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UCF football’s worst season since 2004 is now over, and fans may gasp for a breath of fresh air as they await a new season.

While the Knights were just one of two FBS Division I teams to go 0-12 this season, by no means does that instill that their future is bleak.

“This program will rebound, we all know that. What it’s built on, the foundation is solid,” interim head coach Danny Barrett said after the team’s 44-3 loss to USF. “We just need to get some key guys at key positions to help out from a depth standpoint.”

After back-to-back American Athletic Conference titles, it may have seemed improbable that the team wouldn’t win a game this season, especially because prior to the season the Knights were 15-1 in the AAC and projected by 30 of the league’s media representatives to finish second in the East Division.

The loss of 21 seniors from last season combined with injuries and inexperience put the Knights in a position they never thought they’d be: last place.

But Barrett is persistent they will bounce back, and there were a few freshmen who stepped up to new heights this season that will be at the forefront of the next-generation Knights.

Barrett said that running back Taj McGowan, linebacker Pat Jasinski and wide receivers Tre’Quan Smith and Tristan Payton were four freshmen who impressed him the most through their first year of college football.

“[McGowan] wasn’t expected to get a lot of snaps this year. … I think McGowan on offense for sure. Defensively right now, [Pat] Jaskinski, young ballplayer, wasn’t expected to start, he got a lot of snaps so his future is bright as well,” he said. “We knew Tre’Quan was going to be a good football player because he was here last year. He had an opportunity to learn from some of the best guys that’s come through this program as far as receivers.

“Tristan came in, we expected him to come out and produce as well. He was one of the guys that came in in the summer that did a good job.”

McGowan stifled opponents on the ground and was second on the team in rushing yards. He netted 262 yards and a touchdown on 85 carries — and he only played in eight games. Though the Knights’ ground game wasn’t anywhere near what is has been in recent years, McGowan showed that he can be a guy to lean on in the future.

Jasinski was seventh on the team in tackles (42) and tied for ninth in tackles for loss (two for 8 yards). He started six games and played in all 12.

Payton was second on the team in receiving yards (264) and receptions (21), and he missed two games due to injury. He was one of six Knights to record a receiving touchdown. He also returned 30 kicks for 726 yards, which is an average of 24.2 per return.

Smith may have stepped up the most, though. He led the team with 724 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 52 receptions. He also set a new program record for receptions and receiving yards by a freshman. He was sixth among freshmen in the entire FBS for receiving yards this season.

Smith capped his freshman season by earning the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year award Wednesday. He became the first Knight to take the title since Jeff Godfrey in 2010. Along with former running back Kevin Smith, he became the third player in program history to earn the achievement.

One thing is for sure, though, the Knights can only go up from here.

“Young guys got more playing experience this year than they probably thought they ever would,” Barrett said. “They will come back in the spring and compete and be that much better next year.”

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Jarrod Heil is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @JarrodHeil or email him at JarrodH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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