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Alec Holler: Things I Know

by John Heisler

While UCF’s football roster actively reflects how the Knights have embraced the transfer portal, its 6-3, 230-pound sixth-year tight end Alec Holler from Winter Park, Florida, represents the other end of the spectrum. He came to UCF as a walk-on, has observed multiple head coaching changes—and has come out the other side as a team captain and returning regular at tight end. He didn’t play high school football until his junior year and thought seriously about giving up the game his first semester on campus at UCF. But he persevered over time to earn the starting tight end job. Off the field, he married his former high school sweetheart Ashleigh Avallone in February--and he’s finishing up requirements for a master’s degree this semester. This is the first-person story of all the ups and downs for the hometown hero.   

I’ve lived here all my life—Orlando, Winter Park. My dad went to Trinity Prep and so did all my siblings. There’s almost always at least one athletic team there that’s really good. The best football players that came from Trinity Prep are Eric Wilbur who was a punter at Florida (2003-06) and Will Proctor, who played quarterback at Clemson about that same time (2002-06). 

My aunt, uncle and cousins all went to UCF. My mom went to Florida so I grew up in the area being both a Florida and a UCF fan. We loved sports and went to lots of UCF events. I went to games at the Citrus Bowl, with the old gold uniforms. They used to have a pavilion in one end zone and we’d get seats there and catch field-goal attempts in warmups.

Growing up athletics played a huge role in my life, back to Pop Warner football. I really thought basketball was what I was going to do. I went to a Nike basketball camp and scored a lot of points, but not a single college coach reached out to me. So I decided there was no real future there. I loved football, but with basketball going on, I didn’t play football again until halfway through my junior year. I got a lot of my hand-eye coordination from basketball.  


My junior year, I did not really know that much about what I was doing on the football field--I was out there just trying to be an athlete. My coach told me, “You have a future in this,” and I started to believe it. I went off in the spring game before my senior year. I think I scored three touchdowns. Liberty offered me a full ride and Harvard and some of the other Ivy League schools told me I had a spot. I hurt myself at the UCF prospect camp and my best option here was as a preferred walk-on. I was ready to commit to Liberty, but the scholarship was no longer there. In my heart I thought UCF was the way to go. I had some other smaller D-I schools come out and watch me practice, but I loved this area. 

It was tough because by the time I enrolled they had a whole new staff (under head coach Josh Heupel). (Tight end) coach (Jon) Cooper honored my preferred walk-on spot which was awesome. The day before fall camp started they installed the NCAA sixth-year rule so (veteran tight end Michael) Colubiale came back. So I didn’t take part in fall camp and joined later when school started after fall camp had ended. 

I know now that I was never going to play that year (2018) anyway, and I quickly realized that I’m not as good a player as the rest of the world. It was tough being on the bench—I thought about leaving and quitting football that first fall. My parents wanted me to push through—they’d say, “Just one more semester. You committed to this.” It was fun to watch because we won every regular-season game. But, still, you get beat up on the scout team. I tell guys now in that position, “Just push through—there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

I think back to that true freshman year when I wasn’t really having much fun. But the week of the Cincinnati game when (ESPN’s College) Game Day was there I got Scout Team Player of the Week. I thought, “Wow, this is so special.” I got to room with Coubs (Michael Colubiale) and Jake Hescock that weekend. Jake was really the first person who made me really feel like I was part of the team. That weekend is when Jake and I became best friends, hanging out in the hotel room. 

That next spring game I scored a touchdown and I still have videos on my phone that my parents shot from the stands. I honestly thought that might be the pinnacle of my career. My family is celebrating as if we won the national championship and it’s just the spring game. I worked my way up the depth chart a little bit (in 2019) and then I tore my ACL blocking Richie Grant in practice week four or five. 

Then we’re going into another year (2020), there are inklings of Covid—and Coach Cooper leaves and Coach (Alex) Golesh comes in to coach the tight ends. I feel like I’ve lost all the progress I had made. It’s frustrating because I feel like I’m at the bottom of the depth chart again. Maybe the blessing was that there was no spring football because of Covid so none of those new, young scholarships guys got those reps. By the time I'm back I can compete with those scholarships guys. I ended up backing up Jake Hescock after being about the ninth tight end not that long before.

Then Coach Heupel and a lot of the staff go to Tennessee, but I was thrilled that we got a high-profile coach like Gus Malzahn. He came in and gave me every opportunity. He does not care if you’re scholarship or walk-on or it’s your very first day. It was perfect for me. It gave me an opportunity to compete with Jake and I never really thought that would happen. Jake got Covid during spring ball and he was out a couple of weeks and I’m getting first-team reps all that time. I gained a lot of trust from Coach Malzahn during that time. When Jake came back, we were kind of like 1A and 1B. 

They gave me a scholarship after spring ball (2021). Coach Malzahn said he did not realize I was a walk-on. Coach (Brian) Blackmon really fits me, of all the tight end coaches I’ve had. We’re similar in terms of personality, and he really helps me with my shortcomings. We communicate and work well together. We played a lot of double-tight end sets because Jake was such a phenomenal blocker. 


My birthday is July 19 and I get close-contacted for Covid so I’m out the two weeks leading up to camp. Fall camp starts August 1 and that day my brother Max tests positive. We live together so I have to quarantine and so that’s seven more days during camp. I finally get back and I’m getting a ton of reps but I don’t feel great. As I’m sitting in the ice tub after practice one of the athletic trainers comes up and tells me I tested positive. So now I’m out another week and a half. I finally come back to practice 10 days before we open against Boise State. Coach Malzahn and Coach Blackmon still believed in me enough to put me out there. With 10 days of preparation I end up getting my first catch and first touchdown against Boise—it was so cool, an awesome moment for sure. It was truly a blessing from God. 

I caught two TD passes that year at Temple and I laugh now because I’d never really done media after a game and I was more worried about that than I was excited about the plays. 

In the bowl game we played Florida, and with my mom having gone there, it felt like a backyard football game. That was a special night. 

Last year the late conversion at Memphis when I flipped for the first down and then the touchdown catch at South Florida were both neat personal moments. It’s kind of like when you’re in your backyard by yourself and you think, “The game’s tied, we gotta score . . . ohhh, touchdown.” Only God could have made those opportunities for me. 

Playing with my brother Max has been a great thing. That has been huge for me because we did not know if he was going to come to UCF or not. I was just a lot more comfortable having him around and being with him every single day. 

Being voted a captain is a great honor. You feel like you’ve come from the lowest possible rung on the totem pole. Being voted by your peers is special. It reminds me of some of my low points. I work hard at reaching out to everyone, even if it’s just saying thanks when someone hands you a water bottle at practice. It’s about making people feel appreciated. A thank-you goes so much farther than you ever believe. I remember being on the scout team and one of the coaches saying, “That was really good.” It just made my day.

Having faith in God and Jesus, your family can’t give that to you. But growing up where those values are taught is part of it—and then you come to UCF and you have to live your faith on your own. There’s a Bible verse that talks about once your children grow up and are on their own, they eventually come back to the same family values (Proverbs 22:6). When I tore my ACL, it was kind of like God was humbling me. I was struggling with this intense pain and my mom was having to help me shower—that’s really humbling for an 18- or 19-year-old. I had to rededicate myself to Christ after that. And the faith aspect works with our team and our coaching staff. 

As far as a future in football it’s about understanding who you are. I feel like a lot of guys don't really realize who they are. I’m going to motion around, try to do a lot of things right, catch the ball when my name’s called, be the guy who strains at the whistle, be the guy who plays special teams. You’ve got to fit your role and play your role—and then they don't have to worry about me doing something wrong when I leave the building. I’m not going to fill up a stat sheet. I’m like an extension of the offensive line. And I still get the ball and get noticed on some plays—but 80 percent of what I do is like being an offensive lineman. A normal fan might not notice a kick-out block that lets somebody get down a seam. 

Since I've been here it feels like I’ve seen the biggest evolution in college football that's ever happened. Maybe the biggest UCF has had—going from undefeated when I got here to joining the Big 12. I started as a preferred walk-on at an American Athletic Conference school. Now I’m a starting tight end in the Big 12.