Preview: O’Keefe and Johnson ‘Carry the Mail’

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Gus Malzahn liked the looks of it.
Start with UCF junior quarterback Dillon Gabriel—with the 22 starting assignments on his resume. He came into 2021 as the NCAA's active career leading in passing yards and total offense yards per game.
Then came a corps of returning Knight receivers championed by 2020 all-conference first--teamer Jaylon Robinson (his nickname "Flash" certainly sent Malzahn some extra positive vibes). Throw in speedy junior Ryan O'Keefe—along with junior Amari Johnson.
The new Knight coaching staff also inherited graduate transfer Brandon Johnson who announced his plans to depart Tennessee and come to Orlando 11 days before Josh Heupel ironically left UCF to head to Knoxville. Johnson is a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, product whose father Charles played Major League Baseball as a catcher for 12 years (helping the Miami Marlins win the 1997 World Series).
The Knights already had recruited junior college transfers Jaylon Griffin and Kaedin Robinson—and Malzahn and his staff supplemented that group with a couple of transfers of their own—Nate Craig-Myers (he came from Colorado State after originally playing for Malzahn at Auburn) and Jordan Johnson (Notre Dame). Also in the mix was true freshman Titus Mokiao-Atimalala.
Finally, throw in a solid hometown tradition when it comes to the passing game. The Knights ranked 10th or better nationally in passing offense from 2018-20 and fifth or higher in total offense in those same three years.
That trail had been blazed by standouts such as Gabriel Davis (a fifth-round NFL selection who caught 35 passes for 599 yards and seven TDs as a Buffalo Bills rookie in 2020), Tre Nixon and Jacob Harris (both 2021 NFL Draft picks) and Marlon Williams (his 71 catches in 2020 helped win him third-team All-America honors in 2020).
So Malzahn had every reason to think all the pieces could and would fit in place for the Knights to throw the football effectively in 2021.
And, so far so good through two weeks of the season—home wins over Boise State (tying the largest comeback triumph in UCF history) and Bethune-Cookman. That good-news feeling nearly extended to three weeks as the Knights--with the game tied--had the ball on the Louisville 41-yard line with 25 seconds to go.
But, by the end of that balmy Kentucky evening, the look of that vaunted UCF passing game had undergone drastic changes.
Early on Jaylon Robinson hauled in a 15-yard scoring toss from Gabriel to give UCF a temporary 14-7 lead over the Cardinals.
But an injury that night sent him to the sideline—and he has yet to return for the Knights in 2021.
On the final play of the game, with UCF trying a series of desperation laterals, Gabriel endured a hit that resulted in a broken collarbone.
He, too, has yet to return in 2021.
In fact, after an open date, the Knights headed to Annapolis for quarterback Mikey Keene's first collegiate start against Navy down seven regulars. Absent that afternoon were Gabriel, Robinson, running back Isaiah Bowser, center Matt Lee, defensive tackle Ricky Barber, linebacker Tatum Bethune and cornerback Corey Thornton.
Suddenly that passing-game roster that Malzahn liked so much looked dramatically different.
Enter true freshman Keene, an early-enrolled rookie (he was a Dean's List honoree for the spring 2021 semester) who came from Arizona expecting to learn from Gabriel as a neophyte. His glossy high school pedigree included a pair of Arizona state titles in 2019 and 2020.
Then, elevate O'Keefe and Johnson into different sorts of primary roles.
Says UCF quarterback coach and co-offensive coordinator G.J. Kinne, "Their roles changed a little bit, but both those guys were going to be heavily involved. They've stepped up  and done a great job. They're both intelligent and they work really hard. They come to work and they've kind of taken over and I think they've used Flash being out to their advantage. They've looked at it in terms of thinking they have more opportunities and they've taken advantage of that.
"It also helps the way Mikey carries himself and his knowledge of the offense, the way he goes about coming to work every day. It's not like he's a young kid who doesn't know what he's doing. His preparation helps their (Johnson and O'Keefe) confidence in him."
Veteran UCF receiver coach Darrell Wyatt puts it in perspective:
"Going into the season we were counting on having two of the best players (Gabriel and Robinson) at their position in college football, for sure in this league. When those guys went down, we have to lean more on a guy like Brandon with his experience, his maturity level, his high football acumen. Even then, he was new to the system. And even though Ryan had played, he had never been a full-time guy.
"To their credit, they both stepped up and took on full-time roles and have been very productive players. In every game their mentality has been, 'We've gotta support our quarterback.' Mikey's six games in now as a starter, so he's obviously different and better than when he started that first time six weeks ago at Navy. Every week we (the receivers) know we have to play our best football to support him. We talk about it every day.
"And I give those two guys (Johnson and O'Keefe) credit. They've answered the bell and been two of our primary playmakers. Plus, outside of what they can do from a football standpoint, those are two of the sharpest, most mature guys on the team."
With Johnson standing 6-2 and weighing 195 pounds--compared to O'Keefe who comes in four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter, they represent two completely different targets for Keene.
Johnson has proven to be the perfect slot receiver for the Knights' attack.
A savvy veteran with great hands and the know-how to get himself open, he was no stranger to success—having caught 79 balls for 969 yards in his four-year Tennessee career (37 of those in 2017 for 482 yards).
"Brandon has been a great complement to Ryan—he's had unbelievable success in the red area and on possession downs," says Wyatt. "His maturity has been really good for the entire team—that's why he was elected a captain even after being here with the guys for just a semester. That says a lot about his impression on our team.
"You know what you're going to get from Brandon every day—he's never too high or too low. He's a steady guy, and he's been outstanding on special teams as well."
Johnson's knack for making plays that count has been phenomenal to date. Of his 29 catches in 2021, an amazing 22 have resulted in first downs (five of those versus Bethune-Cookman and three each against Boise State and Memphis). He has at least one receiving score in all but one of UCF's nine games and ranks sixth in the country with his nine TD catches (only two behind NCAA leaders Jordan Addison of Pitt and Jerreth Sterns of Western Kentucky with 11 each).
"He's like a big brother to me," says O'Keefe, a 2021 CoSIDA Academic All-America nominee with his 3.47 grade-point average in criminal justice to go with Dean's List recognition for the spring 2021 semester.
"He's taught us all kinds of things. He's a really genuine guy--and it's amazing to see the way he comes to work every day. He's got great wisdom—all you have to do is watch the way he does all the little things."
Johnson was voted a captain by his teammates in August, even though he had yet to suit up in a game for the Knights.
"God blessed me with this role," Johnson says. "But we've got a (receiver) room full of leaders. They push me and I push them."
Johnson, who says he originally was more interested in basketball than he was in following his dad's passion for baseball, likes the idea that Malzahn calls the plays.
"It's been cool to be hands-on with the head coach," Johnson says. "You get to see what he's thinking every day on every play. I like the way he breaks it down."
For Austin, Texas, product O'Keefe it marked the second successive season an injury changed his equation. A year ago Nixon started the opener at Georgia Tech, then did not play in any of the next six games after he suffered a shoulder injury while catching a touchdown pass late in the first half against the Yellow Jackets.
Following the loss of Jaylon Robinson, O'Keefe quickly became the Knights' go-to threat in 2021—with Malzahn and his staff working to design as many ways to get him the football in space as they could:
--Throw the ball to him downfield, especially against any sort of single coverage.
--Get him the ball in the flat and let him use his speed and moves.
--Flip him the ball on jet sweeps or end-arounds and let him use his blocking.
Ironically, O'Keefe came to Orlando following a high school career as a quarterback, so he has a natural feel for what Keene is going through.
"We have to be creative and find different ways to get him the ball," says Wyatt. "He has great speed vertically, but he also has great instincts running with the ball. Go through and see the times in his career here when the first guy had him dead to rights and he broke the tackle.
"He was an elite runner with the ball as a high school quarterback. He plays with an edge with the ball in his hands—he's really a strong runner for a 175-pound guy. Get the ball in his hands in space and give him a chance to create an explosive play."
O'Keefe rates second in the American Athletic Conference with his 6.4 catches per contest (only Memphis' Calvin Austin III is ahead of him at 7.2). O'Keefe had a career-best 11 receptions last week to help defeat Tulane.
"We gotta help Mikey out—we need to be his support system," says O'Keefe, who had 10 100-yard rushing games as a prep senior when he ran for 28 scores.
He has accounted for 10 plays in 2021 of 20 or more yards and has scored five TDs combined over the last three games. His early 53-yard catch last Saturday against Tulane marks UCF's longest pass play of 2021—and his 51-yard run at Cincinnati qualifies as the Knights' highwater rushing gain to date this fall.
O'Keefe's 58 receptions are twice as many as any other UCF player—including 10 versus East Carolina, eight against Bethune-Cookman and seven at Cincinnati. His 110 receiving yards against Bethune-Cookman rank as his 2021 high.   
If O'Keefe isn't the fastest player on the UCF roster, he's on the short list. He recently suggested to Knights radio play-by-play man Marc Daniels that he figured he could spot Daniels a 60-yard head start and still beat him in a 100-yard race.
O'Keefe recalls, as a little kid, running away from his mother in the neighborhood—causing everyone to recognize his talent even at that young age.
"Speed became my thing," he says. "I always prided myself on that."
O'Keefe's explosiveness has earned him plenty of double-team attention from opposing secondaries—forcing the Knights to look for novel ways to get him the football.
"We have to anticipate those things--and then we have to do a good job as coaches with that," says Kinne. "Different teams are going to give you different things, and we've got to be able to identify those and adjust."
Whatever the level of their adjustments, Johnson and O'Keefe have definitely flourished.
"For the most part, Ryan and Brandon have carried the mail for the last six weeks, and I think they've done a really good job," says Malzahn.