Orlando, Fla. - The area code 808 represents Hawaii, a state UCF Football recruited well during recent years. UCF has built a large following from the Hawaiian Islands since the arrival of quarterback McKenzie Milton, who was the first Knights football player from The Aloha State in 2016.
In 2019, two more Hawaiians arrived, quarterback Dillon Gabriel and guard Lokahi Pauole, both of which followed in Milton’s footsteps as star players for UCF. Even with the success of former Hawaiians going to Orlando to play for the Knights, it did not look like the 2021 recruiting class would bring in a player from Hawaii.
After a disappointing 2020 season under now former UCF Head Football Coach Josh Heupel, where the Knights only managed to win six games, new recruits needed to be signed on national signing day. However, an unexpected turn occurred.
Less than a week before national signing day, Coach Heupel was announced as the new Head Football Coach of the Tennessee Volunteers. Fans of UCF were devastated. Even though Heupel hadn’t earned much support, the coach leaving right before national signing day was undoubtedly terrible timing.
Gabriel, however, had a trick up his sleeve. One of his friends and fellow Hawaiian, Titus Mokiao-Atimalala was about to shock people and sign with the Knights. Gabriel was a big reason Mokiao-Atimalala signed with UCF.
A highly recruited athlete with offers to Notre Dame, Oregon, and USC among others, Mokiao-Atimalala announced his commitment to UCF just three days after Heupel’s departure to Tennessee. It was one of the biggest 2021 recruiting surprises regardless of the program.
Regarding his commitment Mokiao-Atimalala stated, “Florida is a long way from home, but my parents really trust the program and it is just like home, with beaches and the sun. I know the fan base has shown a lot of love for the Hawaii boys so I can’t wait to be a part of that and put on for the islands.”
Already earning a rotational spot at slot receiver, Mokiao-Atimalala was also the backup punt returner for UCF’s opening game against the Boise State Broncos.
After an injury to Amari Johnson early in the game, Mokiao-Atimalala was inserted into the lineup. A couple of errors on special teams occurred, which can be expected with growing pains for a true freshman during his debut. Mokiao-Atimalala still continued to play hard, and it paid off.
Finally on the last drive before halftime, Mokiao-Atimalala gained an opportunity to shine.
A quick swing pass to Mokiao-Atimalala from Gabriel went for eight yards. The very next play, Gabriel looked off multiple Bronco defenders before finding Mokiao-Atimalala wide open in the front-left corner of the endzone for a touchdown.
It was the first touchdown by a UCF freshman wide receiver during his debut since 2017 when Gabe Davis scored a receiving touchdown against FIU. Davis went on to become one UCF’s best receivers of all-time, recording 2,447 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns, good for seventh and tied for second on the Knights all-time lists respectively.
Mokiao-Atimalala went on to finish the Boise State game with three catches for 19 yards, as well as the touchdown reception. That production puts him on pace to finish the season with 36 receptions, which would be good enough for fourth all-time among freshman UCF wide receivers.
During Monday’s press conference for the Bethune-Cookman game, UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn provided his thoughts on Mokiao-Atimalala’s performance.
“Titus got thrown into the fire early. There's nothing like experience. He's got to clean some things up, but mentally he wants to be good. The moment is not too big for him. He'll have a chance to really help us this year I feel like."
UCF fans should expect Coach Malzahn to involve Mokiao-Atimalala even more in the offense against Bethune-Cookman, an opponent not likely on the same level as Boise State.
Will Mokiao-Atimalala be UCF’s next 808 star after Gabriel departs for the NFL? Only time can tell, but after an impressive start against Boise State, UCF fans will be thinking that he has a chance to be the next great Hawaiian to play for the Knights.