There's a new look to UCF football in 2021--and it begins with ultra-successful new head coach Gus Malzahn.
The former Auburn head coach saw his Tiger teams produce 77 wins over the last eight seasons, all ending in bowl games—six of them of the New Year's Day variety. Malzahn helped Auburn finish unbeaten and win the national championship as the Tigers' offensive coordinator in 2010—then as head coach led Auburn to the Bowl Championship Series title game to cap the 2013 campaign, a Southeastern Conference title and two SEC West crowns.
Malzahn takes over a UCF program led by record-setting sophomore quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who paced the NCAA in passing last year (357.0 yards per game). Gabriel returns to headline a Knight football team that expects to continue as one of the most prolific offensive units in the nation again in 2021. UCF has ranked in the top eight nationally in both total offense and scoring each of the last three seasons, the only team in the country to accomplish that.
"From the outside looking in, I always felt like if the right guy got to UCF, stayed here and built it, everybody else would be in trouble," says Malzahn. "Now that I've been here awhile, I believe that even more—and I hope I'm that guy. You just feel the positive excitement when you go around campus. It's set up for success.
"Now we've got to go and do it--you've got to work. But there's so much potential here, and that's really exciting. The foundation is here—this has been a top 25 program. We want to get it to where we are a top 10 team on a consistent basis. We believe the future of college football is here at UCF."
The UCF football program has put itself in elite company thanks to three 10-win seasons in the last four years, 41 combined victories in that span, a record five straight postseason appearances (including two New Year's Six bowl games) and a pair of American Athletic Conference titles. The Knights, whose three-season victory total eclipses that of all but a handful of major-conference programs (Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Clemson), also will seek to retool a defense that returns 10 players who started at least four times in 2020.
UCF in 2021 returns its starting quarterback, three of its top five ground-gainers, two of its top four pass-catchers, three of its top four tacklers—and its entire offensive line. Maybe the most noteworthy challenge involves retooling multiple offensive skill positions—as the Knights seek to replace their top two ground-gainers (Greg McCrae and Otis Anderson who combined for 1,445 yards and 14 TDs) and two of their top three receivers (Marlon Williams and Jacob Harris who combined for 101 catches and 18 TDs).
All that bodes well for a UCF team coming off a 6-4 record in 2020 (three defeats by a combined 12 points), finished off by a Boca Raton Bowl appearance. The Knights last year led the nation in fumbles recovered (with 13) and ranked second in total offense for the second straight year (568.1 yards per game, an all-time UCF and AAC high), fourth in passing (357.4 per game), fifth in turnover margin (plus-1.2 per game), seventh in first downs (283) and eighth in scoring (42.2 points per game).
UCF loses only three offensive starters and two more on defense. Among key offensive contributors lost are leading receiver and 2020 Pro Football Focus third-team All-American Williams (team-leading 71 catches for 1,039 yards and 10 TDs; 16 career starts), stalwart running backs Anderson (125 carries for 687 yards, 4 TDs; 2020 second-team All-AAC pick; 25 career starts) and McCrae (149 carries for 758 yards and 10 TDs; 11 career starts) and receivers Harris (30 for 539, 8 TDs; 11 career starts; third-round pick by Los Angeles Rams in 2021 NFL Draft) and Tre Nixon (108 career catches for 1,652 yards and 13 TDs; 30 career starts; missed six games in 2020 due to injury; seventh-round pick by New England Patriots).
Major defensive figures missing for 2021 are leading tackler and safety and three-time unanimous first-team All-AAC choice Richie Grant (72 tackles plus 3.5 TFL, 3 interceptions, 6 PBU; 33 career starts; second-round pick by Atlanta Falcons), nickelback and second-team All-AAC pick Aaron Robinson (41 tackles, team-high 7 pass-breakups; 19 career starts; third-round pick by New York Giants), defensive linemen Kenny Turnier (12 tackles, 7.5 TFL, team-high 4 sacks in 2020; 61 tackles, 23 TFL, 9.5 sacks, 10 career starts) and Randy Charlton (18 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks, team-high 5 quarterback hurries in 2020; 67 career tackles, 10 career starts), linebacker Eric Mitchell (40 tackles, 2.5 TFL in 2020; 175 career tackles, including 77 in 2019; 10 career starts), safety Antwon Collier (150 career tackles; 20 career starts) and cornerback Tay Gowan (31 tackles, 8 PBU in 2019; sixth-round pick of Arizona Cardinals) who opted out of the 2020 season.
"This spring, we're going to put in the foundation of our offense and defense, and we're going to be evaluating our strengths and weaknesses," says Malzahn. "We're going to build around our strengths and particularly build around the strengths of Dillon Gabriel on the offensive side. We're going to play fast—so there definitely could be some things that UCF has been successful with in the past that you will continue to see. We'll be building this thing and evaluating it in the spring."
Pulling the strings for the UCF attack is Gabriel (248 of 413 passing for 3,570 yards, 32 TDs, 4 interceptions in 2020; first-team All-AAC by Pro Football Focus) who now has started 22 consecutive games and developed into one of the most productive quarterbacks in the nation. He already boasts one of the top career TD pass-to-interception ratios in the country (61 to 11)—with his two-year numbers featuring 484 of 811 passing (.596) for 7,223 yards, to go with 247 rushing yards and 6 TDs. Gabriel finished the 2020 season as the NCAA FBS active career leader in both passing yards (314.0) and total offense yards (324.3) per game. SportSource Analytics says UCF ranks fourth nationally in average quarterback rating over the last four years (behind only Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State).
Among top receiving targets are elusive sophomore and first-team All-AAC choice Jaylon Robinson (top returning pass-catcher with 55 for 979 yards, 6 TDs) plus speedy sophomore Ryan O'Keefe (20 for 391, 3 TDs) and sophomore Amari Johnson (3 for 26) . Also back is 2019 and 2020 tight end starter Jake Hescock (10 for 53, 3 TDs in 2020), a redshirt senior. The Knights reinforced their receiving corps with transfers: sophomore Jaylon Griffin (Kilgore College in Texas), redshirt senior Brandon Johnson (79 receptions for 969 yards, 1 TD over 46 career games, including 15 starts, at Tennessee), sophomore Kaedin Robinson (ASA College in New York) and redshirt freshman Dionte Marks (he sat out 2020 after transferring from Florida).
When the Knights run the football they'll depend on veteran redshirt junior Bentavious Thompson (73 carries for 382 yards, 5 TDs; second-team All-AAC by PFF) to carry the load. He brings a nifty combination of speed and power to the Knight attack. UCF fans are anxious to see more of sophomore Damarius Good (he played in all 10 games in 2020, carrying 4 times for 24 yards), freshman Johnny Richardson (11 for 65, 1 TD), redshirt freshman RJ Harvey (he played in 5 games in 2020 after transferring from Virginia) and redshirt sophomore Trillion Coles (he missed all of 2020 due to injury; 33 for 168 in 2019).
The Knights will field a veteran and talented offensive line led by six individuals who combined to play the vast majority of snaps a year ago. Returning offensive starters up front are redshirt junior guard and first-team All-AAC pick Cole Schneider (34 career starts), redshirt freshman and first-team All-AAC center Matthew Lee (started all 10 games in 2020), tackles Edward Collins (13 career starts) and Marcus Tatum (started 5 times in 2020) and sophomore guard Lokahi Pauole (8 starts in 2020), along with redshirt junior Samuel Jackson who has played significant snaps with 17 career starts at both guard and tackle.
On the defensive line again look for a bevy of contributors, led by returning regulars redshirt junior tackle Anthony Montalvo (24 tackles, 5 TFL; 17 career starts), redshirt senior tackle Noah Hancock (16 tackles, 1.5 TFL; 7 career starts), redshirt sophomore end Landon Woodson (23 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks) and sophomore end Tre'mon Morris-Brash (26 tackles, 6 TFL, 3.5 sacks). Also back are redshirt junior tackle Kalia Davis (27 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks, 9 starts in 2019), who opted out of the 2020 campaign, redshirt junior end Stephon Zayas (18 tackles in 2019; 13 career starts), redshirt sophomore tackle Cam Goode (19 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3 sacks; third-team All-AAC by PFF, fourth-team by Phil Steele) and freshman end Josh Celiscar (16 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks).
A talented and experienced linebacking corps is led by junior Eriq Gilyard (59 tackles, team-high 8.5 TFL, team-high 3 forced fumbles; 23 career starts; fourth-team All-AAC by Phil Steele) and sophomore Tatum Bethune (57 tackles, 7 TFL; started 5 of last 7 games in 2020), both returning starters from 2020. Those two players rank as the top two returning tacklers from a year ago to the 2021 lineup. Far and away the other most experienced returnee is sophomore Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste (37 tackles in 2020).
The Knights started 11 different players in the secondary in 2020—and the experience gained by a corps of younger players will help offset the loss of productive veterans Grant, Aaron Robinson, Collier and Gowan from this unit. The cornerbacks positions will be manned by some combination of freshman Corey Thornton (30 tackles; he started all 10 games in 2020), freshman Davonte Brown (23 tackles), three-time letter-winner and redshirt junior Zamari Maxwell (20 tackles; 9 career starts) and freshman Justin Hodges (he started once among 7 appearances in 2020). At safety, look for junior returning regular Derek Gainous (46 tackles; second-team All-AAC by PFF), redshirt sophomores Jermaine McMillian (25 tackles), Dyllon Lester (18 tackles) and Divaad Wilson (11 tackles from the nickelback spot), along with freshman Quadric Bullard (12 tackles).
The Knights' special teams return sophomore punter Andrew Osteen (43.9-yard average in 2020; third-team All-AAC by both Phil Steele and PFF) and sophomore placekicker Daniel Obarski (12 of 17 on field goals in 2020) and redshirt junior snapper Alex Ward (third-team All-AAC by Phil Steele). The top name among kickoff returners again is O'Keefe (21.8-yard average in 2020), while UCF will seek to identify who will return punts—after no Knight player returned more than three last season.
"I've not spent a lot of time watching film from the past, so this way everybody is starting out new," says Malzahn. "I didn't want a whole lot of preconceived ideas. We're going to put the ball down and see who the best guys are."
The Knights return 58 lettermen overall (26 offense, 28 defense, 4 special teams)—also including receivers Ke'von Ahmad, Justin Menard, Jarrad Baker and Cade Sims, linemen Brett Bell, Paul Rubelt and Mike Lofton, plus tight ends Zach Marsh-Wojan and Alec Holler. Additional defensive letter-winners back are linemen Keenan Hester, Austin Camden, Kervins Choute and Dallaz Corbitt, linebackers Quade Mosier and Derek Burns and defensive backs Alex Swenson, Jon Powell and Palmer Bachelder—plus punter Alan Kervin.
Among lettermen returning are nine three-time letter-winners: Thompson, Bell, Hescock and Schneider on offense, plus Gainous, Maxwell, Powell, Gilyard and Montalvo on defense. Four-year lettermen departing are Anderson, Collier, Grant, McCrae, Mitchell, Turnier and Williams. The half-dozen returning players who started all 10 games in 2020 are Collins, Lee, Gabriel and Jaylon Robinson on offense, Thornton and Montalvo on defense. Returning team leaders in career starts are Schneider (34), Gilyard (23), Gabriel (22), Jackson and Montalvo (17 each), Collins and Zayas (13 each), Hescock (11), Lee, Robinson and Thornton (10 each).
In addition to Davis, other returnees who opted out of the 2020 season are redshirt junior cornerback Devunte Dawson and redshirt freshman offensive linemen Allan Adams and Adrian Medley.
The 2021 UCF schedule includes non-conference home dates with Boise State (Sept. 2), Sept. 11 vs. Bethune Cookman and Nov. 20 vs. former AAC rival Connecticut—plus a road date Sept. 17 at Louisville. The Knights head into that home opener versus Boise State having won 23 of their last 25 home games.
The Knights' AAC schedule for 2021 features home games against East Carolina (Oct. 9), Memphis (Friday, Oct. 22), Tulane (Nov. 6) and South Florida (Friday, Nov. 26)--to go with road contests at Navy (Oct. 2), Cincinnati (Oct. 16), Temple (Oct. 30) and SMU (Nov. 13).
Returning UCF All-American Athletic Conference Honorees from 2020 Season:
|Name||AAC Coaches||Phil Steele||Pro Football Focus|
|WR Jaylon Robinson||1st team||1st team||HM|
|QB Dillon Gabriel||2nd||2nd||1st|
|OG Cole Schneider||1st||1st||---|
|C Matthew Lee||1st||1st||---|
|RB Bentavious Thompson||---||---||2nd|
|DT Cam Goode||---||4th||3rd|
|LB Eriq Gilyard||---||4th||---|
|S Derek Gainous||---||---||2nd|
|P Andrew Osteen||---||3rd||3rd|
|LS Alex Ward||---||3rd||---|