UCF heads into 2021 season with all-new look

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The football scene at UCF certainly looks different for 2021.
There's new Knight head coach Gus Malzahn, who most recently led Auburn to bowl games in each of his eight seasons there (six of them of the New Year's Day variety), to go with a Southeastern Conference crown, a pair of SEC division titles, an appearance in the Bowl Championship Series title game and a half-dozen New Year's Six/BCS bowl games.
Malzahn ended up in Orlando in part because of new UCF vice president and athletics director Terry Mohajir (he joined the Knights Feb. 9 and hired Malzahn six days later). Those two worked together at Arkansas State for one football season in 2012 when Mohajir was in his first year there as athletics director and Malzahn was in his first year as a college head coach. They collaborated to win the Sun Belt Conference title that year.
Visiting Boise State had similar changes in the offseason, hiring a new athletics director (Jeramiah Dickey) and head coach (Andy Avalos) within a week's time in January.
Here are items to consider as the Knights open the 2021 campaign:

  1. Just a coincidence, Part I? Gus Malzahn's Auburn teams won 68 games in his eight years as the Tigers' head coach—the exact number of wins by UCF in that timeframe (2013-20). 
  2. Just a coincidence, Part II? When Gus Malzahn left Arkansas State following his one season as head coach, he was replaced by Bryan Harsin (the co-offensive quarterback at Texas the prior two years). When Malzahn left Auburn after the 2020 season, he was again replaced by Harsin. So Harsin, who spent seven seasons as head coach at Boise State (2014-20), might have been headed to Orlando this week if not for all that transition.
  3. Lots of connections. It's hardly unusual, but plenty of the new UCF assistant coaches hired by Gus Malzahn have previous connections to the new Knights' head coach. Here are a few:--Defensive coordinator Travis Williams, a former standout Auburn linebacker, served as co-defensive coordinator for Malzahn the last two years at Auburn—and coached Tiger linebackers the previous three years (2016-18).
    --Defensive assistant Kenny Ingram was on Malzahn's Arkansas State staff in 2010 and then worked under Malzahn two different times (2013-14 and 2017-18) at Auburn.
    --Cornerback coach Addison Williams was an analyst under Malzahn at Auburn in 2019.
    --Special teams/tight end coach Brian Blackmon was an Auburn analyst under Malzahn in 2017.
    --Co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach GJ Kinne was recruited to Tulsa as a player when Malzahn was the co-offensive coordinator there. Kinne last year was on the Hawaii staff of head coach Todd Graham, who was the head coach at Tulsa when Malzahn was there in 2007-08.
    --Offensive line coach Herb Hand shared the offensive coordinator duties with Malzahn when the two were on the Tulsa staff in 2007-08. Later, Hand was the Auburn offensive line coach in 2016-17 under Malzahn.
  4. More connections. Here are a few others:
    --UCF co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach GJ Kinne, as starting quarterback for Tulsa, was a winner over UCF in a 2011 game between the Knights and Golden Hurricane at Spectrum Stadium.
    --UCF coach Gus Malzahn made one previous appearance in the Bounce House in 2007 as co-offensive coordinator at Tulsa. In the Conference USA championship game (Dec. 1, 2007), UCF prevailed 44-25.
    --Malzahn and Boise State coach Andy Avalos faced off two seasons ago when Malzahn was the Auburn head coach and Avalos was the Oregon defensive coordinator. Twelfth-rated Auburn prevailed 27-21 over sixth-ranked ORegon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, thanks to a Bo Nix TD pass with nine seconds to go.
    --Current UCF vice president and director of athletics Terry Mohajir played against UCF in 1991 as a safety at Arkansas State. UCF won that game 31-20 in Jonesboro as Knight RB Willie English ran for 242 yards. Also playing in that game for Arkansas State was first-year UCF defensive ends coach Kenny Ingram.
  5. Biggest challenges. Here is where personnel losses will prompt new names in UCF box scores in 2021:
    --Wide receiver: The Knights return only 21 percent of the pass receptions accumulated in Dillon Gabriel's two seasons as starting quarterback. Exactly half (55) came from Jaylon Robinson in one season (2020).
    --Running back: UCF loses almost 87 percent of its rushing yards from 2020, led by the contributions of Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson.
    --Secondary: UCF had three defensive backs selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. Those three—Richie Grant, Tay Gowan, Aaron Robinson—combined for 61 career starting assignments for the Knights.
  6. So what will the UCF offense look like in 2021? Knight fans should get some hints Thursday night. Here's a numbers comparison of how the UCF and Auburn attacks played out the last few seasons:
    --Over the last three years (2018-20 season), 55.8% of UCF plays came on the ground, while 56.5% of the Knights' total offense came via the air.
    --Meanwhile over that same span (2018-20), 56% of Auburn's plays were run calls, while the Tigers produced 55% of their total offense from throwing the ball.
  7. Football upgrades: In addition to a new coaching staff, there are additional new elements when it comes to the Knights' football program:--installation of new artificial turf in Nicholson Fieldhouse (UCF's indoor football building)
    --significant branding and other visual updates in the football offices
    --updated future football schedules with creation of a series with Florida and another with Maryland
    --proposal of a comprehensive vision and plans for additions and improvements to the UCF football campus by director of athletics Terry Mohajir (