The UCF Offense: Evolution of a Yard-Gobbling Monster

Nobody gains more yards than UCF (619.1 per game).
Nobody throws for more yards than the Knights (396.9 per game).
Nobody runs more plays than UCF (86.5 per game).
Nobody produces more first downs than the Knights (29.1 per game).
UCF this week ranks number one in the nation in all of those categories.
Those are the basics of the 2020 season for the most high-octane offense in all of college
As the season winds down, UCF may yet finish with some numbers never seen in the history of the game.
How and why are those kinds of statistics coming about on this campus on the east side of Orlando"
It's a combination of philosophy, an ultra-fast tempo and personnel.
UCF's offensive production the last three football seasons (2017-18-19) has been off the charts.
They rank as the only three years in history in which the Knights have averaged more than 500 yards of total offense per game (530.5 in 2017, 522.7 in 2018 and a school-record 540.5 in 2019)—in fact, the only three years better than the previous high of 487.7 back in 1998.
Along the way, the 2017 team set the UCF record for passing yards (331.8 per game)—and just a year later the 2018 squad set the UCF record for rushing yards (265.2 per game).
Now comes 2020.
In addition to a pandemic, the football season has brought about a UCF offensive explosion that has dwarfed those figures from recent seasons:
In addition to ranking No. 1 in both total offense and passing offense, the Knights currently stand No. 11 in scoring (44.0 points) and 20th in rushing (222.3 yards per game).
It's already tough enough for UCF assistant head coach and secondary coach Willie Martinez to sleep at night, given the pass-happy tendencies of most of the teams in the American Athletic Conference.
The lone consolation for Martinez is that his defensive backs practice every day against the Knights' uber-productive system.
That has its pros and cons.
As much as Martinez has been around football long enough to see all the benefits of the UCF attack, he can empathize with opposing defensive coordinators.
"I get mad at my guys in practice," says Martinez.
"We play them (the UCF offense) in a scrimmage, and we want to celebrate a pass breakup on first down.
"There's only one problem. The offense is already lined up to go again. That guy you just attacked? You've got to attack him again and again and again and see if you can keep doing it.
"Defensively you're trying to stay calm, have a one-play mentality and just hit the reset button after one play, good or bad.
"You can't celebrate—you've got to get back to your spot. You have to match the tempo of that offense. You have to match their mindset.
"It's hard for other teams to simulate that. It can be a learning curve—almost like trying to face one of the academies.
"You cannot be one-dimensional, you cannot be old-school."
If it holds up, the current UCF total-offense average of 619.1 yards per game would rank as the second-highest in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision history--behind only the record 624.9 figure by Houston in 1989.
The current UCF passing yards per-game average of 396.9 would have led the nation in five of the last eight seasons. 
Josh Heupel's coaching staff experienced several offseason changes—including incumbent running back coach Anthony Tucker adding the title of co-offensive coordinator and Joey Halzle moving from an offensive quality control assistant to quarterback coach.
The lone newcomer to come from outside the Knights' program was new tight end coach and co-offensive coordinator Alex Golesh, who had been at Iowa State.
After Golesh was hired in January, he and Heupel would sit in Heupel's office until late in the evening watching every play of every game from the 2019 UCF season.
"It was fascinating," says Golesh. "We would watch individual plays over and over again.
"'Why did you run this play here?'" I'd ask.
"'What's the quarterback's read?'
"I was fascinated at how they could get the plays in and run them as fast as they did.
"So I'd watched this offense from afar forever.
"I think I know it, even though I don't--but I knew I would love to learn it.
"And this was an opportunity to learn it from the inside."
Of the top 17 single-game total-offense outputs in college football in 2020, four have been produced by UCF—including the top-rated figure (798 yards vs. Memphis), along with 689 vs. Tulane, 681 vs. Houston and 660 vs. Georgia Tech.
UCF's 602 passing yards against Memphis rank as the second-highest single-game total this season (behind only Mississippi State's season-opening 623 yards against LSU).
In terms of plays run, UCF's 99 against Tulane is the second-highest single-game total. The Knights' 96 versus Memphis and 92 against Georgia Tech also rank among the top 14.
Golesh has a simple take on the UCF attack:
"What makes us unique is the tempo—I don't know that anyone plays at the tempo we do.
"The goal is to have as many possessions as you can--because every time you have the ball you have the chance to score.
"What also makes us unique is the width of our splits, our guys using the entire width of the field."
Golesh is enough of a college football historian to appreciate how Heupel arrived at this point in his offensive thinking.
"He (Heupel) has lived several different lives offensively," says Golesh.
"He played in the air raid at Oklahoma. Mike Leach's one season as the offensive coordinator in Norman was 1999, Josh's first year playing at Oklahoma. That kind of revolutionized football at that time. 
"Then he coached under (then Oklahoma offensive coordinator, former Indiana head coach and current Ohio State offensive coordinator) Kevin Wilson at OU as part of this new age of spread, triple-option, RPO (run-pass option) football.
"Then Heup went to Utah State (2015) and took some of these principles as far as tempo and wide splits.
"And then when he went to Missouri (2016-17) he truly implemented the whole thing—and he had an elite quarterback (Drew Lock, now the starting quarterback for the NFL Denver Broncos) to do it with."
On an individual basis, UCF sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel currently is No. 1 in total offense (411.4) and passing yards per game (396.3), No. 2 in TD passes (23) and passing yards (2,774), No. 6 in completions per game (25.57), ninth in passing yards per completion (15.50) and 17th in passing efficiency.
Senior wide receiver Marlon Williams is second in receiving yards (942), fourth in receiving yards per game (134.6) and receiving TDs (8) and fifth in receptions per game (9.0)—while redshirt sophomore receiver Jaylon Robinson is fifth in receiving yards (822).
Meanwhile, Tucker—now in his third season with Heupel and the Knights—has gained a solid appreciation for what it takes to make UCF tick.
"It starts with an offensive system, having the right pieces—and that's through recruiting," Tucker says.
"When you have guys like KZ (McKenzie Milton) and Gabe (Davis), those great players serve as an additional piece because the younger guys see how those guys prepare and compete. 
"You can have the greatest scheme in the world, but if you don't have the right players it does not matter what you run. We recruit to what we are trying to accomplish. And we work really hard at developing our guys—so if you lose a guy like Tre Nixon it's not a huge drop-off.
"It's not just calling plays fast, there's also a lot of athleticism out there. Gabe was not just a great player, he had the best work ethic. So when he's gone they know what it takes to be as productive as he was. Marlon Williams is a great example of that. His work ethic has taken off.
"The philosophy stays the same – we want to make defenses defend every blade of grass and put pressure on them with our tempo. That's not a secret." 
Tucker also loves the makeup of the UCF staff—in particular that there are so many experiences over decades to tap into.
"There's a lot of brainpower in that room with our offensive assistants—a lot of those guys have been coaching for a long time," he says.
"We build off one year to the next. How can we make it better? How can we be more creative?  We can't do all the same things over and over again.
"More times than not, people are throwing something different at us than what we saw on film. We are building a book—if they throw this at us, this is our answer. You cover your bases for all those potential things. You can't assume anything about what defenses will do. We have to be prepared for what we end up seeing."
Tucker also appreciates the fact that Heupel consistently reminds his players that simply because you gain 600-some yards on a given Saturday there's no guarantee that will happen the next week. If anything it makes the targets on the Knights' backs grow exponentially.
"There's a level of humility that goes into what we do because we don't think we can just roll the ball out there and play fast and it's going to work," says Tucker.
"There's a bunch of checks and balances that go into it. There are some things we have not done well this season—things we need to get better at in this last stretch."
As the new kid on the block, Golesh has learned the philosophies that lay the groundwork for why the UCF attack is successful.
"The biggest misconception is that you throw the ball all over the yard," he says.
"We actually are as balanced as anybody in the country as far as run-pass.
"It's not air raid, it's not traditional spread. It's a combination of all that--but it starts with running the football which makes it unique. And then being able to take advantage of matchups created by tempo and the splits.
"The hardest thing to adjust to is the tempo because it's really hard to practice.
"With any offense it comes down to the quarterback. When he can be ultra-fast with his decisions and when he is incredibly accurate with the football, those two things make the whole thing go.
"You can see the evolution of DG (Dillon Gabriel) from his freshman year—his understanding of the offense has improved, his ability to get rid of the ball quicker. He makes decisions in the run game quicker and that allows us to play even faster than a year ago.
"You want to have guys that can stretch the field vertically. You want guys that are different from each other, a variety of guys.
"Our running backs look different from each other, our receivers look different. That versatility gives you the ability to do a lot of different things.
"You want to be able to constantly present different pictures to a defense.
"We have really good players. Our offensive line has improved drastically. DG had the offseason to go back and learn, and he's with Joey (Halzle) non-stop. Flash (UCF receiver Jaylon Robinson) is as good a player as there is in this conference, and Marlon has been so consistently great."
Martinez goes back to the fact opposing defenses don't have time to identify where the greatest mismatches are from one play to the next—in great part because it's all happening so fast.
"Our tempo on offense is so fast that, as a defense, you have to be ready immediately to go on to the next play," he says.
"They (the UCF offense) are trying to create mismatches and, if you're not aware of those, you will miss the idea that they are attacking those mismatches.
"Where you line up and how you line up is key. You have to be able to process stuff at a very fast pace. You have to practice it--and process it on defense.
"If you're not talented and very athletic on the perimeter, you are in trouble.
"You have to be aggressive, you cannot be passive.
"And it's a four-down offense these days. Offenses are going for it more often and that changes how you call a game on defense.
"You have to stay aggressive on third and 10, because they see it as third and five, knowing they will go for it on fourth."
But why are the UCF numbers up so significantly from the past few years? Golesh has some thoughts—and they start with having an elite quarterback Golesh believes matches up with anyone in the country:
"One, it's DG's growth. It's because of his ability to get us in the right situation, his accuracy, his decision-making. It's his understanding of the offense, his growth within the offense, his physical and mental abilities combined.
"It's his passion for preparation—it's second to none. You walk into the office and there he is. He comes in my office and sits down, then he goes in Joey's office and sits down, then Heup's office and he sits down. Then he'll go see (offensive line coach Glen) Elarbee and Tuck and he'll just pick your brain, working through situations.
"Look at our two-minute drills--second half at Memphis (seven plays, 53 yards in 49 seconds in the final minute and a half), first half against Tulane (eight plays, 67 yards in 1:21 for a TD with :05 left) and Houston (nine plays, 59 yards in 1:19 for field goal at :19).
"Our two-minute drill, managing it, getting to the right situation--it's all him. Somebody has to manage it and control it. What he has been able to do is monumental—being on time, not taking negative plays."
Golesh next points to offensive line growth: "Those guys coming together and being the best versions of themselves."
Combine those two things with Robinson stepping up and Williams doing what he has done.
"It's about our oldest guys playing the best football, that's when you have a chance to have success," says Golesh.
"Marlon is in that group—he's playing the best football of his life. (UCF senior running back) Greg (McCrae) and Otis (Anderson, UCF senior all-purpose threat), they're playing really good football."
Moving forward, Golesh suggests that, from a recruiting standpoint, the Knights are looking for players who he describes as "quick processors."
"Because of the tempo, you have to process the play call, process the defense, and be able to adjust," he says.
"We constantly see different defenses than what we've seen on film. We bring our guys to the sideline and say, 'This what you're getting, this is how we're adjusting, now go.'
"We need guys with the ability to adjust without being thrown for a loop.
"We know going into every game it's probably going to look different than what we prepared for. If it looks like what we prepared for, the numbers can be staggering."
Adds Martinez, "(Former NFL head coach) Bill Parcells said this about 10 years ago: 'You better recruit athletic kids in the back end.' Basketball players, baseball players--get the guy who is really a star on offense but wants to be a star on defense.
"Give me Marlon Williams to play safety—that's the kind of thing you need. ARob (Aaron Robinson, UCF senior cornerback) and Richie (Grant, UCF senior safety) were both great players on offense--and you've got to have guys like that to be playmakers for you.
"Because Heup is going to find a way to get his skill position player lined up against your defender who can't cover."
Gabriel, the guy who pulls the trigger for the UCF attack, is more than comfortable with the Knights' evolution.
"I think everyone is super comfortable after three years with this staff in this offense," he says.
"Everyone has bought in and believes in the system. Everybody finds their spot and gets their job done. When it comes together as a whole, it just clicks.
"The biggest thing is the comfort level for a quarterback. I felt a lot more comfortable in the offense this year--even just approaching everything that comes with a college football game day.
"The quarterback play is huge in this offense. If you put the receivers and running backs in the right position, good things will happen.
"A lot of it is based on tempo. We get the ball more times over 60 minutes and we want to take advantage of every one of those.
"Between the amount of possessions we have—and we obviously can move the ball—it all adds up to what everyone sees now."
The yards, the points, the plays, the possessions—they are staggering in their own way.
Yet Golesh sees no reason to be satisfied.
"It still comes down to situational football, and that's where our growth has to continue to happen," he says.
"Third downs? We are sitting at a little under 50 percent. It should be better.
"Red zone? Same thing. It's the most glaring stat out there.
"We've left points out there.
"The yards are great, but you still have to make plays in situational football. That's where the offense makes a living. 
"We can take another huge step."
For defensive coordinators set to face the Knights, that's downright scary.