The UCF football program ushers in a new era in 2021. Head Coach Gus Malzahn comes over from Auburn and with him comes the power-spread offense. He also brings several assistant coaches that he worked with at Auburn, making the transition much easier. There will be plenty of offensive talent to score 40 points per game or more (UCF averaged 42.2 in 2020), and that’s where the conversation begins about the Knights.
Heisman Trophy candidate and UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel is one of college football’s best players. He shredded defenses over the course of the last two seasons, accumulating a two year passing total of 7,223 yards, 61 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Gabriel also rushed for 247 yards and six touchdowns.
Whether or not the Knights light up the scoreboard again will be in large part due to Gabriel, yes, although the UCF ground game must lead the way. Running back Bentavious Thompson is next in line to tote the football for the Knights, and he’s a senior with a wealth of experience that ran for 382 yards and five touchdowns last fall. He will be joined by sophomore running back Johnny Richardson, a speedy runner that could see action in the slot as well, plus fellow sophomore Damarius Good and three key transfers. From that group, there’s much anticipation regarding one of Coach Malzahn’s former players.
Coming over from Auburn will be running back Mark-Antony Richards, a highly recruited prospect with the ability to run between the tackles or get to the perimeter and make plays. He could be a key for the Knights this season. Joining him from the transfer portal will be running backs R.J. Harvey, as he returns home to his native Orlando, as well as Northwestern transfer Isaiah Bowser.
Gabriel will once again produce excellent passing numbers and that’s great. For UCF to win big games like the road trip to Cincinnati to play the Bearcats, the rushing attack will need to be on point from early in the season and thereafter. The talent is there; let’s see how the rushing attack progresses. Of course that means the offensive line must gel as well.
Just like with the preview of North Carolina State from Inside The Knights, the offensive line will be a key cog for the 2021 season. Leading the way will be offensive tackle Samuel Jackson. The redshirt senior will help to anchor a line that could be the deciding factor to whether the UCF offense, and the team as a whole, wins big games.
The offensive line will lead a rushing attack with plenty of talent and versatility. How quickly this unit picks up the playbook and blocking schemes could be the difference between going to a major bowl game or not. Coach Malzahn predicates his offensive philosophy on run-pass option plays that work off the inside zone running game, and that’s where the big fellas come into play. The offensive line will also be responsible for protecting Gabriel when he passes to a lethal wide receiver.
Junior Jaylon Robinson is a burner with the ability to take a short screen and score or get over the top of the safeties and score. He racked up receiving totals of 55 receptions, 979 yards, and six touchdowns last season. He’s one of college football’s most underrated players from a national perspective, and he should once again produce big numbers.
Joining Robinson will be fellow junior and fellow Texan Ryan O’Keefe, who contributed 20 receptions for 391 yards and three touchdowns last fall. Another player with the requisite speed to beat a team deep, the Knights need two more factors to provide a truly lethal passing attack this fall.
First, the Knights need to find a bigger wide receiver that will not only make tough catches on third downs and take the football off the top of a cornerback’s head in the back of the end zone, but a wide receiver willing to block within the rushing attack. A physical presence is needed. It does not need to be a 6’4’, 225-pound player, but a player with grit.
Transfers Nate Craig-Myers and Jordan Johnson should be two prime candidates. Craig-Myers played at Auburn at one time, and Johnson came over from Notre Dame after being one of the nation’s most highly sought after wide receiver recruits for the class of 2020.
The second aspect of the passing game is finding a reliable tight end. The position was almost non-existent for UCF last fall. There will be plenty of opportunity heading into the 2021 season as Coach Malzahn’s offense certainly utilized tight ends and H-backs in the past.
Moving to defense, it’s about mitigating big plays. Last season UCF was dreadful at stopping plays over 10 yards, and that must be turned around immediately. Newly hired Defensive Coordinator Travis Williams will bring a new look and a very positive attitude to the UCF defense. Look for a multiple defense predicated on speed and different formations to lead the way.
Above all else, Coach Williams and his staff must limit the number of “busts” in coverage, as well as find ways to get to the quarterback without having to constantly blitz. Coaching will help the issues with busts in the secondary or amongst the linebackers. A pass rusher coming over Auburn could be the answer to the pass rushing situation.
Big Kat Bryant comes over from Auburn and the 6’5”, 255-pound senior will be counted on to pressure the opposing quarterback. If Bryant even comes close to reaching his potential this fall, the Knights will have found a very good pass rusher.
Joining him to rush the passer could be a number of players, with defensive end Tre’mon Morris-Brash coming back for his junior season after recording three-and-a-half sacks in 2020. The interior presence will likely come from junior Cam Goode, a 6’2”, 295-pound player that registered three sacks last fall.
Beyond the sacks, those players, as well as many other UCF players, need to be consistent. Giving up big plays cannot happen for UCF to be a good defense. It starts with the defensive line, and there’s ample talent to see marked improvement.
Moving to linebacker, junior Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste could see an accelerated role as not only a linebacker, but a player that could come off the edge. Finding players that can play multiple roles within Coach Williams’ scheme will be pivotal, so keep an eye on Jean-Baptiste. Returning for his senior season will be linebacker Eriq Gilyard. He was responsible for 59 tackles and eight-and-a-half tackles for loss last season, as well as an interception. He will likely pace the Knights in tackles this fall. Junior linebacker Tatum Bethune comes back for his junior year after 57 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He also intercepted one pass.
The secondary lost NFL talent and it still gave up too many big plays. Forget the names for a moment, as this is the unit that must deliver better results across the board. It possesses some speed, but inexperienced players must find new roles and be ready to make plays. Opposing teams know that Gabriel and the UCF offense will score points, so any UCF opponent could come out throwing the football from the first snap of the game.
Much of the leadership responsibility could fall onto the shoulders of senior safety Derek Gainous. He started four games during the 2020 season, and he was the fourth leading tackler with 46 total tackles. He also accounted for an interception, a pass break up, and a forced fumble.
Two underclassmen cornerbacks could be the starters. Jermaine McMillian and Corey Thornton will certainly be in the mix at cornerback, and the two former Miami prep players will have a chance to help right the ship in the secondary.
There are other UCF defensive backs that could come to the forefront, but much more will be known after fall camp. UCF’s defense is headed in a new direction, and that means new players will be given opportunities to compete.
Overall, this is a team with the ability to score points by throwing the football against any team in the country. Whether or not UCF wins big, however, will still likely be based upon how well the Knights run the football and keep the defense off the field, as well as begin to mitigate big plays allowed on defense.