UCF’s offense was up and down last year but did come in at No. 38 in the country by averaging 31.9 points per game. To help that point reach that mark, there were a few players offensively who exceeded expectations despite a plethora of injuries around them, such as Ryan O’Keefe (84 receptions, 812 yards and seven touchdowns), and Johnny Richardson (733 yards rushing, 7.1 average and three touchdowns).
In order for the offense to be where the Knights want it to be, they will need a few more guys to step up and make meaningful contributions next season. Here is a look at three possible key playmakers for UCF heading into 2022.
The quarterback position has a few question marks for the Knights. Thomas Castellanos will be joining the team as a freshman, and UCF could potentially go after a quarterback in the transfer portal before it is all said and done. But no matter how the quarterback room looks, the only one who will come into the season having any experience playing meaningful minutes in Gus Malzahn’s offensive system at UCF is Mikey Keene. At this point, it is his job to lose.
Being thrown into a starting role as a true freshman is never easy, especially as a quarterback. Dillon Gabriel was expected to play out the season as the starter for UCF, but when he went down after breaking his collarbone, Keene was thrown into the fire on a whim. Right away it was clear that Keene would have some growing pains to work through, and those pains were evident throughout the season. There were plenty of positives to take away from Keene’s freshman year, though.
Keene did not have any eye-popping numbers in 2021, and his highest single-game passing yard total on the season was 229 yards, both against Temple and Tulane (though he did have five touchdown passes in the Temple game). Part of the reasoning for this was that Keene averaged just 26.5 pass attempts per game. Compare that to Dillon Gabriel who averaged 34 attempts per game in his 3 games under Malzahn.
It was clear that a major part of Malzahn’s offensive game plan every week was to make things easy for Keene. There were plenty of screen passes and short, quick throws for the true freshman. At times this made the offense somewhat predictable, but as Keene got more comfortable, the playbook was diversified a bit. He improved in multiple areas, most notably with his pocket awareness and going through his progressions. His patience grew as the season went on. For the season, Keene went 173/272, 63.6%, 1,730 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Assuming Keene is UCF’s starter in 2022, there is reason to believe he can take a step forward. He will have a year of experience in the offensive system under his belt, and ten games of film to learn from. Some of his biggest strengths last year were his accuracy and decision-making, as he finished the year off with just six interceptions.
He will need to build his arm strength, something he alluded to after the Gasparilla Bowl win. He will also need to trust himself a bit more on medium-to-deep passes, there were plenty of instances in which Keene gave up too early on some developing routes and threw checkdowns earlier than he needed to. If he is able to do those two things, he could have a big sophomore season for UCF.
UCF could use some receiving help next season behind Ryan O’Keefe and Jaylon Robinson, especially with the announcement that former four-star WR Titus Mokiao-Altimalala has entered the transfer portal. Three other receivers on the roster have entered the portal as well, opening the door even further for Amari Johnson to enter the mold.
Johnson will be a senior in 2022. In 2021, he played in every game, and caught 23 passes for 138 yards total on the season, including a touchdown. The versatile wide receiver also ran the ball six times for 23 total yards and a score. He spent a lot of time on special teams, even returning punts at times.
With the departure of Altimalala, there is a need for Johnson to step up behind O’Keefe at the slot receiver position. With the experience Johnson has all over the field, expect him to get plenty of snaps in the slot. There is still an argument to be made for multiple other players possibly jumping Johnson on the depth chart such as incoming freshmen four-star Quan Lee or Xavier Townsend, but Johnson is a sure bet to get reps thanks to his experience and overall talent.
Johnson had a few drops last year and also muffed a punt vs Cincinnati. He will need to clean up mistakes like these in order to keep his playing time, but if he does, it could be a season to remember for him.
Alec Holler has already vastly exceeded any expectations that were placed on him when he first walked-on at UCF in 2018. Few if any individuals expected him to be the 2021 starter. However, after earning himself a scholarship before the 2021 season, Holler has shown that he can catch passes and be a productive part of the UCF offense.
In the first game of the 2021 season, he caught the first pass of his career vs Boise State, and took it in for a touchdown from 23 yards out in what was UCF’s first score of the year. From that point on, Holler solidified himself as a solid option for the Knights, totaling 19 catches for 192 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Jake Hescock was listed as the starting tight end at the beginning of the season, and while he did get his fair share of snaps, he did not record a single catch on the year. It was almost as if Hescock and Holler swapped roles for Hescock’s senior season.
Holler has earned his role, and will get more opportunities next season. There is no other tight end on the roster who has any pass-catching experience for UCF, so barring a transfer portal barrage of tight ends, expect Holler to be the starter all year long. He has already smashed the ceiling that so many had placed on him, and now it is up to him to train and be prepared for a big senior season with the Knights.
You will find me on Twitter @jackedwards126