By Ken Jackson
When it comes to college football, Osceola County has long been a majority of Gator Country.
But UCF, with its first-ever undefeated season that ended Jan. 1 with a 34-27 win over favored Auburn, another Southeastern Conference opponent, gave fans down here one county south of campus something to cheer for. And it wasn’t just geography that gave the county a link to the Knights’ incredible season.
Two players from here, Tyler Williams from St. Cloud and Tristan Reeves of Harmony, were members of that UCF team. The Knights ended the season ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll, the highest in school history, and garnered four first-place votes from the 51 pollsters and, because Auburn had beaten both Alabama and Georgia, who played for the College Football Playoff title as chosen by a committee, Athletic Director Danny White gave the blessing to fans to call the team a national champion.
The News-Gazette caught up with Williams this week, and will catch up with Reeves soon.
Williams signed to play in Orlando last February as a preferred walk-on. He projected as a linebacker after a 100-tackle season for the St. Cloud Bulldogs in 2016.
Much the rest of the team and the season, Williams’ role and outlook changed entering the fall, when he joined a talented group of tight ends. He redshirted the season and worked with the scout team, the opposition in practice tasked with looking like each week’s opponent. By the end of the year, he said, he’d earned practice reps with the starting unit, an offense that ended the season leading the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in points per game (46).
“I was open to the change, just doing whatever would benefit the program the most,” he said.
As a redshirted player, he worked hard during the year in practice, then became a spectator with a great view on game day.
“It was definitely an adjustment from being a big part of the St. Cloud team to redshirting,” he said. “It was humbling, but I understood my role, and I saw a lot of things that were eye-opening that really helped me. I developed patience that’s turned into momentum for next season and trying to earn a spot.”
A season that started with improvisation — two games were called off because of Hurricane Irma — turned into perfection that became exhausting near the end, as the revised schedule meant the team played 11 straight weeks, during which they endured the speculation that Coach Scott Frost would become Nebraska’s head coach and wear both Cornhusker and Knight hats through the end of the season, whenever it would come.
The season stretched into the American Athletic Conference championship game. Williams called the 62-55 double-overtime victory the highlight of the season.
“It was very exciting, but very tiring, we had more meetings, more practices and more preparation than anybody else in our conference,” he said. “The result showed the hard work everybody in the program had put in.”
That win put UCF in the Peach Bowl and on the national stage on New Year’s Day, playing right before the playoff games. Williams said the Knights prepared for it like a team that wanted to show it had earned more respect than given by the college football landscape.
“We practiced and prepared with a chip on our shoulders,” he said. “We worked liked we had something to prove. Yes, there was the coaching situation, but we were determined not to let that mess with our heads.
“The team was really focused, and we came out, attacked and proved people wrong.”
Williams said he got to be part of a wild sideline celebration that ignited when the defense intercepted Auburn quarterback Jared Stidham with less than a minute left in the game to seal it.
“The sideline was nuts, water bottles went everywhere,” Williams said. “I’ll take that moment with me the rest of my life, no matter what my football career holds.”
As for next year, new UCF Coach Josh Heupel hired on John Cooper to coach UCF’s tight ends, and Williams said Cooper wants him to stay with that group. It’s a position where Williams’ chances to earn playing time are good; junior starter Jordan Akins declared for the NFL Draft, and seniors Jordan Franks and Michael Colubalie graduate.
“It’s going to be a young position, and competition is going to be high,” he said.