Breaking down UCF’s 2017 Success and what to Expect From an Offensive Standpoint in 2018 using Analytics

With the departure of Scott Frost and the arrival of Josh Heupel, UCF fans are curious as to how the coaching change will affect a talented UCF team in 2018 following their undefeated season in 2017.  Obviously, there have been numerous reaction articles and “what to expect” articles from Heupel’s offense written by a lot more qualified people than me.  A couple of the things I’ve read were “Frost runs the ball more” and “Heuepel like to throw the ball deep more”.

I decided to take a look at some of these opinions as well as looking at individual numbers from returning players and the production lost from Tre’Quan Smith and Jordan Akins going pro using analytics.  I also looked into Heupel’s offense from an analytical and situational play calling standpoint.

All the terms used, can be found with explanation in the blog under this (if I did it right).

This is longer than I expected, so I broke it down by topic.



The first thing I want to take a look at is personnel usage.  Personnel relates to who is on the field, regardless of where they are lined up.  For instance, last season, Otis Anderson was primarily a RB in my opinion based on his splits, so when he split out as a WR, he is still counted as a RB.  Jordan Akins is a TE, regardless of if he is lined up wide or tight or even in the backfield.  So “12” personnel is read as one RB, 2 TE’s, and the non listed number is the amount of WR’s, in this case it would be 2 because there are 5 non-lineman+QB’s in on every snap.

Let’s take a look at UCF’s personnel usage under frost last season:

A couple things jump out at me. First, “11” personnel was used on about 60% of plays, this is the most common personnel used in modern day football so this is no surprise.  However, UCF was a lot more successful outside of “11” personnel.  With 2 RB’s on the field, UCF had a 60.3% success rate on 126 plays.  This is an extremely high number and is something that the coaching staff definitely looked at as a way to create miss-matches by getting any combination of Otis Anderson, Adrian Killins, Greg McRae Taj McGowan, or Cordarrian Richardson on the field together.

The success with 2 RB’s on the field is a critical number to me when we look at Missouri’s personnel usage:

Looking here, Missouri ran 94% of their plays with “11” personnel on the field.  As mentioned before, “11” personnel is easily the most popular personnel used and according to Warren Sharp, the Rams used it on about 81% of their plays last season and they had a pretty damn good year. So, this isn’t a red flag, but Heupel never ran a play with 2 RB’s on the field together which is a concern to me and I will get into why when I talk about Otis Anderson in particular.  You can say “Missouri didn’t have the depth at the skill positions as UCF had”, but that isn’t true.  They used 3 primary RB’s until Damarea Crockett got hurt halfway through the season, that is the same number UCF used. Mizzou also used 3 different TE’s and 7 different WR’s so depth wasn’t the reason for this in my opinion, some offensive schemes are just different than others regardless of speed and style.


McKenzie Milton had an unbelievable season in 2017 and UCF fans expect another in 2018.  Take a look at his accuracy numbers from last season:

Milton’s deep ball numbers are incredible, throwing an accurate ball 60% of the time.  The area I guess you can say he struggled are passes targeted between 11-15 yards, which is really about it.  The good news is, only 34 of Missouri’s 316 passes were thrown in this range.  There is really nothing to pinpoint on Milton about as he had success everywhere throwing the ball.

So what can we expect from the passing game with Heupel calling the shots?  Well, people like to say that he likes to throw the ball downfield.  This is true, but it is not a major change from Frost.  Of the 349 passes I charted for Milton, 65 (18.6%), of them traveled 21+ yards in the air, completing 50.77% of them.  Drew Lock threw 61 deep balls on 316 charted passes (19.3%).  Slightly higher % under Heupel, but in reality, both teams took a deep shot about 1 in every 5 passes thrown.  In 2018, I expect Milton to throw slightly more deep balls than he did in ’17 because of just how accurate and successful he is on these types of throws, but I don’t expect it to exceed the 20% mark.

Part of this has to do with the loss of Tre’Quan Smith.  Smith is extremely talented and was a great receiver for UCF, but the only area he was the best receiver on the team in last season, was on deep balls and he was damn good in this area.  Of his 76 targets, 29 of them came on passes 16+ yards down the field, 22 of them being 21+ yards, and he caught an amazing 21 of these targets.  Milton had a 72% completion % on balls 16+ yards downfield to Smith which is just unheard of.  No UCF player had double digit targets on balls 21+ yards downfield other than Smith so this is a clear area where someone else will have to step up next season, but with the WR talent UCF has, there should be no problem.

Of the 6 primary pass catchers, Smith had the second worst success rate on total catches, which is why I believe, besides the downfield success, UCF should not miss a beat without him.

In addition, they bring in Tre Nixon (hopefully) and Tristan Payton returns, both who I see as guys who are extremely talented and should be great deep threats.


Looking at UCF’s returning receivers in Dredrick Snelson, Marlon Williams, and Gabe Davis, there is a ton of talent.  In the last 3 games of the season, UCF’s three toughest opponents, Snelson was by far the best receiver on the team.  17 of his 20 targets turned into successful. Where Snelson thrived, was in the short passing game and using his athleticism to make plays. Of his 51 targets, 29 of them were at or behind the LOS to within 5 yards of the LOS.  Of these, he was successful on 20 of them.  He also averaged over 10 yards after the catch/per reception of passes at or behind the LOS (normally screens).  On his targets 16+ yards down the field, he reeled in 9 out of his 18 targets, look for this to increase in 2018.

Marlon Williams is a guy I think is really good and wouldn’t hate to see him moved to a hybrid tight end role with all of UCF’s WR talent.  He’s a big guy and can really block, I think it would create crazy matchup problems for defenses, but I highly doubt this happens. He only had 21 targets that I charted, but he caught 15 of them and all 15 were successful plays, good for the best success rate on the team. Safe to say, get the ball in his hands and good things will happen. He also led the team in yards after contact on receptions with 2.73.

Gabe Davis might have the highest NFL ceiling of the returning WR’s, but posted the worst success rate on the team last year. He was only successful on 19 of his 38 targets, but also only recorded 2 drops. A 50% success rate for a freshman receiver is by no means bad, it was the worst out of the 6 primary pass catchers. I think Davis is primed for a great season as all of these receivers are with Milton tossing them the rock.

Tight Ends:

Now, the tight end position is one that will be interesting this season.  A lot of talk I’ve seen is about how Heupel’s tight ends are such a key part to his offense.  Albert Okwuegbunam tied for the most TD’s in the country with 11, but I don’t exactly buy into the tight end being too important in this offense.

Missouri’s TE’s only had 48 targets and only 23 were successful plays.  This is significantly lower than the 50.66% success rate passes to the WR’s had. Off the top of my head, from watching the games, Missouri’s TE’s success came when they were virtually wide open and due more to defensive miscues than offensive scheme.

To put the target share into perspective, Jordan Akins had 45 targets himself, successful on 25 of them.  Akins had a pretty solid season and will definitely be a loss next season, but he is definitely a guy that can be replaced. For a tight end, 12 of his targets came behind the LOS, which is a lot, but his athleticism and size allowed for this and that is where he’ll be missed most.  Missouri only threw 5 of these passes to their TE’s successful on only 2 of them where Akins had a 75% success rate.

UCF will also lose a combined 20 targets and 65% success rate from Colubiale and Franks.  With the tight end position not being as important as some say it is in Heupel’s offense, I think Jake Hescock and Anthony Roberson should have no problem filling the void of Akins.

Running Backs:

What I think is the most important part to UCF’s success in 2018 and the change in offense, will be the run game.  Contrary to many people’s opinions, Mizzou relied heavily on the run.  UCF ran the ball 324 (not including scrambles) out of 710 charted plays, Missouri ran the ball 322 out of their 655 plays.

In what has turned into a pass first game, especially in college, Heupel relies on the run game to fuel his offenses success.  Missouri was successful on 56.21% of their designed run plays, an amazing number.  On 1st down, they ran the ball 159 times, successful, 54.1% of the time.

Looking at UCF’s run game last season it was good, but not great.  The first thing I’d like to point out is the carry share.  Adrian Killins had 112 carries, Anderson had 67, and Taj McGowan had 55. We’ll get into Milton’s rushing numbers later. Killins having 10 less carries than Anderson and McGowan combined is not very appealing.  I think every UCF fan knows who Killins is, and it’s not an every down run between the tackles back.  Of his 112 touches, he was successful on 48 of them.  Running inside the ends, he was successful on 29 out of 65 carries.

If you take a look at where Heupel’s runs go:

You’ll see that only 82 of the 322 when outside, not many to Killins’ strength.

Killins averaged 2.05 yards after contact and 1.05 yards after contact on his 40 rushes where he was contacted at or behind the LOS, one which he accumulated 14 of the 42 yards. Killins is an elite athlete and a great kid to get the ball in his hands, but 100+ carries is a lot for him and with UCF’s RB depth this season, there is no need for it.

Surprisingly, McGowan was UCF’s most successful runner last season with a 52.73% success rate, however his numbers are pretty ugly. He only averaged 2.25 yards before contact and 1.45 yards after contact which leads to the conclusion that he is not going to break any runs and he can have some big negative rushes as well.  However, he was 22/42 in terms of successful rushes between the ends.

An area UCF struggled big time was 3rd and 4th and short. Many people wanted Cordarrian Richardson to get these touches; however, if you take out the ECU game, Richardson was only successful on 3 of his 12 carries averaging 0.58 yards before contact and 1.45 yards after contact on those rushes.

If you take a look at UCF’s play calling by down and distance, you can see they struggled mightily on third and fourth and short. This is an area they need to improve on this season.  Last season, Heupel’s offense was successful on 19 of their 27 rush attempts on third/fourth and short which is significantly better than UCF’s 16 for 30.  This is an area where UCF needs to improve and hopefully under Heupel, who has shown his offense can be successful in this area can translate that over to UCF in 2018.

Otis Anderson:

Alright, on to my Otis Anderson rant I guess you can call it.  To me, there is no question about it; I think Anderson is UCF’s most important player on offense because of how good he is with the ball in his hands.  This is where the personnel discussion comes back into play. As I mentioned before, UCF was hitting at a 60% success rate with 2 RB’s on the field. Most of these came with Anderson on the field with either Killins or McGowan. Heupel did not run one play with 2 RBs on the field last season or in the 51 plays I have watched from 2016. Now, I know coaches change packages and will implement new things every year, but it is still a concern to me. Here’s why:

There has been a lot of talk about Anderson moving to WR and that he worked there most of spring. I didn’t see a single practice and wasn’t at the Spring Game so I have no clue what his rep splits actually were. I did however see his TD catch out of the slot in the Spring Game which leads me to believe he will definitely be seeing time there. If you take a look at Anderson’s receiving splits from where he was lined up last season, you’ll see that the slot is perfectly fine for him:


36 Targets is great to see. You’ll see 61% of his targets came when he was lined up in the slot, wide or tight, aka anywhere but the backfield. He had a 63.64% success rate when lined up S/W/T compared to a 50% success rate out of the backfield. His average depth of target was the line of scrimmage out of the backfield, mostly all screen passes, something Heupel doesn’t run much of to his RB’s. S/W/T his average DOT was 7 yards and he was still able to produce about the same production after the catch which shows how much more impactful he is as a receiver when not lined up in the backfield. His numbers in the slot could have been even better if Milton had hit him for a TD in the Peach Bowl after he got behind the defense with ease.

Last season, Missouri only threw 22 total passes to RB’s, only 9 were successful. 15 of those passes were at or behind the LOS, only 5 of those were successful. It is clear that passing to running backs is not a focal point of Heupel’s offense, so lining Otis up in the slot or out wide is a must.

Now, you’re probably wondering why the hell wouldn’t they just move Otis full time to WR, those numbers are incredible (they are). The answer is simple; he is by far UCF’s best runner. On plays run inside UCF’s own 40, an area of the field your offensive success will dictate the game, Anderson had a 62% success rate on his rushes.  Overall, on 67 charted carries he was successful on 34 of them, slightly above Killins and slightly below McGowan. However, he averaged more YPC before contact, after contact, and when hit at or behind the LOS than both.

To put this in perspective, Saquon Barkley averaged 0.47 YPC when hit at or behind the LOS, this was good for 57 out of 58 in terms of draft eligible running backs according to PFF. 1.5 is a very respectable average, especially for someone who is not looked at as a power back.

Limiting the negative plays in a high paced offense is crucial, especially in Heupel’s where the passing game seems to become a little more difficult. On pass plays on second/third down with 8+ yards to go, Missouri’s passing success rate was below 40%. Now, remember, Missouri’s QB, Drew Lock, might be the #1 QB prospect in college football this season, so this isn’t a Milton will solve all situation. There are reasons why there are numbers like this.

As mentioned before, Heupel loves running the ball up the gut, Otis was 11/21 on these types of runs a year ago.

On Anderson’s 46 carries on 1st/2nd down and 8-10 yards to go, he averaged right around 7 yards per carry, just tremendous production. On top of that, he was 17/26 on outside rush attempts. Get him in space and good things happen.

McKenzie Milton’s Rushing #’s:

Finally, Milton’s designed run game will still be part of the offense. I’m not going to go in depth because this is already long enough, but I charted 90 total rushing attempts for Milton, not including sacks. Of those 90, 62 were designed runs, whether they’re read options, sprint options, QB draws.  On those 62 rushes, he accumulated 423 of his 635 rushing yards, good for about 6.5 YPC. Heupel has said he wants to see Milton in the pocket more and that isn’t something that should concern UCF fans, I think it was clear last season, Milton wanted to be more of a pass first QB on designed passes. When he needed to improvise, he did, but he didn’t go over the top trying to make fancy plays. He is still going to get his carries on designed runs and that is something a defense has to worry about every snap.


I do want to get into a little thing on Heupel’s play calling tendencies in the fourth quarter, but will not go further into some play calling things other than that because this is too long already. Before that, I want to kind of give a conclusion after going through each offensive position group. The biggest thing to me is Otis Anderson. I think if Heupel turns him into a more one dimensional player in terms of a receiver or running back it will hurt the offense immensely.  The 60 carry range is a perfect target for him. It is slightly less than he had last season, but with UCF’s depth at the position, I think this is a great number. If I was coaching him, I’d want him running the ball when in bad field position and split out when you are in opponent field position, but I’m not a coach so I have no say in this.

His success swings as field position changes. We will see if Heupel’s “11” personnel love will change with the miss-match possibilities UCF can create with 2 RB’s on the field.

The loss of Akins and Smith will not cause for a drop in offensive production.

Overall, I think in terms of the offense, Heupel was a great replacement. He has experience with two NFL QB’s (Lock and Mayfield) like Frost did with Mariota which is great for Milton’s continued progression. I’ve said I expect nothing to drastically change throwing the ball wise, but I expect UCF’s running game to be significantly better this season. The tempo, and blocking schemes Heupel’s offense brings I think is better than Frost’s in terms of rushing success. On top of that, UCF has a slew of talented RB’s going into 2018.

4th Quarter Play Calling:

In a stat I got from Warren Sharp, NFL teams, 210-30 when leading after the fourth quarter. In college, I expect the % to be slightly lower, but I have no idea what is. Play calling is huge in the fourth quarter. Coaches either tend to get too aggressive when trailing or too conservative when leading.  There were four games I looked at for Heupel for this study, he didn’t have a lot of close games.  With only 4 games, this is obviously a small sample size, but all it takes is one close game loss to ruin a season even if you blow everyone else out by 21+.

Last season, against Kentucky, Heupel’s offense was down 6 with 1:48 on the clock and no timeouts. A back and forth quarter the entire way, made me jump right to the final possession. Starting on their own 25, Heupel was able to get off 10 plays in an attempt to win the game. An amazing number given the time left, but is that a number you really want? First play of the drive was a 2 yard pass to the sideline that gained 3 yards. Only took up 4 seconds, no big deal. The next 3 plays were passes that traveled 2,4, and 6 yards respectively all thrown inside the numbers. On 4th and 2, they ran the ball to keep the game alive (I can live with this as a first down stops the clock) and ended up gaining 17 yards. From midfield with 1:07 left (still enough time), they were able to get 2 first downs to the 28 with 28 seconds left (22 yards in 39 seconds is not great). Then a one yard pass inside the numbers essentially ended the game. Moral of this is, Lock is an NFL guy, a lot of these calls were first option quick release throws, by dinking and dunking, one play that doesn’t get out of bounds or a first down, ends the game, it is like playing with fire. When you have a QB that good, you need to put some trust in him and Milton is that good.

If you go back to 2016, there were 3 games in which Heupel had a one possession lead with his first full possession of the quarter, two wins and one loss. This doesn’t seem too bad, considering the loss was against #16 Georgia. However, there is no reason Missouri should have lost this game. Heupel, in my opinion, did the worst thing possible. He went conservative in an aggressive way. By this I mean, he went run heavy, but extremely fast. Heupel ran the ball on the first 14 plays of the drive which started with 13:35 on the clock, so he was obviously having success on the ground. You can’t argue with him sticking to the run. On a 3rd and 4 at UGA’s 28, he ran the ball, setting up a 4th and short, a 4th down decision to go for it decided on 3rd down. It worked out perfectly. The following 3rd down, 5 yards to go, he decided to throw the ball, after running 14 straight times and the ball was intercepted in the end zone. On the 14 runs, pretty clear, you are trying to shorten the game, Missouri left a combined 5 minutes and 20 seconds on the clock from snapping the ball so early in the play clock. Up by 6, run heavy, if they had run the clock down and simply kicked a FG instead of taking a deep shot on 3rd down inside the red zone, they would have been up 9 with 3 minutes left in the game. After a stop, they then got the ball back and ran it 6 straight times, before punting and allowing the game winning TD.

I won’t go into the Vanderbilt game to save some words, but they were able to extend their lead in that one thanks to penalties and well Vanderbilt also isn’t good.

Finally, versus Arkansas, Heuepel got into trouble when his team didn’t have success on first down. He decided to go Jaguars style and throw deep passes, that didn’t work. He faced 4 plays on 2nd or 3rd down with 7+ yards to go. 3 passes, all which traveled 25+ yards in the air. A very low percentage play when you are just trying to get first downs to shorten the game. Missouri’s defense bailed out the offense with two goal line stands in the fourth quarter to hold on for the win.

I will dive into more play calling hopefully soon, but this is too long so that will be all for now. If you don’t think this stuff matters and don’t think coaches of this caliber could do such things, check out how the Colts were the worst 4th quarter team ever thanks to play calling and how the Jaguars predictable play calling cost them a chance at a super bowl.

I have also added all the charts I created for UCF and Missouri’s 2017 seasons somewhere on this site.




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