ORLANDO - UCF Football entered the 2021 season with extremely high hopes. Returning star players like quarterback Dillon Gabriel and wide receiver Jaylon Robinson, and signing the most talented head coach to ever take over for the Knights, former Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn.
After an amazing comeback against Boise State in their opening game, UCF took care of business at home, demolishing Bethune-Cookman, as expected. However, injuries and poor execution led to the Knights losing to a Cardinals team on the road. That loss culminated with an injury to Gabriel, who broke his clavicle during a “hook-n-ladder” play to end the game, leaving concerns as the UCF needed to find a way to move forward regardless of its injury concerns.
This past Saturday, UCF lost to a Navy team that hadn’t won a game since October of last year. That loss has many people wondering what’s left for this season, and what should we expect from Malzahn and his staff.
Is Keene the Answer?
While one game does not tell you whether or not a player will excel, see quarterback Jack Coan at Notre Dame, it does give you a starting point to measure performance. True freshman Mikey Keene provided a solid performance at quarterback, in what was his first collegiate start.
Keene stepped in quickly and showed off his confidence and flair, completing his first three passes for 72 yards and two touchdowns, including a 23-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Johnson, where Keene split two Midshipmen defenders. There were some freshman mistakes, with Keene sailing a few passes long and not putting enough power into some of his passes, but overall he showed confidence in his first game as a starter.
The missing skill players around Keene presented issues against Navy, and there needs to be answers for their lost production while they remain out of the lineup.
Who Steps Up To Replace Bowser and Robinson?
The other two offensive starters lost in the Knights’ game against Louisville were workhorse running back Isaiah Bowser and the dynamic Robinson at wide receiver. Both players sustained knee injuries that forced them to exit the game early, with Bowser trying to play with a knee brace on before being shut down for the day.
They both didn’t play against Navy, not traveling with the team, and it’s believed that both players will miss significant playing time. On Saturday, UCF seemed to be using running Johnny Richardson and Johnson in their place. Richardson with his 12 touches impacted the game, tallying 93 total yards with a big 34-yard catch where he made several defenders miss.
Johnson, meanwhile, was Keene’s safety valve, catching four passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns. With Keene gaining more experience it will be interesting to see if he starts using weapons like wide receivers Ryan O’Keefe and Kaedin Robinson more. The two losses hurt the season, but what about the recruiting class?
Will UCF’s Two Losses Impact Recruiting?
The 2022 recruiting class currently holds 12 commitments, with several holding offers from programs like Florida, Alabama and Florida State. Many UCF alumni and fans asked to see if losing to Navy impacted recruiting, including those same prospects that pledged to the Knights?
The best response would be based on what information received to date, that while winning is very important, stability of the UCF coaching staff would be more important.
The winning culture is created from that staff, and there is a lot of faith that Coach Malzahn and his staff can return UCF to a perennial top 15 team in the country. You can tell this by the amount of visitors that have already been confirmed for this week’s game against East Carolina.
Fifteen players have already announced that they will be there, with the group being headlined by Miami (Fla.) Norland running back prospect and 2023 Georgia Tech commitment Javin Simpkins, who will be featured in a recruiting article that is coming out soon.