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UCF Knights QB McKenzie Milton enters transfer portal two years after devastating knee injury

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McKenzie Milton's long road back from injury (5:45)

UCF QB McKenzie Milton suffered a devastating leg injury in 2018, but he hasn't let that hinder his determination to play football again. (5:45)

UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton entered the transfer portal on Thursday, ending a five-year career with the Knights in hopes of one final opportunity to earn a starting job.

Milton has not played in two years, after dislocating his right knee and suffering ligament, nerve and artery damage during a game in November 2018. He has steadily worked his way back, and he ran the UCF scout team the past two months, eager for another chance to play.

With Dillon Gabriel entrenched as the UCF quarterback, it became clear to Milton that in order to achieve his goal of being a starter again, he would have to leave.

"I know my clock is ticking," Milton said in an exclusive interview with ESPN. "I've only got one more year to play, and the momentum Dillon has, I wouldn't want any controversy in the locker room. He's earned the right to be the starter here at UCF. I see that, and I feel it's best for both UCF and myself that I move on elsewhere. I'm trying to chase the dream of playing in the NFL, so I've got to give myself the best opportunity to do that."

Milton told his teammates about his decision on Thursday morning, after multiple conversations in recent days with Gabriel and UCF coach Josh Heupel, who was hoping to talk him into staying. The decision was made even tougher because Milton and Gabriel are close friends. In fact, Gabriel chose UCF in large part because Milton paved the path for him from Hawaii.

"It is very emotional, but it's one of those things where Dillon and I are on our own paths," Milton said. "He's on his at UCF, and I just feel like mine is coming to an end, so I feel like the torch is passed. He's going to continue to do great things. It's a hard decision, but it also makes the most sense.

"There's no bitter feelings toward UCF. I will always bleed black and gold. It's the end of a chapter for me and my playing career here, and that's probably the bittersweet part of it. We were able to accomplish a lot in my time here, and it's been nothing but a blessing."

Milton, who has accounted for 9,760 yards of total offense and 92 touchdowns in his UCF career, started as a true freshman in 2016, but the best was to come. The Knights went undefeated in 2017 with a win over Auburn in the Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl to cap a season in which they declared themselves national champions. Milton also led UCF to an undefeated 11-0 start in 2018 headed into the annual rivalry game against USF.

Everything changed for him when he took a hit to his knee in the second quarter of that game. In the frantic hours after the injury, doctors at Tampa General Hospital worked to save his leg from amputation. From there, the long road to recovery began. Milton's surgeon in Minnesota gave him clearance to resume football this past summer. In a recent interview with ESPN, UCF head football athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden said Milton's knee is stable and his strength is "within normal limits."

Milton is putting together a tape for prospective coaches that includes both his game highlights and his scout team work from this season -- something he believes is important as he begins the next step on his journey. Milton knows he will get questions about his knee and his long layoff as he starts to gauge interest from programs, and he is ready to answer them.

"I'm going to tell them I feel really good, and I've got film to show them from scout team, making all the throws, making throws on the run," Milton said. "But I'll also let them know I'll be ready to compete full go in spring ball for a starting job, and by the time the season rolls around I'm going to be 100 percent ready to go. I'm confident in that. There's nothing for me to hide. I'll do whatever I have to do. It's not anything I'm worried about. If that was something I was concerned about, I probably wouldn't be making this move."

Milton said he hopes to find a new school in time for the spring semester in January, so he can start to get to know his new teammates and the coaches. He wants to find a team with a chance to win that has a solid offensive line and needs a veteran quarterback, but he is not going to rush his decision.

Just as important is the strength and conditioning and medical team, given all he has been through the past two years. But Milton also says he feels better than ever.

"My knee's strong, all the ligaments are completely intact, I'm stronger than I've ever been, and I'll continue to attack my rehab," Milton said. "Even though I'm cleared, I know there's still some work to be done, just stacking day after day. By the time August rolls around, I know it's going to be like clockwork playing ball again. I'm really excited for that."