Each week during the football season, a few staff contributors will answer five questions regarding the upcoming game ahead. It’s a way to get the staff to come together as well as the rest of Knights Nation, to see if they agree or disagree with the crew at BGB.
In our first roundtable of the football season, Jeff Sharon, Jeremy Brener, Brian Murphy, Derek Warden, Andrew Gluchov, and Eric Lopez take their seats at the roundtable to answer questions about today’s matchup against Georgia Tech.
1) What are you most looking forward to from UCF in their 2020 debut?
Jeff Sharon (@Jeff_Sharon): I can’t wait to see how Dillon Gabriel does in Year Two. Coaches say the biggest improvement a player makes is from his freshman to his sophomore year. We saw what happened with McKenzie Milton, going from getting booed off the field at the Cure Bowl in 2016 to becoming a Heisman candidate in 2017. So what will UCF’s passing game look like now with Gabriel having a year under his belt, including a spring and a summer to improve? I think we might be in for something special.
Jeremy Brener (@JeremyBrener): I think all eyes are on Dillon Gabriel, but I’m excited for this backfield. Otis Anderson and Greg McCrae are seniors this year and should both be incredibly dangerous. Both will pave the way for Bentavious Thompson to get the majority of the carries in 2021, and Thompson should get some decent looks this season as well. Georgia Tech did a great job against the run against Florida State, so I’m curious to see how they respond to UCF’s way-too-fast offense.
Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy): Cornerback is the most interesting position on this team as we begin 2020. Way back in January, we assumed that Tay Gowan and a healthy Brandon Moore would be manning the perimeter, but the former has opted out of the season, and the latter is still making his way back from a knee injury. Not to mention that JUCO transfer Devunte Dawson has also opted out; he was expected to see snaps this season, too. All of that is going to force a player such as Zamari Maxwell, who was often the Knights’ No. 3 outside corner last season, to become the No. 1. Across from him, you’re going to see true freshmen — Corey Thornton, Justin Hodges, Quadric Bullard, Davonte Brown — thrown into the fire immediately. Georgia Tech’s offense won’t present the toughest task this season, but you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
Andrew Gluchov (@statboydrew): I want to see how the team adapts to a completely different energy in the stadium. Either the positive energy at home or the hostility on the road, energy is contagious and we feed off it. The opposite of love isn't hate, it's apathy, and by having only a fraction of fans in the stadium, it's going to have an impact. While the fans there won't be apathetic, there will energy. The question is "how much?"
Dillon Gabriel struggled with hostile crowds last season, so this could play to his favor as he continues to grow and mature. If we look at UCF quarterbacks historically, Gabriel should be primed for an excellent season and this is an excellent platform to get started.
Derek Warden (@_dswarden): I’m interested to see who becomes the go-to wide receiver. Last year it was obviously Gabe Davis, but this year there’s no clear-cut no. 1 heading into Saturday’s game. The favorites would be either Tre Nixon or Marlon Williams, but this could be a year when instead of having “the guy”, UCF could have “those guys.” And with our depth, that could be a very good problem for Dillon Gabriel.
Eric Lopez (@EricLopezELO): I’m interested in seeing how sharp or rusty UCF is when it comes to tackling on defense and execution on offense being the first game of a season after the unique off-season.
2) Who is the X-Factor for UCF on each side of the ball?
Jeff: Offensively, I think it’s Greg McCrae. He was hurt for much of last year and UCF could really use him to pressure defenses and keep them honest, especially given his inside/outside versatility. On defense, it’s Eric Mitchell. He steps in for the beloved Nate Evans, and even though he’s not the vocal leader Nate was, he’s a super-smart kid who brings the pain when he hits you.
Jeremy: On the offensive side of the ball, this game will rest heavily on the shoulders of Dillon Gabriel. In all three losses last year, Gabriel crumbled on the road. His leadership is crucial if the Knights want to win Saturday. On defense, the team has more challenges given the fact that there are not as many returnees. Richie Grant is one of the veterans who is projected to be a 2021 NFL Draft selection. The secondary will look to him to set the tone and make huge plays.
Brian: Offensively, it’s center Matthew Lee. I know that’s not a glitzy choice, but it will be upon the redshirt freshman to get the O-line set and make any calls against a Yellow Jackets defense that really harassed Florida State QB James Blackman last week.
Linebacker Eric Mitchell is my pick on defense. His eyes, reaction time and sideline-to-sideline effort will be crucial against this offense, which wants to lean on its running game and use QB Jeff Sims as a dual threat with plenty of run-pass option.
Andrew: Offensively, there's a few guys, but wide receiver Marlon Williams is going to need to play a big role in the offense. Ever since the days of Scott Frost(makes it feel so long ago), the UCF offense is about spreading the field and airing it out. Tre'Quan Smith did it first and Gabriel Davis followed. Now it will be Williams' turn to step into the role of the fly guy. UCF will need to set up their quick rhythm and put points on the board to keep a momentum based coach like Geoff Collins frustrated and forcing Sims to throw more.
Defensively, the weight is going to be heavily on Eric Mitchell to lead this defense. UCF has always asked a lot from their linebackers and it's his turn to step up. GT QB Jeff Sims can move, so Mitchell is going to have to make proper presnap reads and adjustments aside from the physical aspect of running speed and agility to keep Sims from running all over the place.
Derek: Offense: TE Jake Hescock. TE production dropped considerably last year after Michael Colubiale
aged out graduated in 2018. Coach Heupel’s offenses usually involve plenty of action for that position, but with a new QB and Gabriel Davis as a safety net in the passing game, TEs just weren’t targeted all that often. I expect that to change this year. With our WRs often split outside the numbers, I expect more passes to tight ends in the middle of the field.
Defense: All of our defensive tackles. Kalia Davis and Mason Cholewa are opting out this season, and both were expected to help anchor a deep and experienced defensive line. With them out, that leaves Kenny Turnier, Anthony Montalvo, and Cam Goode with experience. Turnier was set to be one of the two starters, but now there is a question mark as to who will be lining up beside him. Rounding out the two-deep could be R-Fr Keenan Hester.
Eric: I agree with Brian on offense with Matt Lee who takes over at center for Jordan Johnson, one of top centers in program history. I expect Georgia Tech to try and confuse the offense line by giving them different looks and try to confuse them.
3) Which player from Georgia Tech does UCF need to look out for?
Jeff: Jeff Sims
Jeremy: Jeff Sims is GT’s offense. He is their bread and butter and they will go to him when they need big plays. He made some last week against Florida State and preventing him from making those same big plays is what will allow UCF to take this one.
Brian: Other than Sims, sophomore defensive end Curtis Ryans tortured FSU last week as he tallied two sacks and two forced fumbles. The offensive line will need to account for him on every snap.
Also, if I may get greedy here, I want to mention sophomore running back Jamious Griffin. Robert Binion of From The Rumble Seat said on our podcast this week that Jordan Mason, Tech’s top running back last season, reportedly suffered a broken foot in the late stages of the FSU game and is ostensibly out for a while. That’s a big loss and should put Griffin in line for more work. He ran for 42 yards on nine carries versus the Seminoles. No other Yellow Jacket RB had
Andrew: It's the Jeff Sims show. This is still a rebuilding Georgia Tech program, so he has to do a lot himself. So far, he hasn't disappointed.
Derek: If no one else has said Jeff Sims, I’ll go ahead and say it’s him. If DC Randy Shannon can force him to make quick decisions with his passes, it could be a long afternoon for the freshman.
Eric: UCF has struggled in the past against dual-threat quarterbacks. I am concerned about Jeff Sims’ legs as much as his arm and extending drives and frustrating UCF’s defense.
4) Dillon Gabriel struggled in 2019 on the road. How do you expect him to respond in 2020?
Jeff: Quite well, for reasons I mentioned above. We were already wildly impressed with his poise in his freshman year. The mistakes he made were mostly from inexperience dealing with complex defenses in hostile environments. If that’s all he has to work on, this is going to be a good year.
Jeremy: I think we’ll see Gabriel progress in Year 2 under center. He struggled in hostile environments last year, but one of the benefits from this unique season is that he no longer heads to hostile environments. He can keep the pace in his favor and it can feel more like practice, where he’s been absolutely electric this offseason. I’m expecting Gabriel to hit 3000 yards this season.
Brian: I’ll just quote Gabriel himself from when he was asked Monday about playing better on this road this season:
“I think now I just know how to approach [road games]. Being a freshman, I lacked experience, and that’s something now I have. I’m able to know how to go into a week and prepare. Know how to play on the road and just be able to get a good drive going regardless of how things are going. Going well or going bad, just continuing to be a positive attitude on the team. With that being said, I’m ready. I’m excited. Ready to get this thing going.”
I think Gabriel has heard much of what’s been said about how his play dipped away from home last season. I think he knows that all seven of his interceptions came in road games. I also think that has put a chip on his shoulder. He has something to prove.
Andrew: There's a natural progression of growth that you expect from a quarterback each year. Gabriel is ahead of the curve by having a year of game experience under his belt. The coaches and he have been able to recognize where his shortcomings were last year and worked to address them. As mentioned above, the lack of a packed, hostile environment could help Gabriel just settle in and play.
Derek: He’ll be fine, as long as the o-line can protect him. All three losses last year came against defenses that blitzed early and often, making Gabriel uncomfortable which led to him forcing throws.
Eric: Gabriel will be consistent and take his game to the next level in year 2 similar to what McKenzie Milton did from 2016 to 2017.
5) Score prediction.
Jeff: UCF 31, Georgia Tech 24. Closer than you think.
Jeremy: Knights 48, Yellow Jackets 24
Brian: Knights 34, Yellow Jackets 17. I’ll take the under at about 63 and give the 7.5 points.
Andrew: Knights 31, Yellow Jackets 13. It's going to take a little bit for UCF to beat off the rust, but they simply out talent Georgia Tech.
Derek: UCF 38, GT 24
Eric: UCF 45, GT 10