ORLANDO - There are only so many players with the natural passing skills of Dillon Gabriel. With those skills, UCF Football Head Coach Gus Malzahn adapted to Gabriel’s playing strengths. He’s a passer, doing his best work from the pocket more often than not.
Why would Coach Malzahn not allow Gabriel to do what he’s best at?
Well, some college football coaches proved to be stubborn as a mule as it relates to the word “change.” While a six-letter word, college head football coaches often treat change like a four-letter word.
That’s also why many of them end up being removed from their head coaching duties rather quickly. Coach Malzahn adapted to Gabriel quite well this season, as he should have based on what Gabriel accomplished in 2019 and 2020.
Through three games this season, UCF's offense found different ways to allow Gabriel to play to his strengths.
Gabriel proved through his first two seasons at UCF that he deserved to be called one of the nation’s most accurate passers, especially as it relates to the deep ball. In 2020 alone, Gabriel threw the football very well. He attempted 413 passes and completed 248 of those passes, for 3,570 yards, 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Sounds easy to just allow Gabriel to pass the football around, but some coaches might disagree, as noted above.
Good coaches find ways to adapt to the personnel at hand. A prime example would be Coach Malzahn, as he provided a great recipe for up and coming coaches to follow via his offensive history for the Auburn Tigers.
Watching Auburn’s Offense Run Over Opponents - 2013
Coach Malzahn’s Auburn offense could be very run-heavy, if needed. During Auburn’s 2013 run to reach the national championship game, the Tigers ran the football far more than passed the football. In fact, Auburn ran the football 71.9% of the time in 2013.
Quarterback Nick Marshall was a junior college transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College that was a gifted athlete. Before ending up at Auburn, Marshall originally signed with Georgia to play defensive back. Considering the level of talent the Bulldogs generally sign on defense, it helps to place Marshall’s physical traits into perspective.
Marshall was a master with the run-pass option (RPO) plays that Coach Malzahn liked to utilize. That Auburn offense destroyed most teams, averaging 39.5 points per game, in the SEC no less.
Instead of force-feeding Marshall a balanced attack, the athletic signal caller was provided with opportunities to allow him to thrive. It was great coaching combined with great skill. That’s how you take a team through the SEC West gauntlet and reach the National Championship Game.
For the season, Marshall rushed 172 times for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns. Coach Malzahn adjusted to the quarterback, the quarterback flourished, and the Tigers won big games. Coach Malzahn adjusted to a more balanced offense when needed.
A Shift in Philosophy and Play Calling - 2018
Moving to the 2018 season, Auburn ran the football 57.3% of the time. That’s quite a different play-calling concept from the 2013 Auburn offense. The reason would be quarterback Jarrett Stidham. More of a pocket passer, Stidham possessed the arm strength and passing talent to make plays much differently than what Marshall did well.
Stidham finished the 2018 season with 369 passing attempts, 224 completions, 2,794 yards, 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. Auburn averaged 30.9 points per game. Just like with Marshall, Coach Malzahn adjusted to the strengths of Stidham.
That’s exactly what he must do with his next starting quarterback, Mikey Keene, as he takes over for the injured Gabriel in an attempt to lead the UCF offense. Based on Coach Malzahn’s history, there’s little doubt that he will find a niche for the former Arizona prep quarterback. Here are a few things to consider about Keene prior to his first start a week from Saturday.
Keene as a High School Senior
According to Max Preps, Keene’s senior season for Chandler (Ariz.) High School saw him pass 238 times, completing 168 passes, and throwing for 2,173 yards, 21 touchdowns and only two interceptions. While high school football is much different than college football, Keene helped his team to win the state championship.
He was quite resourceful, finding a way to make a play however it needed to be made. Keene could be simply defined as a scrambler with the ability to stay in the pocket if needed. Whether scrambling or in the pocket, his highlights showed him making several passes that found their mark.
As a comparison, Keene’s style of play resembled something between what Marshall and Gabriel would likely be most comfortable with. He’s a player that really throws well on the run or in the pocket, does not mind being physical when running the football, and does an excellent job of throwing the deep ball.
He’s certainly a more accurate passer than Marshall but not nearly as creative as a runner, while more gifted as a runner than Gabriel but needs to prove he can consistently pass the football the way Gabriel already did at the college level. With his current skills, Keene possesses the talent to lead the Knights.
Once Keene steps onto the field against Navy, he will be supported by a coaching staff that understands what Keene can do best. Coach Malzahn in particular, already displayed he understands how to adjust to each signal caller that he coached prior to Keene’s arrival at UCF. That leads to a couple of scenarios.
If a team really wants to come after Keene and blitz him, that’s fine. Keene’s ability to run the football and extend plays could come into play with bootlegs, waggles and RPO plays. Coach Malzahn will move towards that form of play calling.
On the other hand, if teams just want to make Keene read defenses with various zone coverages, Keene can be effective by operating the screen game, handing off to a number of really good running backs, and completing short passes. Coach Malzahn will be fine with that offensive style of play as well.
With Gabriel out with a broken clavicle, the Knights will be different at quarterback. That’s true. The play calls just need to change a little bit to create the best run-pass balance for the freshman quarterback. That’s okay with Coach Malzahn, one can be assured, based on his coaching history.
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