Spring Preview: Knights Plotting Next Steps for 2022

Spring Prospectus

UCF put the foundation in place in Gus Malzahn's first season as the Knights' head football coach in 2021—as an impressive Gasparilla Bowl triumph over Florida enabled UCF to finish 9-4, with six wins in its last seven games. 

Now it's time to take the next step for a Knights program that has combined for 50 wins over the last five seasons.

Sixteen returning starters (eight on defense, eight on offense) plus a handful of key specialists are back for Malzahn in 2022 as UCF looks to compete for the American Athletic Conference Championship it last won in 2017 and 2018.

The Knights return a solid list of weapons for 2022:
--their starting quarterback, Mikey Keene, who threw for 1,730 yards and 17 TDs
--their top five rushers, led by Isaiah Bowser, who ran for 703 yards and nine TDs in only eight games, and Johnny Richardson, who led the team with 733 yards and three TDs
--six of their top seven receivers, paced by Ryan O'Keefe and his 84 receptions for 812 yards and seven TDs
--two of their top four tacklers in safeties Quadric Bullard (83 tackles, 6 PBU) and Divaad Wilson (72 tackles)

The most noteworthy personnel losses for UCF are wide receiver Brandon Johnson (38 catches for 565 yards and 11 TDs in 2021), offensive linemen Cole Schneider (47 career starts) and Marcus Tatum (18 career starts), leading tackler Tatum Bethune (108 tackles), linebacker Bryson Armstrong (he led the squad in tackles much of the year, finishing with 77 after a season-ending injury in the 10th game) and defensive end Big Kat Bryant (he paced the Knights with 14 tackles for loss, six sacks and 10 quarterback hurries, while adding 52 tackles).

Starters returning on offense are Keene, Bowser, O'Keefe, wide receiver Jaylon Robinson (he missed six games in 2021 due to injury), center Matt Lee, guard Lokahi Pauole, tackle Sam Jackson and tight end Alec Holler (19 for 192, three TDs).

Regulars back on defense are end Josh Celiscar (39 tackles in 2021), tackles Ricky Barber (29) and Keenan Hester (24), linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste (51), plus defensive backs Brandon Adams (19), Davonte Brown (38), Corey Thornton (32), Justin Hodges (35), Bullard and Wilson.

Among specialists returning are placekicker Daniel Obarski (eight of 14 on field goals), punter Andrew Osteen (41.1-yard average) and All-America long snapper Alex Ward.

UCF hopes to continue its defensive improvement after ranking seventh in the country in pass efficiency defense in 2021 (after standing 104th in 2020)--continuing a string of recent top-12 finishes (8th in 2011, 11th in 2014, 12th in 2016 and 3rd in 2019).

The Knights improved their NCAA standing in passing yards allowed by 86 slots (35th in 2021 at 210.1 after 121stth in 2020 at 299.2), including 89 fewer yards per game.

UCF improved by 70 spots in total defense (53rd in 2021 at 369.3 versus 123rd in 2020 at 491.8). That's 122.5 fewer yards allowed per game than last year. According to Pro Football Focus, UCF's 2021 "stop rate" (percent of defensive drives that ended in punts, turnovers or turnovers on down) ranked 28th nationally at 69.5%, 31 spots higher than in 2020.

The Knights ranked 28th nationally in rushing, the fourth straight season the Knights have averaged at least 196 yards per game.

UCF returns eight players who received either first-, second- or third-team all-conference recognition on at least one all-AAC team in 2021—O'Keefe, Pauole, Bullard, Wilson, Brown, Lee, Thornton and Ward. 

The Knights' spring roster includes four incoming freshmen who enrolled in January (quarterback Thomas Castellanos, defensive back Nikai Martinez, running back Jordan McDonald and tight end Grant Stevens) plus transfers John Rhys Plumlee (QB/Ole Miss), Tylan Grable (OL/Jacksonville State), Kobe Hudson (WR/Auburn), K.D. McDaniel (DE/Kentucky), Ryan Swoboda (OL/Virginia), Koby Perry (DB/Austin Peay), Kemore Gamble (TE/Florida), Lee Hunter (DT/Auburn) and Terrence Lewis (LB/Maryland).

247Sports rated UCF's incoming list of transfers as the 16th best group in the country—while the Knights' overall combined ranking (incoming freshmen plus transfers) was 38th nationally, highest in program history.

Here's a position-by-position breakdown on UCF prospects for 2022:


Thomas Castellanos6-0190Fr.---
Joey Gatewood6-5220Sr.10 GP
Mikey Keene5-11180So.11 GP, 10 GS
Parker Navarro6-0200r-So.5 GP
John Rhys Plumlee6-0200Sr.---

The incumbent under center for UCF heading into spring drills is sophomore Mikey Keene (173 of 272 for 1,730, 17 TDs, 6 ints.), who came on to start the final 10 games of 2021 following the shoulder injury suffered by Dillon Gabriel. Keene did not throw an interception in any of his final five games in 2021. Senior Joey Gatewood (2 of 8 passing for 17, 1 TD; 28 rushes for 142, 1 TD--he previously played at both Auburn and Kentucky) and redshirt sophomore Parker Navarro (1 of 2 passing for 4; 7 rushes for 54, 3 TDs) played mainly in red-zone situations in 2021. The wildcard at the position is Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee, who started 10 games for the Rebels at quarterback in 2019 (throwing for 910 yards and 4 TDs, rushing for 1,023 yards and 12 TDs) before contributing mainly as a receiver the last two seasons (25 combined catches for 280). Incoming freshman Thomas Castellanos will participate in spring drills.


Isaiah Bowser6-1225Fifth Year8 GP, 5 GS
Trilion Coles5-8170r-Sr.8 GP, 1 GS
R.J. Harvey5-8195r-Jr.---
Jordan McDonald6-1220Fr.---
Mark-Antony Richards6-1215r-Jr.12 GP, 1 GS
Johnny Richardson5-7170Jr.13 GP, 6 GS
Anthony Williams6-0215r-Fr.1 GP

UCF's corps of running backs may be as deep and experienced as the Knights have enjoyed. Leading the pack is veteran Isaiah Bowser (159 for 703, 9 TDs; 9 rec. for 75), a tough, physical competitor with the elusiveness to confound defenses. He began 2021 with 172 rushing yards in the season-opening comeback win over Boise State, finished it with 155 yards versus Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl—and had 55 more rushing carries than any other Knight. Speedy junior scatback Johnny Richardson (104 for 733, 3 TDs; 25 rec. for 226, 1 TD; fourth-team all-American Athletic Conference by Phil Steele) paced UCF in rushing yards after earning six starting assignments while Bowser battled midseason injuries. Redshirt junior Mark-Antony Richards (48 for 309, 5 TDs; 8 rec. for 76), who transferred from Auburn a year ago, could expand his role in 2022. Redshirt senior Trilion Coles (32 for 184, 1 TD) played in eight games in 2021, contributing 78 yards versus Bethune-Cookman. R.J. Harvey, a 2021 transfer from Virginia, had been expected to battle for a starting role in 2021 until a preseason injury ended his year. Redshirt freshman Anthony Williams played in one game as a rookie. Incoming freshman Jordan McDonald will participate in spring drills.


Jordan Davis6-4250r-So.6 GP
Kemore Gamble6-4245Fifth Year---
Alec Holler6-2230r-Sr.13 GP, 8 GS
Zach Marsh-Wojan6-5245r-Sr.4 GP
Grant Stevens6-4225Fr.---

Former walk-on Alec Holler (19 rec. for 192, 3 TDs) started the final seven games in 2021 and developed into a solid receiving threat. Also competing for playing time in 2022 will be redshirt sophomore Jordan Davis and redshirt senior Zach Marsh-Wojan, who played in six and four games, respectively, last season. Another addition is Florida transfer and redshirt senior Kemore Gamble who caught 48 passes (31 for 414 and four TDs in 2021) in 49 career games with the Gators. Incoming freshman Grant Stevens will participate in spring drills.


Jaylon Griffin6-3185r-So.4 GP
Kobe Hudson6-1200Jr.---
Amari Johnson5-10160Sr.13 GP, 2 GS
Jordan Johnson6-2185r-So.5 GP
Dionte Marks6-2190r-Jr.4 GP
Ryan O'Keefe5-10175Sr.13 GP, 12 GS
Jaylon Robinson5-9180r-Sr.7 GP, 6 GS

Pacing the Knights' wide receivers is senor Ryan O'Keefe (84 rec. for 812, 7 TDs; 16 rushes for 274, 1 TD; second-team all-AAC by vote of league coaches and by Pro Football Network), who caught more passes in 2021 than any UCF player in 15 seasons. O'Keefe capped his junior campaign by winning the MVP award in the Knights' Gasparilla Bowl win over Florida, thanks to his 255 all-purpose yards. UCF hopes redshirt senior Jaylon Robinson (18 rec. for 322, 2 TDs) can regain his 2020 form (first-team all-AAC with 55 rec. for 979, 6 TDs) after an injury-plagued 2021 campaign limited him to seven games played. Also in the mix are senor Amari Johnson (23 for 138, 1 TD), redshirt sophomore Jordan Johnson (a 2021 transfer from Notre Dame), redshirt junior Dionte Marks (2 for 20; a 2021 transfer from Florida) and redshirt sophomore Jaylon Griffin (1 for 14). Transfer Kobe Hudson from Auburn (he led the Tigers in receiving in 2021 with 44 catches for 580 yards and four TDs) also could impact the depth chart. 


Patrick Barnett6-6300r-So.1 GP
Edward Collins6-6315r-Sr.13 GP
Tylan Grable6-7290r-Sr.---
Samuel Jackson6-6325Fifth Year13 GS
Matthew Lee6-4295r-Jr.12 GS
Adrian Medley6-5305r-Jr.5 GP, 1 GS
Ethan Mort6-6290r-Fr.---
Lokahi Pauole6-4305Sr.13 GS
Paul Rubelt6-10330r-So.3 GP
Ryan Swoboda6-10325Fifth Year---

The Knights return three offensive line starters for 2022 in redshirt senior right tackle and 2021 team co-captain Sam Jackson (team-high 31 career starts; honorable mention all-AAC by Pro Football Focus and PFN), senior right guard Lokahi Pauole (21 career starts; second-team all-AAC in 2021 by vote of league coaches and by Phil Steele) and redshirt junior center Matt Lee (22 career starts; third-team all-AAC by PFF). Those three players rank among the top four on the Knight roster in career starting assignments. Next in line from an experience standpoint are redshirt senior tackle Ed Collins (he played in every game in 2021) and redshirt junior guard Adrian Medley (one start in 2021). Both Virginia transfer Ryan Swoboda (right tackle starter on the Cavalier offensive line in 2020 and 2021) and Jacksonville State transfer Tylan Grable (second-team FCS All-American in delayed spring 2021 season and a first-team all-ASUN Conference selection last fall) could impact the depth chart. Others in the mix are redshirt sophomore tackle Paul Rubelt (three games played in 2021), redshirt sophomore Patrick Barnett (one game) and redshirt freshman Ethan Mort (DNP in 2021).


Josh Celiscar6-4265Jr.13 GP, 10 GS
Dallaz Corbitt6-5240r-Jr.---
Keenan Cupit6-2255r-So.---
Malachi Lawrence6-4270r-Fr.---
K.D. McDaniel6-2250r-Jr.---
Tre'mon Morris-Brash6-2245Sr.11 GP
Landon Woodson6-6235r-Sr.12 GP

The Knights' 2021 roster boasts two experienced returnees at defensive end in junior Josh Celiscar (39 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3 sacks) and senior Tre'mon Morris-Brash (23 tackles, 10 TFL, 5 sacks; honorable mention all-AAC by PFF), with Morris-Brash qualifying as the top UCF returnee in both tackles for loss and sacks despite not starting a game in 2021. The lone other returnee with any game experience from a year ago is redshirt senior Landon Woodson (13 tackles). Kentucky transfer K.D. McDaniel (13 tackles in 10 games with Wildcats in 2021) is another option. Also in the hunt for playing time are redshirt junior Dallaz Corbitt, redshirt sophomore Keenan Cupit and redshirt freshman Malachi Lawrence, none of whom saw game action in 2021. 


Matthew Alexander6-3280r-Fr.---
Ricky Barber6-3290r-Jr.11 GP, 10 GS
Kervins Choute6-3285r-So.---
Keenan Hester6-4305r-Jr.13 GP, 7 GS
Lee Hunter6-4320r-Fr.---
Anthony Montalvo6-3290Fifth Year13 GP, 5 GS

The UCF tackle slots boast extensive experience, thanks to the return of redshirt junior Ricky Barber (29 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 3 sacks), redshirt junior Keenan Hester (24 tackles) and redshirt senior Anthony Montalvo (34 tackles). All three started at least five games in 2021 and the trio combined for 22 last fall (39 career starts, including 22 for Montalvo, most on the defensive side). Others contending for playing time are Auburn transfer Lee Hunter (he did not play in a game in 2021 as a true freshman), redshirt sophomore Kervins Choute and redshirt freshman Matt Alexander, neither of whom played in 2021. 


Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste6-2230Sr.12 GP, 5 GS
Cole Joyce6-1235r-Fr.1 GP
Kadeem Leonard6-3230r-Fr.---
Terrence Lewis6-3200r-Fr.---
Quade Mosier6-2225Jr.13 GP

Senior Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste (51 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 5 QBH) headlines a linebacking unit that will be looking for new names to make significant contributions in 2022. He ranks as the lone returnee with any starting experience (seven career starts). Additional help could come from junior Quade Mosier (5 tackles), redshirt freshman Cole Joyce (one game appearance in 2021) and redshirt freshman Kadeem Leonard (DNP in 2021). Also in the mix is Maryland transfer Terrence Lewis who did not play in 2021 as a true freshman due to injury.


Brandon Adams6-3180So.12 GP, 6 GS
Jarrad Baker5-11170r-Jr.10 GP
Davonte Brown6-2185Jr.13 GS
Quadric Bullard6-0170Jr.13 GS
Marco Domio6-1185Fifth Year9 GP
Jaiden Francois6-0190r-So.4 GP
Justin Hodges6-2175Jr.10 GS
Dyllon Lester6-0200r-Sr.12 GP, 1 GS
Nikai Martinez5-11170Fr.---
Koby Perry6-0175Fifth Year---
Trevion Shadrick-Harris6-2195r-Jr.---
Corey Thornton6-1190Jr.12 GP, 6 GS
Jarvis Ware6-1190r-Sr.---
William Wells6-2185So.7 GP
Divaad Wilson6-0195r-Sr.13 GP, 12 GS

The Knights are deep and talented in the secondary—where essentially everyone is back, including seven players with starting experience and 79 combined previous career starts. UCF's top two returning tacklers are the Knights' returning regulars at safety in redshirt senior Divaad Wilson (72 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 ints.; second-team all-AAC by vote of league coaches) and junior Quadric Bullard (83 tackles, 4 TFL, 6 PBU, 3 FR; second-team all-AAC by PFF). UCF will take advantage of three seasoned cornerbacks in juniors Davonte Brown (38 tackles, team-high 13 PBU; third-team all-AAC by PFF) and Corey Thornton (32 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 6 PBU) and sophomore Brandon Adams (19 tackles). Brown and Bullard started every game in 2021 and Wilson started all but one. The hybrid Knight position is occupied by junior Justin Hodges (35 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 7 PBU). Other returnees bringing experience to the table are redshirt senior Dyllon Lester (12 games, 1 start, 22 tackles, 2 ints.), redshirt senior Marco Domio (9 games, 6 tackles, 2 PBU), sophomore Williams Wells (7 games, 5 tackles), redshirt junior Jarrad Baker (10 games, 4 tackles in 2021), redshirt sophomore Jaiden Francois (4 games), redshirt junior Trevion Shadrick-Harris (DNP in 2021) and redshirt senior Jarvis Ware (missed 2021 due to injury). Newcomers are Koby Perry (2021 Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year at Austin Peay) and incoming freshman Nikai Martinez who will participate in spring drills.


Daniel Obarski6-2200Sr.13 GP
Alex Ward6-4240Fifth Year13 GP
Andrew Osteen6-1180r-Sr.13 GP

The Knights bring back three prominent special teams names for 2022. Senior placekicker Daniel Obarski connected on eight of his 14 field-goal attempts in 2021 (20 of 31 in his career at UCF) and 38 of his 75 kickoffs were touchbacks. Redshirt senior punter Andrew Osteen averaged 41.1 yards per kick in 2021 (42.2 in his career). Redshirt senior long snapper Alex Ward was a 2021 third-team All-America pick by Phil Steele and one of three finalists for the Patrick Mannelly Award as the top long snapper in the country. Amari Johnson and Johnny Richardson are the Knights' most experienced punt and kickoff returners, respectively.