For all the talk, pomp, and circumstance surrounding joining the Big 12 in Orlando, this year’s spring game is the first instance of rubber meeting the road for the fanbase. Granted, it wouldn’t be a UCF Spring Game under head coach Gus Malzahn without its own share of “hype gimmicks”, but I promise there will be football talk in here somewhere in this “stream of consciousness” that is the Black and Gold Banneret’s Knee-Jerk reaction.
The Knights Stuff That is “Naut” Football
His first year was Twitter handles on the nameplates, the following year it was Q/R Codes on the jerseys, and this year was several other things. For the past two seasons, Malzahn was a newly placed coach at a university catering to younger and hipper social media-conscious players. Showing the program was a player-friendly pro-NIL institution by example was clearly a focus. Entering his 3rd year as head coach in more of an executive capacity (for which he relinquished play-calling duties) while joining the Big 12 conference, it seems he is trying to show that UCF is not only supportive of student-athletes, but looks cool doing it.
Part of that spectacle is starting quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who is also a key element of the baseball team. Before the game concluded at John Euliano Park, he rushed down the street to trade in a batting helmet for one with a facemask to take snaps with his teammates — and the whole ordeal was tracked on his social media. It took a grand total of seven minutes from seventh-inning single to sideline in FBC Mortgage Stadium.
The showcasing of a two-sport star athlete certainly checks the “showing off player support” box, but the uniforms — that is where the “looking cool doing it” comes in.
For all the “warfare” on social media between the Black and Gold Knights fans and supporters of the Canaveral Blue Citronaut uprising, how could UCF accommodate those who want option A as opposed to option B? By responding to the question in three words — “Why Not Both”?
Friday! ⚔️vs.— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) April 10, 2023
️ https://t.co/r3ZjrUct7R pic.twitter.com/ai5fLMDQvr
The defense in “Knight Mode” Black started the game of two 12-minute halves up 21-0 earning three points per forced turnover while the offense was the ‘Nauts sporting various sets of throwback “Space U” uniforms.
While some of it may not land aesthetically as well as some fans like (the helmets alternating between text and logo versions of the respective mascots is a big miss, for example) the message of we are all UCF fans heading into a new frontier of college athletics is clear. (That and it’s also a sneaky good way to see all different potential styling in action all in one event depending on the angle of the camera . . . Is that too cynical?)
It was all concluded by a skills challenge for the longest throw, the longest punt, a punt-catching challenge, and a 40-yard dash.
Football Stuff: What We Knew We Didn’t Know
We know that John Rhys Plumlee is QB1. However, considering Plumlee’s playing style of “run first and pass questions later” we’ve seen under Malzahn previously, it would be fair to assume that at some point he will miss time during the year — especially with the prospect of potentially the most difficult UCF schedule in recent memory. That’s why it’s important to see if sophomore Thomas Castellanos has cleared the “deer in the headlights” phase that most college freshmen endure under center.
Chemistry may still be a concern at this point with veteran starting receivers Kobe Hudson (five catches, 126 yards, and a touchdown), Javon Baker (two catches, 55 yards, and a touchdown), and Dionte Marks (three catches, 82 yards, and a touchdown). But considering Castellanos is three weeks into installing a different offense under new Offensive Coordinator Darin Hinshaw, that’s to be expected for the backup.
.@Tommy_casto + @yg_Coolieee =6️⃣ for the 'Nauts— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) April 15, 2023
Knights now lead 24 to 6 pic.twitter.com/nqQ0gkZqi1
The encouraging part is that the sophomore looks calmer than ever before. Coach Hinshaw has helped him correct his footwork and body positioning when delivering the football, and it showed when he hit Marks for a 29-yard touchdown (where the extra point was missed by UCF fan Zack Shields).
The Offensive Line
Last year, the offensive line had both tackles starting as transfers. This year, only one starter from last year is expected to start this in 2023 in Lokahi Pauole — and it’s possible it won’t be at guard. This unit's ability to gel drove the success on offense last year, and the same will be even more true this year.
While it was by no means perfect, (whatever really is in a spring game?), this group seems to be galvanizing well. But considering what appears to be a feast or famine style of offense predicated on big plays (at least in the game plan for tonight’s first outing for Hinshaw calling plays), while giving up sacks here or there (that may have been escapes for Castellanos or Plumlee in full contact) this group seemed able to open holes for RJ Harvey (six carries for 51 yards and a touchdown) and Demarkcus Bowman (six carries for 61 yards and a touchdown) and the rest of a solid running back corps while protecting passers long enough to connect down the field.
BOOM‼️— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) April 15, 2023
That @PlumleeJohn to @kfizzzy connection pic.twitter.com/UtZoekVt5F
Both Castellanos and Plumlee had big plays for scores on the evening with the protection given. Plumlee delivered 10 completions on 17 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns with a 70-yarder to Hudson while Castellanos connected on seven throws in 13 attempts for 105 yards and a score.
The transfer portal giveth and it taketh away. For all the veteran departures on defense, the program was able to reload with another record draft class that is trending as 2nd in the Big 12 behind Texas Tech according to 24/7 sports.
The big names among the diaper dandies are Ja’Cari Henderson, Demari Henderson, TJ Bullard, and John Walker. While those names made various impacts in their own right (save Ja’Cari who missed playing due to an injury), it was a pair of other freshmen who got the game's first takeaway. Defensive back Jason Duclona forced the offense’s only lost fumble and defensive end Kaven Call fell on it for the recovery.
Knights will take that @DuclonaJason @Kavencall7 pic.twitter.com/rJkehnFXVj— UCF Football (@UCF_Football) April 15, 2023
Most of the 34 points given up by the defense came within the last 6:30 seconds of the second 12-minute half. That being said, the offense was held to 0-for-7 on 3rd down attempts while the defense intercepted Plumlee on a play where he also performed an illegal forward pass by crossing the line of scrimmage.
There is an element of encouragement in the night’s display, and that’s in mid-April with a team that is currently quite healthy with potentially more big recruiting “booms” on the way. That being said, it’s still a long way until August.
Sorry it wasn’t my best, but I’m not a Statboy on Twitter.