The UCF offense should once again light up the scoreboards. There’s the return of junior signal caller Dillon Gabriel to lead the Knights, and he’s surrounded by plenty of talented offensive players. While the key to the success will be chemistry, and each position group needs to be a part of the transition into the Gus Malzahn era at UCF, the running game is the most important aspect for the Knights to score big and win games in 2021.
If the Knights can keep defenses honest and allow Gabriel to have a clean pocket to throw from, he’s proven to be one of college football’s best signal callers. Now, a more consistent rushing attack will be needed to accomplish that goal, i.e. a better running game during big games.
Here are the two burning questions to be answered, and the possibilities that follow. Keep in mind, with double-digit transfers and 19 high school and junior college players joining the UCF football roster, there’s bound to be some developmental moments. New players, new coaches, and new schemes will see some good and bad. By mid-season, however, look for UCF’s offense to round into shape and be a force.
How Good Will the Knights Rushing Attack Be?
College football may be in the spread era, but the men across the front line still control which team wins a game more often than not. Case in point, when Gabriel and the Knights lost to Tulsa last season, the Knights top two running backs -- Otis Anderson and Greg McCrae -- combined for 100 rushing yards and one touchdown on the ground. That’s solid work, but it pales in comparison to some of the other games the Knights’ rushing attack placed together.
During the opening game versus Georgia Tech, the Knights prevailed 49 to 21. A big reason for the victory would be a balanced rushing attack. Anderson and McCrae combined for 138 rushing yards and two touchdowns to lead the way, and they were not alone. In total, six different UCF players ran for 20 or more rushing yards. A balanced and unrelenting rushing attack hammered the Yellow Jackets front seven. For the 2021 season to play out well, the UCF offense will need more than Gabriel’s arm to win games.
UCF’s offense is in a bit of transition at the running back position, but there are three transfers and freshman running back joining a backfield with an experienced veteran like Bentavious Thompson, as well as underclassmen running backs Johnny Richardson and Damarius Good. The Knights will have running back firepower as there’s size, speed, and versatility lining up with Gabriel in the backfield.
With Coach Malzahn’s power-spread offense coming to Orlando, it will be interesting to see which player(s) earn the right to tote the football and line the depth chart. For a closer look at UCF’s running back situation, you can read about each player here.
Of course the final piece to the puzzle would be the actual starters along the offensive line. Will the ‘Hog Mollies’ consistently carve out running lanes for Thompson, Richardson, and any one of the other running backs? A couple of notes about this group, via the new Offensive Line Coach Herb Hand and his past.
As the Auburn Offensive Line Coach (2016-2017), the Coach Hand was responsible for helping the Tigers rushing attack to average 271.31 yards per game in 2016, and 218.29 yards rushing per game in 2017. While serving as the University of Texas Offensive Line Coach and Co-Offensive Coordinator (2018-2020), the Coach Hand assisted the Longhorns to rush for 153.07 yards per game in 2018, 176.54 in 2019, and 195.30 yards per game in 2020.
Both Auburn and Texas operated power rushing attacks with zone principles, and both teams utilized mobile signal callers. Now that Hand is back working with Coach Malzahn, there’s ample reason to believe the rushing game will quickly come into its own because the UCF personnel holds many of the same opportunities with players.
Depth charts aside, UCF has a really good offensive line coach operating a scheme that’s proven. Adding the raw skill talent that UCF possesses makes this a team that could push for 200 yards rushing per game.
Will the Knights Rushing Attack be Able to Dictate to a Defense?
It’s third down and two, four minutes remain in the game, and UCF possesses the football at its own 28 yard line with a one point lead. This is the situation when the UCF offensive line and running backs must work as one. Power football, downhill, coming right at the opposing defense.
Sure, Gabriel could hit a quick slant or hit a tight end in the flat. That’s certainly plausible. To win big games, however, top-notch defenses will make plays in the passing game, and no college football team always passes during third down and two. Balance will be needed. Of course there needs to be a player the unit can rely upon.
Perhaps the offensive line’s veteran, Samuel Jackson, will be the player UCF decides to run behind during critical plays. Here we come, try and stop us! That type of mentality usually begins with a veteran like Jackson that’s started 18 games for the Knights prior to the start of the 2021 season.
The 6’6”, 335-pound redshirt senior from Bradenton (Fla.) Lakewood Ranch will be counted on to not only help power the football during short yardage, but also help the offensive line unit to play as a cohesive group. Leadership matters, and that’s when that third down play call comes back into play.
Do the Knights call a running play during that third down and two play on their own 28 yard line with the game on the line? Will the Knights be able to play power football against Boise State, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Memphis when that situation arises? Those will likely be the four most talented defenses that the Knights face during the 2021 season, and it’s bound to happen at some point.
As we inch closer to the 2021 UCF football season, the rushing attack will be a very important focal point. Give Gabriel time to throw because of a rushing attack that must be respected, and the Knights will light up scoreboards. There’s a great opportunity for UCF this season, and it begins with the running game.