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A Coronation: Dillon Gabriel Leaves No Doubt Who Should Be UCF’s Starting QB

The true freshman looked like anything but versus Stanford

Stanford v Central Florida
UCF starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

To think that we in the media spent most of the past week twisting our brains into pretzels over how the UCF Knights would utilize their three leading quarterbacks — Dillon Gabriel, Brandon Wimbush, Darriel Mack Jr.— against the Stanford Cardinal.

I was ready to publish an article last week laying out the permutations of how the Knights could use those three QBs for the rest of the season. One of the ways included playing Gabriel in four games but then sitting him from there on to maintain his redshirt.

Clearly, that article won’t see the light of day now.

Dillon Gabriel doesn’t need a redshirt; he needs a crown and a scepter. Saturday was his coronation.

That quarterback competition? It’s dead now. He gave us a glimpse of what he could do last week versus FAU, but Gabriel’s skills — his accuracy, his footwork, his decision-making, his touch, his composure — were on wide display for a national audience against a respected, successful, Power Five program. And he made Stanford look like something out of the WAC.

It didn’t take long to arrive at the realization that Gabriel needs to be “The Guy.”

It took less than 7 minutes into the first quarter Saturday. Actually, it took just four plays.

  1. On UCF’s first drive and facing a third and 15, Gabriel hits Gabriel Davis over the middle for a gain of 20. Davis was in tight coverage against projected first-round NFL Draft pick Paulson Adebo, but Gabriel delivered a dart that only his receiver could touch.
  2. Next play: Gabriel evades pressure up the middle by taking six steps to his right but never taking his eyes off of Marlon Williams downfield. The QB places the ball on Williams’ back shoulder, and it’s hauled in for a 28-yard TD. Even though Williams was getting mugged in the end zone by his defender, he was the only player who had a chance at catching that pass.
  3. On UCF’s third drive, it was Gabriel to Gabriel again. This time, Davis had burned past Adebo and was able to haul in a perfect over-the-shoulder toss in stride for a big gain. Now, this play would be ruled as an incomplete pass upon review because Davis’ left foot came down on the sideline, but again, Gabriel’s accuracy was special.
  4. Two plays later, Gabriel unleashes a ball that falls right into Tre Nixon’s hands for a 38-yard score. The placement couldn’t have been better.

At this point, the Knights led 21-0 with 8:21 remaining in the first quarter. Gabriel was 6-for-9 passing for 113 yards and two touchdowns. A simple fact could no longer be denied:

Gabriel would go on to finish the day with 22 completions out of 30 throws, 347 yards, no turnovers and four touchdowns, a UCF freshman QB record.

Josh Heupel was asked afterwards if his young star had done enough to be the team’s starting quarterback moving forward.

Heupel responded: “We’ll see as we go through the weekend and evaluate where we’re at.”

I understand the coach not wanting to jump to conclusions so quickly. Maybe he wants to discuss any changes with Gabriel, Wimbush and Mack before publicly anointing his phenom. But studying the film isn’t going to tell Heupel anything he doesn’t already know in his heart and mind.

Gabriel’s feel as a passer is so much greater than what Mack and Wimbush bring to the table. Those two are more imposing athletes with more ability as a runner than the 6-foot, 186-pound Gabriel. But in terms of pure quarterback play, which includes everything listed above, Gabriel is resoundingly better.

Wimbush did make a one-play appearance Saturday: He was called upon to run a QB draw with the Knights facing second and goal at the 2. It didn’t work as Wimbush was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.

Heupel said he had drawn up more plays for Wimbush but just didn’t get to them. If they are in the same vein as that goal-line draw, everyone should be OK with that. Mack and Wimbush are 4-5 inches taller and 35-45 pounds heavier than Gabriel. That type of size is something the Knights’ lack in their running back corps and can be very valuable when things get bogged down by the goal line. Think of how the Carolina Panthers have used quarterback Cam Newton in the past when on the edge of the end zone. I would like to see more of that.

But behind center? It should be only Gabriel.

After the triumph, Gabriel was asked to reflect on what it meant for him to get his first home start and what it was like to go through all of UCF’s pregame festivities knowing that he was going to be in charge.

“To be honest, paid no mind to it. Just taking the first snap,” he said while wearing a resplendent lei. “Feel like the guys came out strong and everyone was confident in the game plan.”

And how will Gabriel handle the hype that’s heading his way after this outstanding performance against a Pac-12 team?

“To be quite honest, I pay no mind. All I care about is what’s in our locker room, what’s in our building.”

Those are not good quotes, but those boring answers give you a sense of Gabriel’s comportment. This is the same guy who said that he didn’t tell his parents he would be starting at Florida Atlantic until two days after he found out because “it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

If you feel like we have seen this kind of attitude from a young UCF quarterback before, it’s because we have; McKenzie Milton carries a similar demeanor, where nothing is as big or as great or as terrible as it seems. That sense of calm is another intangible that most quality quarterbacks own. It’s just a little startling to see it in spades from a teenager. A boy who has become king.

But for all of their similarities — their attitude, their home state, their high school, their position, their size, their skill set — there is one difference between Milton and Gabriel that was evident during Saturday’s romp:

Even McKenzie Milton was never quite this good as a true freshman.