It’s no big secret that Central Florida and Nebraska have some distinct differences as programs.
Not only are the Knights ranked No. 14 — far too low, if you ask them — in the latest College Football Playoff Poll and still unbeaten this season, but the roster construction, salary levels and styles of play are also on essentially different planets than the currently coachless, shelved-for-the-winter Huskers.
It’s also no big secret that NU is, barring a dramatic shift in course, waiting on UCF’s American Athletic Conference title game to conclude before making it official that Knights coach Scott Frost will take over here.
Frost is obviously familiar with Nebraska — he played here, if you didn’t know — but building an operation will be different in most aspects than it was when he arrived in Orlando in December 2015.
Start with the staff. If Frost brings the whole crew or the vast majority — and indications are that he will — it will be because he has connections with most that go much deeper than just two seasons at UCF.
Seven of his nine assistants started in Orlando with Frost when he was hired. The only holdovers from George O’Leary’s tenure are UCF graduates Sean Beckton — the recruiting coordinator who transitioned from coaching wide receivers to tight ends — and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher, an eight-year NFL veteran on his second stint at his alma mater.
Two more are Nebraska graduates in offensive line coach Greg Austin (2006) and Ryan Held (1998).
Austin, defensive coordinator Eric Chinander and defensive line coach Mike Dawson each have years of experience working with now-UCLA head coach Chip Kelly, who tutored Frost at Oregon and is one of the 42-year-old’s biggest football influences. Dawson and Frost, though, never worked together until arriving at UCF.
Still more are tied to Frost from his time at Northern Iowa. Chinander was there for five years. Jovan Dewitt, who coaches the Knights’ linebackers, coordinates their special teams and serves as associate head coach, succeeded Frost as defensive coordinator in Cedar Falls in 2009 when Frost became Kelly’s wide receivers coach at Oregon.
Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco was at UNI from 2001-14.
Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Troy Walters has looser ties, spending 2013-15 as the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Colorado while Frost was at Oregon.
The coordinators, Walters and Chinander, are both highly thought-of in the industry and, save perhaps a head coaching opportunity elsewhere, Frost is almost sure to bring both to Lincoln.
The UCF assistants in 2016 made a total of about $2.13 million — Chinander was the highest paid at $425,000 — according to USA Today’s most recent database, and about $50,000 was added to the pool in May. Nebraska’s assistants made about $3.7 million in 2017 and were slated to make $3.8 million in 2018 before a potential raise or replacement for first-year safeties coach Scott Booker.
Simply put: Assistants making the move are in for raises.
Then there is the Knights’ roster, which has 92 Florida natives (73.6 percent). Among 69 freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores, that percentage is even higher (82.6).
“They’ve gotten really good at finding guys that, for whatever reason, have everything you want in a top-level recruit except for one deficiency,” said Rob Cassidy, a Florida-based recruiting analyst for Rivals. “Like a short guy who otherwise makes plays, is fast, has everything you want but is, say, 3 inches shorter than the guys Florida State or Miami want. They’re doing that and doing it very, very well.”
Take, for instance, sophomore running back Adrian Killins. He was one of the first recruits of the Frost era and is listed at 5-foot-8 and 158 pounds, but was a high school track standout. He’s got a team-best 99 carries for 711 yards and 10 total touchdowns this season.
“They’re competing with Syracuse, Indiana, Power Fives that like to spot-recruit Florida,” Cassidy said. “Some of those players that would have left the state and gone to those programs are now going to UCF.
“Scott’s done such a good job of changing the reputation of the program from fall-back small school to a real player.”
Cassidy thinks that success can carry over to a Lincoln-based operation, but doesn’t think the Huskers will be able to lean too heavily on the state.
“At Nebraska, you always have to be in Texas. You just have to be,” he said. “You can spot-recruit Florida and get a couple of four-stars out of Florida, but I just think you’re going to waste your time if you try to recruit the top five guys in the state. They’re going to go to Alabama or FSU or Miami now or with Dan Mullen at Florida now, maybe there.”
The spread-out, uptempo system? That’s not going to change. UCF is leading the nation in scoring (48.3) and is third in yards per play (7.44) while running the ball 55 percent of the time.
“Are they going to get (a bunch of Florida guys) Year 1? Probably not,” Cassidy said. “But if Frost gets in there, puts in the offense and that offense works like it’s worked everywhere else and they start rolling, then the momentum carries himself because he does have a name down here. If you have the name and you have the momentum on the field, kids want to go there.
“It’s not a very complicated formula.”