This season kicks off the UCF Knights’ first stint in the Power 5 as a member of the Big 12 conference (as they are currently known at least). For all the shock and intrigue that is involved in their ascent to this point, what is the biggest challenge that UCF faces on the gridiron?
Of course, there isn’t just one question to be asked of any evolving program. Are your fast guys fast enough? Are your big guys big enough? Is your coaching staff smart enough? And do those coaches successfully teach players to be football savvy to compete with some of the great programs in the nation?
With all that in mind, what separates good teams from great ones are those that have backups that leave no drop in performance when players miss time for rest or recovery from injury.
According to many out there, including former UCF center and current Oklahoma State coaching assistant Jordan Johnson, depth is the biggest factor for a team that’s jumping from the ranks of the Group of Five upward.
Here are the position groups that have gained the most depth from last year to this year under head coach Gus Malzhan and his program's record-breaking recruiting effort.
I have been a critical voice of the offensive line on the Knightshift podcast through the 2022 campaign and into the 2023 preseason. Some of the flaws that a quarterback with great escapability can hide, John Rhys Plumlee has definitely hidden. But in the scheme of new offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw, Plulmlee is allegedly going to be asked to deliver strikes down the field more often, which means the offensive line must play clean more consistently than before in order for their passer to have time to find the targets.
Over and above that, guard Sam Jackson and American all-conference tackle Ryan Swoboda both graduated while center Matt Lee transferred to Miami. Only two incumbent starters in tackle Tylan Grable and guard Lokahi Pauole remain in Orlando.
Yet somehow head coach Gus Malzhan has the confidence to say he believes that the line has gained the most depth on the squad this year. Now is part of that because there was the most ground that needed to be gained on offense? — Possibly.
A complete running back room has become something of a tradition over the tenure of the past three coaches at UCF, and Malzahn has landed commitments from 4-star recruits heading into as far in the future as 2025. Yet, there was only so much better this group was going to get from where it already was.
This also applies to the receivers as a mix of old and young impact players. The top four are sure to get significant playing time if Plumlee in his final eligible year at quarterback progresses as he’s rumored to under coach Hinshaw.
But the offensive line whose recent history dictated a guard kick over to play center whenever Lee was injured or needed rest now currently has a three-man battle just for the opportunity to start. That only accents Malzahn’s statement on this squad's gains in depth.
Defensively, an element of panic crept through the die-hards of the fan base when linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste transferred to Ole Miss. While it’s easy to celebrate the young man getting his shot in college football’s biggest conference, UCF was a group that was relatively thin at the position.
For a unit that was 109th with just 22 sacks last season, there would have been plenty of reason for the casual observer to be unconvinced of possible improvement. However, the new defensive coordinator Addison Williams believes this group is the most deep on the defense.
Three redshirt-senior incoming transfers Rian Davis, Shaun Patterson, and Isaiah Paul served to augment the ranks in the earlier portion of the offseason.
Not only will the transfers bolster the ranks to make the pass rush more aggressive up front, but Williams also believes that last year's younger players at the position are ready to be 2023’s playmakers.
However, none of this matters until snaps are taken and the potential observed by the coaches is made a reality on the field. At the very least, it is good to hear that Malzahn and his new coordinators have at least acknowledged the need for increased depth in places on the roster and have worked to correct them.