Questions Heading Into 2021 for UCF Football!

By: Eddie Melville

The UCF Football program ended its 2020 season with a 49-23 blowout loss to #16 BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl on December 22.  As a diehard UCF fan, this was an embarrassing way to go out and was wrought with many of the familiar faults that were evident in the other 3 losses.  The difference in this loss was that it was actually not a close game for once and was likely exacerbated by the excellence of projected first round pick, BYU QB Zach Wilson.  At 6-4, the Knights will not finish ranked and moving forward, many questions loom on the trajectory of the football program.  The following is a breakdown of some of those questions that Knight Nation will be pondering as the calendar approaches 2021.

Will Josh Heupel and company reel in any late impact recruits and/or transfers? 

Most recruits make their decision by early signing day.  However, there are still other high school athletes figuring out where they will play their college ball.  While I would expect UCF to sign a few more guys, will any of them be on the high end of the 3 stars or, dare I say, even crack into the 4 stars? The Knights are losing some big names to graduation, the draft, and transferring, so does a highly rated kid look at UCF and smell opportunity?  Knight nation can only hope.  Coach Heupel’s staff has done a solid job in nabbing transfers during his tenure to include guys like Cam Goode, Jaylon Robinson, Marcus Tatum, and Divaad Wilson, to name a few.  Finding more talented transfers who can compete for starting jobs and add depth will be crucial this offseason.  

Will any incoming recruits make a big impact right away? 

While it has already been documented that recruiting players to UCF is still ongoing this offseason, Early Signing Day saw UCF ink 19 players for the 2021 recruiting class.  One of the highlights of that class includes defensive tackle Anthony Hundley, a former LSU commit hailing from IMG Academy in Bradenton.  If Hundley lives up to the hype and is even able to contribute early, that would fill a huge position of need for the Knights.  One could argue that there has not been an absolute stud at defensive tackle since Trysten Hill declared early for the NFL draft in 2018.  Let’s all hope Hundley is that guy.  Other recruits that caught my eye included Mikey Keene, a 3-star quarterback out of Arizona, and With McKenzie Milton’s departure to FSU (still getting used to that), building QB depth behind Dillon Gabriel is critical, so Keene’s signing was important. Ideally Keene wouldn’t have to play in 2021 and would ultimately be redshirted; however, if he ends up being the next best guy behind Dillon, I would hope that Heupel would give him the nod as the backup.  Lastly, Jaylon Griffin, a  6’3” 183 LBS wide receiver out of Kilgore Junior College in Texas is another guy I have my eyes on.  With Marlon Williams and Tre Nixon both headed to the draft, there are some open spots on the depth chart.  We haven’t seen a freshman wide receiver play a major role in the Heupel offense during his tenure at UCF.   Could a JUCO kid like Griffin buck the trend? 

How much more will Dillon Gabriel improve in 2021? 

We all saw growth in DG his sophomore year as both a passer and in his ability to run the football when needed.  I thought he had games and stretches where his pocket presence was strong, his ability to read the field was improved, and his accuracy was on point. He still throws as pretty of a deep ball as any signal caller in the nation. There were snippets of time during the season where DG had the offense operating beautifully.  The Georgia Tech and Memphis games stand out to me.  One of my favorite plays of the year was the calm and patience he displayed on what was a big touchdown pass to Marlon Williams in the Tulane game (see 20 second mark). Obviously, DG puts up huge numbers and with him behind center, it is likely that UCF is going to score a lot of points. 

Now let’s look at wins and losses.  Dillon Gabriel’s record as starter for the Knights is 15-7.  This is good, but hardly great.  I’m not sure any of us expected him to be in the midst of a 23-0 stretch like KZ had in 17 and 18, but you look at his numbers and at the opponents we have played and it can’t help but make you wonder: what gives? I don’t put all the blame on DG.  The Josh Heupel offense does not utilize the middle of the field enough in the passing game nor does it get UCF’s small, fast running backs out in space the way we enjoyed seeing in 2017 under Frost (or even somewhat what we saw in 2018 during Heupel’s first season).  The lack of this element in the offense is unfavorable to the quarterback.  Now, despite Heupel’s strategy, I can’t help but remember how DG played during the Tulsa loss, the Cincinnati loss, and the BYU loss (the hardest to watch) Yes, the defenses UCF was facing in each of those games are better, but the dropoff is big.  In those 3 losses (not including the Memphis loss for 601 reasons) DG went 75 of 145 for just a 51.7 completion percentage. He averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt against Tulsa,  5.0 against Cincinnati, and 4.8 against BYU.  By comparison, he averaged 8.6 for the season.  Maybe improved play-calling and game management from Heupel would have helped, but at the end of the day, the accuracy and efficiency just weren’t there.  DG can certainly get better at beating the blitz, reading coverages, and continuing to hone his throwing accuracy.  With that and added experience I’m hopeful that he can make another leap in his junior season both in the stat and win columns. With that said, I do wonder…

How good will Gabriel’s weapons be in 2021? 

Dillon could make huge leaps in his development during his junior year, but it could all be for not in the win column if the talent around him is significantly worse.  The reality is, we enjoyed watching guys like Adrian Killins, Otis Anderson, and Greg McCrae dating back to 2017.  McCrae and Anderson have graduated and now pursue their NFL dreams.   The most experienced runner who is projected to return is Bentavious Thompson.  He has proven to be a strong option in the number 3 role the past 2 years, although his rushing totals were significantly lower in 2020 than 2019, albeit in fewer games.  I would imagine that he will be the number 1 tailback in 2021.  I’m not sure he’ll match the production of Greg and Otis but the potential is certainly there.  More concerning to me is running back depth.  We saw one big run from freshman Johnny Richardson in what was largely garbage time against ECU.  Is he ready for a bigger role?  How about Lake Brantley product Damarius Good?  Could we even see a guy like Virgina transfer RJ Harvey in the mix? Needless to say, it’s going to look different. 

Speaking of different, wide receiver U says its goodbyes to Marlon Williams, Tre Nixon and Jacob Harris.  Williams was named an All-American by Pro Football Focus and definitely has an argument for best single season by a UCF wide receiver.  Nixon was hurt most of the year, but was highly effective in the opener and was one of DG’s favorite targets in 2019.  Harris’ hands betrayed him on many occasions but his size and speed were good enough to help him finish the year with 539 yards and 8 touchdowns.  Two main contributors we can expect back would be Jaylon Robinson and Ryan O’Keefe.  While I like both players, I have some doubts about Jaylon being a number 1 wide receiver and I’m not sure that O’Keefe matches the production of a guy like Nixon.  Still, these two should be the least of Knight Nation’s concerns.  More alarming to me is the inexperience behind them.  Freshman Ja’Cyais Credle showed flashes in limited action.  Will Heupel draw up more plays for him and trust him with an expanded role? Amari Johnson has been a decent special teams guy but hasn’t been able to crack the rotation much through 2 years.  Ke’Von Ahmad had a lot of hype in Heupel’s first recruiting class but still hasn’t seen the field much.  O’Keefe was the breakout wide receiver of the unknown commodities in 2020.  Let’s hope more join him in 2021 or else we could see the shakiest wide receiver group since the 2016 season. 

How much better does the defense get in 2021? 

For those wondering, yes, I  think defensive coordinator Randy Shannon will still be around in 2021.  Remember, he was hired by Danny White when Coach Heupel came on board; I don’t see it being Heupel’s call to keep or retain him.  While it certainly wasn’t his best season at the helm, Shannon was working with a depleted secondary and, later on, a depleted defense as a whole after Eric Mitchell, Kenny Turnier, Randy Charlton, and Antawn Collier were dismissed from the team.  Don’t forget as well that projected starters Tay Gowan (cornerback) and Kalia Davis (defensive line) also opted out of the season while Brandon Moore never got to return from his injury the year prior.  Ultimately, Randy had to rely on true freshmen at corner to include Corey Thornton, Davonte Brown, and Justin Hodges.  He later got the services of Georgia transfer Divaad Wilson but after several weeks into the season once he was cleared to play.  I’m confident that the defensive backs I mentioned can only get better going forward as they build off the experience gained this season while also putting in the work during the offseason.  However, UCF is going to have a hard time replacing the experience and play-making ability of NFL prospects Richie Grant and Aaron Robinson, so there will still be some question marks in the secondary until other guys step up and prove otherwise.

As for the linebackers and defensive line, seniors like Eriq Gilyard, Anthony Montalvo, and Stephon Zayas will provide experience and hopefully leadership for a group that had its moments but also got gashed at times.  If a guy like Kalia Davis is able to return, that would be huge as he had an argument for most disruptive lineman on the team back in 2019.  I expect young linebackers like Tatum Bethune and Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste to continue to improve.  Can a guy like freshman Quade Mosier steal some snaps and break into the rotation? I want to see talented, but still developing lineman like Cam Goode, Tre’mon Morris-Brash, and Landon Woodson take the next step.  Freshman Josh Celiscar was a nice surprise in 2020, but I also thought he cooled off after the Tulsa game.  Getting bigger and stronger in the offseason will be key for him.  Overall, I see solid players in the front seven, but no stars.  We need a Nate Evans, Trysten Hill, or Shaquem Griffin-level player to emerge in 2021 for this team to hit the big goals we’ve grown accustomed to in recent history.  Which begs my final and most important question…

Can the Knights get back to winning big under Josh Heupel? 

But, but, but Josh Heupel is 28 wins to 8 losses for a .777 win percentage!  And he won a conference championship and got us to a New Year’s Six!  All true, but also not the whole story.  Let’s consider for a moment that Heup took over a juggernaut fresh off a 13-0 season that returned much of its talent to include a legitimate Heisman candidate in McKenzie Milton.  I still give the man credit for 12-1, but it’s tempered. In my opinion, many coaches could have led that squad to 12-1.   Now, since it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, let’s look at Heupel’s record in 2019 and 2020, without McKenzie: 16-7.  Shortened season notwithstanding, that’s a .695 win percentage or an average of 8.34 wins per season during a normal full 12-game years.  While many schools would take that, I can say confidently that many in our fan base simply can’t accept that, not when many of the players on the past two teams were key contributors in 2017 and 2018 during the 25-game win streak.  Of the past 2 seasons, I give Heupel a little more grace on 2020 than I do with 2019 considering the losses on defense.  However, this is not a program that should have back to back losses to Tulsa on it’s resume.  With all due respect to their success the past 2 seasons, Cincinnati also should not be beating us back to back years.  While I do not believe he is the same overall player KZ was at his peak, I do believe DG has as good if not better pure arm talent and there is no reason this team shouldn’t have won the conference one of the last two seasons.  At the end of the day, is this a talent problem or more indicative of a coaching problem? If it is a talent problem, the coaches control that component too with recruiting and player development. 

For me and, I believe, many others in Knight Nation, the standard was raised in 2017, fair or not. Remember, that happened in Frost’s second season.  Even he said at one point that he was aiming for the big things to happen in year 3, not year 2 of his tenure.  In other words, we had all the momentum in the world!  If UCF was in a Power 5 conference,  the last two years would have made more sense, even considering the talent on the roster.  However, we’re not.  I do think the American is the strongest of the Group of 5 conferences but I also believe UCF has clear advantages over all the other teams in our conference when it comes to location, home field advantage, and being centrally located in the recruiting hotbed of the nation.  After 2017 and 2018,  losing more than 1 or 2 games a year is considered below standard. Doing that 2 years in a row is a very problematic trend.  Add in that in neither of those seasons did we even make the conference championship and we’re talking about almost below our standards even before 2017.   Bottom line:  UCF fans have not seen the football program go more than 2 seasons in a row without a conference championship since winning the first one in 2007 (the other years being 2010, 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2018 for those counting at home).  What will the response of Danny White, the big donors, and the fanbase as a whole be if this trend becomes 3 years in a row next year? Let’s say that happens plus the team loses 3 or more games? I hope I’m wrong, but there are as many if not more questions on the football roster heading into 2021 than there were in 2019 or 2020.  This will pretty much be all of Heupel’s recruits leading the charge.  Will they rise and conquer or will Knight Nation be left with more questions and disappointment?  Only time will tell.

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