Impressive Corps of Returnees Buoys UCF for 2020

The UCF football program has put itself in elite company thanks to three successive 10-win seasons, 35 combined victories in that span, a record four straight postseason appearances (including two New Year's Six bowl games) and a pair of American Athletic Conference titles.
Third-year head coach Josh Heupel is counting on a well-stocked roster to continue that sort of success. The Knights in 2020 return their starting quarterback, six of their top seven ground-gainers, six of their top seven pass-catchers and 12 of their top 13 tacklers.
All that bodes well for a UCF team coming off a 10-3 record in 2019 (the three road defeats came by a combined seven points), finished off by a Gasparilla Bowl victory over Marshall. The Knights last year led the nation in tackles for loss (9.0 per game, an all-time AAC best) and ranked second in total offense (540.5 yards per game, an all-time UCF and AAC high), third in passing efficiency defense, fifth in scoring (43.4 points per game) and eighth in passing offense (316.7 yards per game). UCF is coming off the two most productive seasons in school history in terms of running the football—including in 2019 when the Knights ranked 19th nationally at 223.8 yards per game.
UCF loses just three offensive starters, three more on defense, plus its placekicker (Dylan Barnas who hit 15 of 17 on field goals). Among those lost are leading receiver and Pro Football Focus third-team All-American Gabriel Davis (72 catches for 1,241 yards and 12 TDs, 37 career starts), leading tackler Nate Evans (112 plus 12 TFL, 23 starts), speedy running back and kick returner Adrian Killins Jr. (629 rushing yards and 7 TDs, 32 starts), cornerback Nevelle Clarke (team-high 11 pass-breakups, 29 starts), defensive lineman Brendon Hayes (team-leading 7.5 sacks, 23 starts) and multi-year offensive line starters Jordan Johnson (first-team all-AAC in 2017 and 2018, 51 starts) and Jake Brown (first-team all-AAC in 2018 and 2019, 38 starts).
Pulling the strings for the UCF attack will be sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel (236 of 398 passing for 3,653 yards, 29 TDs, 7 interceptions) who started the final 12 games of his rookie campaign, developed into one of the most productive quarterbacks in the nation and was MVP of the Knights' Gasparilla Bowl triumph. Among his top receiving targets will be senior wide receiver Marlon Williams (51 catches for 717 yards, 6 TDs), redshirt senior Tre Nixon (49 for 830, 7 TDs, 26 starts), senior all-purpose back Otis Anderson (31 for 365, 3 TDs, 20 starts) and rangy sixth-year senior Jacob Harris (19 for 448, 1 TD). Also back is 2019 tight end starter Jake Hescock (9 for 87, 2 TDs), a redshirt senior.
When the Knights run the football they'll depend on Anderson (113 carries for team-leading 726 yards), senior Greg McCrae (98 for 529) and redshirt junior Bentavious Thompson (87 for 604) to carry the load. That trio combined for 20 rushing scores in 2019 and a gaudy 6.23 yards-per-carry average. Returning starters up front are redshirt junior guard and second-team all-AAC pick Cole Schneider (25 starts), redshirt senior guard Parker Boudreau (13 starts) and redshirt junior tackle Sam Jackson.
On the defensive line again look for a bevy of contributors (at least 11 returnees who earned significant playing time), led by redshirt senior tackle Kenny Turnier (42 tackles, team-high 13.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks), junior end Randy Charlton (28 tackles, 3.5 TFL), redshirt junior tackle Kalia Davis (27 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks, 9 starts in 2019), redshirt junior tackle Anthony Montalvo (24 tackles, 5 TFL), redshirt junior end Stephon Zayas (18 tackles, 9 starts in 2019) and sophomore end Tre'mon Morris-Brash (25 tackles, 9 TFL, 3 sacks).
A talented and experienced linebacking corps will be led by redshirt senior Eric Mitchell (77 tackles, 11 TFL, 3 sacks), junior Eriq Gilyard (77 tackles, 5 TFL) and sophomore Tatum Bethune (20 tackles). Mitchell and Gilyard ranked tied for third in total tackles for the Knights in 2019—and their numbers are likely to rise in 2020 with the departure of Evans.
There's lots of experience and depth in the secondary, thanks to the return of redshirt senior strong safety starter and 2018 and 2019 first-team all-AAC pick Richie Grant (78 tackles, 4 TFL, 8 pass breakups, 25 starts), the top returning tackler from 2019. Also back on the 2020 roster are senior free safety Antwan Collier (74 tackles, 3.5 TFL, team-high 4 interceptions, 15 starts), redshirt senior nickelback and second-team all-AAC selection Aaron Robinson (54 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 10 pass breakups, 3 interceptions), senior cornerback Tay Gowan (31 tackles, 8 pass breakups, 2 interceptions) and redshirt junior corner Zamari Maxwell (22 tackles).
The Knights also hope to have available redshirt senior corner Brandon Moore (43 tackles in 2018) who boasts 21 career starts but is rebounding from a knee injury in UCF's 2019 opening game that caused him to miss the remainder of the season. Also working to return is quarterback McKenzie Milton, the AAC Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018 who sat out the 2019 campaign after a late-season knee injury in 2018.
The Knights must identify a kicker to replace Barnas—but the UCF special teams return sophomore punter Andrew Osteen (42.2-yard average), sophomore kickoff man Daniel Obarski and redshirt junior snapper Alex Ward. The top name among kick returners again is Anderson, who led the AAC and ranked sixth nationally at 13.2 yards per punt return.
UCF has two new assistant coaches for 2020—former Iowa State tight end coach and recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh, who will serve as the Knights' co-offensive coordinator and tight end coach, and former UCF offensive analyst Joey Halzle, who will be the Knights' quarterback coach. In addition, returning UCF running back coach Anthony Tucker has been promoted to co-offensive coordinator.
The 2020 UCF schedule includes non-conference home dates with 2019 Military Bowl champion North Carolina (Friday, Sept. 4 on ESPN), Sept. 12 vs. Florida International (2019 Camellia Bowl appearance) and Nov. 7 vs. Florida A&M (9-2 in 2019)—plus a road date Sept. 18 at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The Knights head into that opener against North Carolina with a 21-game home stadium win streak, behind only Clemson nationally at 22.
The Knights' AAC schedule for 2020 features home games against Tulsa (Oct. 3), Tulane (Oct. 24), Temple (Nov. 14) and Cincinnati (Nov. 21)—to go with road contests at East Carolina (Thursday, Sept. 24), Memphis (Friday, Oct. 16), Houston (Oct. 31) and USF (Friday, Nov. 27).
Early top 25 polls for 2020 show UCF rated 20th by College Football News, 22nd by, 23rd by Bleacher Report, 24th by Sporting News and 25th by Saturday Blitz.