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College Football Preview 2022: 22. UCF Knights

Ryan O'Keefe, UCF

22. UCF Knights

A talented roster dotted with Power Five transfers will propel UCF into the New Year's Six discussion

2021 Review
UCF opened up the 2021 season on the first night of the regular season, with a fun Group of Five matchup with Boise State. After falling behind early, the Knights mounted an epic comeback to win in front of the home folks, 36-31. They beat up on Bethune-Cookman a week later, but ran into road troubles the next two games, losing a shootout to Louisville and a physical contest to Navy. Following a close win over East Carolina in Orlando, the Knights were run out of the stadium by Cincinnati to the tune of 56-21. They finished the year strong, winning six of their final seven and beating Florida in the Gasparilla Bowl. They finished 9-4 overall and epitomized the idea of a home-field advantage; they were 7-0 in Orlando and 2-4 away from it. 

2022 Outlook
Offense: A broken clavicle suffered by Dillon Gabriel forced freshman Mikey Keene into a larger role than anyone would have expected, as the youngster started the final ten games of the 2021 campaign. There were some understandable growing pains, but Keene finished with 1,730 yards and 18 total touchdowns, not a bad showing for a first-year QB. With Gabriel moving on to Oklahoma, the offense goes into 2022 in Keene's hands.

Keene will be joined in the quarterback room by a pair of former Power Five transfers, Joey Gatewood and John Rhys Plumlee. Gatewood began his career at Auburn and after a quick pit stop at Kentucky, came to UCF. Plumlee began his career at Ole Miss, where he shattered the QB rushing record, with 1,023 yards in 2019. Neither are your traditional quarterbacks, but instead will be used in certain packages and situations. Gatewood is a beast near the goal-line, while Plumlee is an option magician who also lined up at receiver for Ole Miss.

Head coach Gus Malzahn has never been one to shy away from a committee approach at tailback and I suspect he will do much the same in 2022. Former Northwestern transfer Isaiah Bowser will get the bulk of the carries, coming off a season in which he notched 703 yards and nine scores despite dealing with injuries. He's not only a physical, downhill runner that wears out opposing defenses, his blocking in pass protection is vastly underrated. Alongside Bowser will be a pair of big-play threats in Johnny Richardson and Mark Antony-Richards. Richardson ended up leading the team in rushing last fall and averaged seven yards per carry. His play style is very similar to that of former UCF great Adrian Killins, as he's a lightning bug at 5'7" who can break open games with a single carry. Antony-Richards provides solid support, a former Auburn transfer who followed Malzahn to Orlando.

One of my favorite players in the country is wide out Ryan O'Keefe, who is back for his senior season. Few players anywhere in college football can impact the game quite like O'Keefe, who quite literally does it all. He led UCF in receiving with 812 yards and seven touchdowns, totaled 274 yards rushing, can handle kickoffs and punt returns, and can even throw the ball. Last year, O'Keefe went 3-3 throwing the ball for 66 yards and a touchdown, earning himself a nice little passer rating of 504.8. An ultra-versatile dynamo like this is terrifying in a Malzahn offense, and he should be a frontrunner for the Paul Hornung Award, given annually to the sport's most versatile player.

In addition to O'Keefe, Keene will lean a pair of former transfers, Auburn transplant Kobe Hudson and former Notre Dame wide out Jordan Johnson. Hudson led Auburn in receiving a year ago and adds instant impact to this Knights offense, while Johnson is a former high-profile recruit who appeared in five games for UCF in 2021. Add in veteran Amari Johnson, who had 23 catches for 138 last year, and the receiver corps is loaded.

Malzahn isn't known as a coach that features his tight ends heavily, typically preferring tight ends that can line up in the backfield and play more like H-backs. That may change this fall, as UCF landed a big name TE transfer in former Florida Gator Kemore Gamble. Even as Florida fell to a sub-.500 record that led to Dan Mullen's firing, Gamble totaled 31 receptions for 414 yards and four scores. It's a different type of offense he'll be joining at UCF, but I expect him to still find ways to contribute. He's a big body, but incredibly athletic for the position and a matchup problem.

The offensive line loses stalwart Cole Schneider, but has a chance to be very solid. They added a big-name transfer over the offseason in Virgnia's Ryan Swoboda, who has a good chance to be the team's starting right tackle. The 6'10", 325-pound behemoth appeared in 43 games over four seasons for UVA and started 25. Junior Matthew Lee centers the unit on the inside, as the center started 12 games for the Knights in 2022 and should be ready to roll once again.

Not a lot of Group of Five schools have the offensive talent UCF does, plus a creative head man in Gus Malzahn to run it. They have some really fascinating pieces, like O'Keefe, Richardson, Plumlee, and Gamble that should make them a pain for opposing defenses. I expect this to be one of the most productive Group of Five offenses in the nation.

Defense: UCF took some lumps defensively last year before finishing strong in the season's second half. They allowed 24.5 PPG, which was 49th nationally and among the better numbers in the conference. Defensive coordinator Travis Williams is back in Orlando to lead the defense and has plenty of talent to work with.

The defensive line loses a key cog in Big Kat Bryant, who was yet another Knight who followed Malzahn from Auburn, but the unit should still be a strength. Veterans Tre'mon Morris Brash and Josh Celiscar are expected to start opposite one another as defensive ends. Morris-Brash notched 10 TFL and five sacks a season ago and could be among the best pass rushers in the American Athletic this fall. The interior should also be set, with junior Ricky Barber anchoring the unit and highly touted transfer Lee Hunter providing much-needed depth.

UCF was average to below-average at stopping the run in 2021, allowing 159.2 YPG (79th nationally), and now enters the fall with some uncertainty at linebacker. Senior Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste started five games for the Knights in 2021 and will now be expected to play a leading role. The linebacker is a ferocious hitter and intense competitor, but is he ready to take on a leadership position in the heart of this defense? It's unclear who will start alongside Jean-Baptiste, although UCF is likely to decide between a pair of transfers. Terrence Lewis was a five-star recruit for Maryland last year who has all the talent in the world, but plenty of questions. He didn't play at all a season ago after sustaining an ACL injury in the spring and was charged with domestic battery in early May. The charges have since been dropped, but it's fair to wonder whether that may impact his on-field contributions moving forward. The other transfer set to compete for snaps is Jason Johnson, a former FCS All-American at Eastern Illinois. Johnson has a proven pedigree, but the jump to this level is always an adjustment.

There's a lot to like about this secondary. It was the strength of the defense last season and returns most of the key contributors, along with a few interesting transfers. Junior corners Davonte Brown and Corey Thornton are among the most underrated defensive duos in the nation. Brown swatted away 13 pass deflections in 2021, while Thornton had six, despite playing mainly as a reserve. Sophomore Brandon Adams is also likely to play a role after flashing plenty of upside as a true freshman. He's a superb athlete whose length jumps out at you; he's 6'3" and looks even larger.

The rest of the defensive backfield includes juniors Justin Hodges and Quadric Bullard, along with former Georgia transfer Divaad Wilson. Bullard was second on the team in tackles last year and sets the tone on the back-end, while Wilson is a special talent who earned All-AAC consideration last year. This group also adds in a big-name transfer in Koby Perry, who was an FCS All-American at Austin Peay. Perry could play at nickelback, but his most likely spot is one of the safety spots, where his closing speed and instincts will be a major asset.

Defense was a weak spot during much of the Scott Frost and Josh Heupel eras, but this group displayed real growth under Williams and Malzahn last fall. The prognosis for 2022 looks promising, even with some question marks in the linebacker corps. The returns in the secondary will be particularly crucial, as the American has an abundance of talented signal-callers.

Special Teams: Placekicker Daniel Obarski is hoping a better performance in the Gasparilla Bowl can lay the groundwork for an improved 2022 after a shaky campaign a year ago. He went 8-14 in '21 and is 20-31 for his UCF career. Punter is in good hands, as veteran Alex Osteen returns. He got plenty of work a season ago, with 71 punts, averaging just over 41 yards per.

Bottom Line: UCF battled a slew of injuries in 2021 and still finished 9-4 with a bowl victory over the flagship program in the state. That speaks a lot to Malzahn and the staff, but also the program as a whole and the talent that they've collected. Hopefully, the Knights are able to avoid the injury bug this fall, which should set up for an exciting campaign. Both sides of the ball are loaded with proven veterans and an abundance of former Power Five transfers, continuing to elevate the talent in Orlando. Plus, the environment UCF finds themselves in sets up nicely. Cincinnati is almost sure to take a step back inside the AAC and SMU lost their head coach to TCU, meaning two of the top programs inside the league enter 2022 with questions. The Knights also have a favorable schedule; their two Power Five opponents this fall, Louisville and Georgia Tech, have hot seat head coaches and are among the bottom-tier teams in the conference. Plus, UCF gets Cincy, SMU, and both Power Five schools all at home this season. All in all, it sets up perfectly for a potentially special season for Malzahn and company. Maybe not undefeated special, but I envision the Knights in serious contention for the Group of Five's New Year's Six bid.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Gus Malzahn enters his second season as head man at UCF after a long run at Auburn, where he went 68-35 and played for a National Title. Malzahn is a former coaching legend in the Arkansas high school coaching ranks before making the jump to FBS ball in 2006, when he took over as Arkansas OC. The offensive coordinator is Chip Lindsey, who has a long relationship with Malzahn and was former head coach at Troy. Defensively, Travis Williams runs the show as DC; he played at Auburn and coached linebackers there from 2016-2020. 

Recruiting Breakdown
Even though UCF had a big showing in the transfer portal this offseason, they still made waves on the high school recruiting scene, as well. They brought in a class that ranked 52nd in the 247Sports composite, which was third among Group of Five schools, trailing only Houston and Cincinnati. The lone four-star in the class is corner Nikai Martinez, who probably won't play much in 2022 but has a bright future. He chose UCF despite heavy interest from several SEC teams. Other big names include wide out Quan Lee and corner Ja'Cari Henderson, who both hail from inside the state of Florida. Henderson's twin brother, Demari, isn't as highly rated but could be a long-term contributor at safety. 

2022 X-Factor: LB Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste
Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste was a solid contributor for this defense a year ago, but UCF needs even more from the linebacker this season. Losing Tatum Bethune and Bryson Armstrong seriously cripples a linebacker corps that had some notable issues containing the run in 2021. UCF may have brought in several transfers to bolster this unit, but Jean-Baptiste is the most experienced linebacker on the team and knows this system. He will set the tone for the entire unit, which in turn could decide whether or not the Knights once again have one of the AAC's best defenses.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 10-3 (7-3 American Athletic, Lose AAC Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: WR Ryan O'Keefe
Defensive MVP: S Quadric Bullard
Breakout Player of the Year: DL Lee Hunter
Impact Freshman: WR Quan Lee

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