living?' He asked me a whole bunch of questions. At the end of the day, all the answers are UCF."
Gabriel signed that Wednesday. Two weeks later, he was on a plane to Orlando.
With Milton recovering at home following surgery, Gabriel entered a quarterback room that featured Darriel Mack Jr. and Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush, who also arrived in January. Much of the talk headed into spring practice centered on Wimbush and Mack, who took over for Milton after the injury. Gabriel was able to fly under the radar, but coaches and teammates quickly took notice.
"The first day out on the practice field, he sees a pressure and throws a sight adjustment, something we talked about in the install, but he had never seen live, he recognizes it immediately," Heupel says. "The further he got into it, the more confidence he gained. [Milton] helped a bunch in the transition as well, almost feeling like you had a family member here in some ways, and you put all those pieces together, by the time we got to June, he was in a real place to compete for the job."
Milton helped as much as he could, always there to answer any questions, offer his insights or even home-cooking at his apartment. Gabriel felt good about his chances, but the opportunity to win the job increased after Mack broke his ankle in the offseason.
That left Wimbush and Gabriel as the top two candidates. Wimbush started the opener against Florida A&M. When he got his opportunity, Gabriel showed what nearly every college recruiter missed. He started the next 11 games and threw for 3,393 yards -- tops among all true freshmen in the country. His 27 touchdown passes rank third among true freshmen.
"He's a cool, calm collected guy, but he puts the work in," UCF receiver Gabe Davis says. "That's how you get confidence. He's in the hotel room before the game, calling every single call you give to the O-line as soon as we see the signal. This guy was overpreparing -- he was ready to go. Every time he looked at the signal, he went straight to the O-line, knew exactly what to say. He comes to me and tells me why he threw a certain ball. He can tell me what the safety and everybody are doing and why he made the decision. He overprepares -- he knows what he's doing out there."
That attention to detail is something his father instilled in him. But Gabriel doesn't have much to say about the stats he put up. What sticks with him the most is the 9-3 record. Especially after UCF played in New Year's Six games the past two years.
"I don't ever want to go home for Christmas again," Gabriel says. "That's my goal. I want to be in the New Year's Six for the rest of it. Not taking for granted a bowl game, but there's always that fire in you that wants to get to the top of the top."
To do what Milton did before him.
That leads to the next natural question. Milton wants to play football again, but only if he is at his best. He hopes to get a timeline after a checkup in January. To play football again, he would have to unseat Gabriel from the starting job.
"We both want to play, but at the end of the day, we're team guys and the best guy should play," Milton says. "If it comes to that, it'll be great."
Says Gabriel: "That's exciting. I wouldn't be mad at any of it because I know whoever's going on that field is going to lead us."
Milton said he didn't think it would be awkward.
"I think it would be fun," Milton says.
Has Heupel considered the day he has to make that decision?
"I can't wait for the day that I get the chance to see KZ back out on the practice field," Heupel says. "That's going to be one of the best days of my life in coaching. Maybe one of the best days in my life, period."