Former UCF QB Dillon Gabriel recounts journey to Oklahoma as Sooners prepare for Cheez-It Bowl

Dillon Gabriel and McKenzie Milton talked as they stood side by side at the Varsity Club at Camping World Stadium on Monday.

There’s a lot of history between Gabriel and Milton, who share similar paths that started on the football field at Miliani High School in Hawaii and then took them across the country to Orlando, where they became teammates at UCF. Eventually, they would go their separate ways, with Milton moving to Florida and Gabriel moving to Oklahoma.

Gabriel returns to Central Florida after an up-and-down first season as the Sooners (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) prepare to take on No. 13 FSU (9-3, 5-3) in Cheez ACC) – It Bowl (5:30 p.m., ESPN) Thursday.

“I’m super excited about this opportunity,” Gabriel said Monday. “It’s fun to spend time here and see a lot of people that I’m with. And then we have another chance to go bowling — bowling like this one. It’s going to be fun.”

It’s been a long journey for Gabriel, who shocked some fans by deciding to move after three seasons at UCF on Nov. 27, 2021. It’s been a challenging time for the junior, returning from a shoulder injury that ended Game 3 of the season, and the left-hander has been sidelined for the rest of the year.

Former UCF and current Oklahoma State quarterback Dillon Gabriel speaks with the media during the Monday, Dec. 26, 2022 Cheez-It Bowl event.  Gabriel spent three seasons with the Cavaliers before moving to OU in 2021, where he helped lead the Sooners to a 6-6 record this season.

Gabriel started 25 straight games before a season-ending injury and finished his career with the Cavaliers with 8,037 yards and 70 touchdowns on 14 passes.

“Everyone will make a decision that is best for them, their career, their dreams and what they want to achieve,” Gabriel said of his decision to move and the reaction of his former teammates. “They understood it very well throughout the process.”

It was a difficult time for Gabriel, who reflects on the sense of unknown he faced entering the portal and whether his decisions would ultimately pay off. Fortunately, he wasn’t alone, as former UCF teammates like Matt Lee, Mikey Keene, Parker Navarro and Jaylon Robinson offered encouragement via text and phone calls.

Milton also got involved.

“Our lives were intertwined through high school and college,” Gabriel said. “I truly believe that God wants us to come into each other’s lives and connect. As a result, He will always be family. I answer the phone, FaceTime or call any time of the day, and it’s the same for Him.”

Gabriel entered the transfer portal in mid-December before initially committing to UCLA, then reversed his commitment to Oklahoma after Lincoln Riley left to accept the USC job. Brent Venables, former OU assistant coach under Bob Stoops, has hired former UCF offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby to run the offense .

Familiarity with Lebby, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at UCF under Josh Heupel in 2018-19, and his approach to the Cavaliers’ offense led Gabriel to decide to join the Sooners plan.

“That’s a big reason, as I said, the relationship, the most important thing is the QB and the caller relationship,” Gabriel said. “Being able to talk freely on the phone between drives and then week to week, game to game, knowing we can make adjustments and understand the working relationship has been really helpful.”

Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Jeff Leby discusses quarterback Dillon Gabriel's journey to join the Suners this season. Gabriel and Lebby spent two seasons together at UCF from 2018-19.

Even for Lebby, who returns to his alma mater after two seasons as OC at Ole Miss, it’s important to have someone he can trust to run the offense.

“Having someone like Dillon in the room with you on your first day on the job is special,” Lebby says. “No. 1 because of our relationship, but secondly, it made it a lot easier to install and teach everything. Of course, the communication was great, and he was able to simplify things inside the walls every day, which was great.”

Gabriel earned Big 12 Rookie of the Year honors by passing for 2,925 yards with 24 TDs and 6 INTs while rushing for a career-high 300 yards with 5 TDs. He missed a game against Texas on Oct. 8 after suffering an apparent concussion against TCU last week.

“Dillon played well and will continue to play better,” Raby said. “but [I’m] Proud of his journey, how he continues to grow and how he keeps the locker room together. Things didn’t go the way we’d hoped, and he’s doing a great job of being consistent in the building every day. “

Florida State linebackers Tatum Bethune and Gabriel were teammates during the 2019-21 season despite being on opposite sides of football. When they find out they’ll play with each other, no trash talk, just a desire to connect in person. But come Thursday, things will be different.

“When I was at UCF, I was playing against Dillon every day, but we couldn’t touch him,” Bethune said. “But this time, I can, so it’s going to be fun.”

After Thursday’s game, Gabriel faces another big decision: whether to return to the Sooners next season or leave to pursue an NFL career. While he gave no hints about the decision he would make, Leby said there have been some conversations about it.

“At this point, he wants to focus on going out and playing the best he can possibly be at No. 29, and that’s where he’s focused, and that’s where he’s at right now,” Leby said.

This article first appeared on Orlando Sentinel Network. Email Matt Mershall mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com Or follow him on Twitter @osmattmurschel.