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UCF’s Checklist vs. Georgia Tech

There is plenty to track in the Knights’ 2020 debut today. Here are four items of primary interest vs. the Yellow Jackets

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Central Florida v Temple
UCF defensive lineman Kenny Turnier.
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

ATLANTA — Happy UCF game day! I know it has taken a long time to get here, but hey, we're here. Let’s rejoice — at least for a few hours before the nerves kick in.

I wrote these checklist articles last year, choosing four keys/questions to focus on for each game. As this is UCF’s first game of the season, this is the most simple yet challenging checklist of the season. Simple because there are myriad things to choose. Challenging because ... there are myriad things to choose. It’s difficult to limit myself to only four, but that is the limit I have imposed upon myself. Why four?

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Aaaanyway, here is what I’ll be following closely this afternoon from Bobby Dodd Stadium.

1. Will we see a better, less mistake-prone Dillon Gabriel on the road?

Shocker: The quarterback is going to be important in this football game.

For all of Gabriel’s success as a freshman, no statistic of his has been cited by rote more than that all seven of his interceptions last season came in UCF’s three road losses. Gabriel is well aware of it, as I mentioned in our Roundtable this week. It has put a chip on his shoulder.

We heard from quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle this week that Gabriel is more confident, more knowledgeable and showing more anticipation with his throws than last year. All of that sounds pretty frightening for opposing defenses considering that Gabriel is already one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. But it won’t be easy if the Yellow Jackets’ defense can stage a repeat performance. Cornerbacks Zamari Walton and Myles Sims left Florida State QB James Blackman befuddled, as our Anthony Lenahan detailed earlier this week:

Plus, defensive end Curtis Ryans logged two of Tech’s three sacks. UCF allowed 15 of its 23 sacks in those three road defeats. So, who will be tasked with keeping Gabriel clean today? Well...

2. What (and whom) will we see in the trenches?

The Knights have some big shoes to fill on both sides of the line of scrimmage. On offense, they are replacing a four-year starter at center, Jordan Johnson, and a three-year starter at tackle or guard, Jake Brown. On defense, leading sack man Brendon Hayes graduated and arguably the best defensive tackle in the conference last year, Kalia Davis, has opted out of this season along with backup DT Mason Cholewa.

Now, it’s kind of easy to forecast who will be guarding Gabriel: Center Matthew Lee, tackles Marcus Tatum and Edward Collins, guards Cole Schneider and Parker Boudreaux, and do-it-all lineman Samuel Jackson look to be the sextet who will see the most snaps. Tackle Josh McMullen and guard Lokahi Pauole should also be involved. There have been some positive reports from coaches on freshmen Mike Lofton and Patrick Barnett as well.

Guard Cole Schneider is a lead member on what looks like a deep offensive line.
Photo: UCF Athletics

The lineup is a bit more muddled on defense but only because there are a literal dozen aspirants. Defensive line coach Shane Burnham said this week he thinks he has “a pair and a spare” at each spot. In other words, there are at least two worthy options at each position followed by another player who can line up at multiple places.

Burnham mentioned six defensive ends who are in the rotation: juniors Randy Charlton and Stephon Zayas, sophomores Tre’mon Morris-Brash and Landon Woodson, freshman Josh Celiscar (who has been talked up by both Burnham and defensive coordinator Randy Shannon), and senior Christopher DeLoach. On the interior, Kenny Turnier and Anthony Montalvo are probably atop the Knights’ unpublished depth chart, But Cam Goode, Noah Hancock and freshmen Keenan Hester and Kervins Choute could be in the defensive tackle mix, too.

I know that’s a lot of names, but considering UCF has rolled a double-digit number of linemen through most games during the Heupel/Shannon administration, you need to know those names.

In a season where depth is of the utmost importance, the Knights definitely have quantity on the front lines. Now we’ll get to see the quality.

3. Which of the Knights’ young DBs stand out?

Remember the halcyon month of January 2020? Those were the days.

Back then, we were looking forward to the Knights fielding one of the best secondaries in the sport. Nine months later, it still looks pretty good with ball-hawking veterans Richie Grant and Antwan Collier at safety, while Aaron Robinson is a top-notch nickelback. But with Brandon Moore still making his way back from a 2019 knee injury and Tay Gowan preparing for the NFL Draft, UCF enters this season with a nearly clean slate with their outside cornerbacks.

Junior Zamari Maxwell is the de facto leader. At least he has some starting experience at this level; he started six games in 2019. Beyond him, the Knights are going to put some true freshmen — Davonte Brown, Justin Hodges, Quadric Bullard and preseason true freshman All-American Corey Thornton — to the test right away.

That is equal parts tantalizing and worrisome. As I’ve said in recent episodes of our podcast, cornerback is the most interesting position on this team right now. I can’t wait to see how it shakes out.

The Knights will face more potent aerial attacks later in the season, but with speedster Ahmarean Brown and 6-foot-3 wideout Malachi Carter, the Yellow Jackets would be wise to pick on those newbies to see if they are truly ready.

4. Which new skill player announces his presence immediately?

I’m not as much of a baseball card collector as I used to be, but to you card fiends out there, you know all about hunting for the Next Big Thing. Yeah, there are a lot of great current bplayers who hold solid market value, but it’s those unknown quantities, those with endless possibilities that are the real treasures.

The Knights obviously aren’t lacking when it comes to big-play backs and receivers, but since we haven’t seen WR Jaylon Robinson, WR Ja’Cyais Credle or RB Johnny Richardson wear the black and gold in a game, they are naturally fascinating. Robinson, known as “Flash,” is a sophomore transfer from Oklahoma who could double as a receiver and a returner. Credle, known as “Stretch,” is a 6-foot-4 freshman from whom co-offensive coordinator Anthony Tucker recently said “I think you’re going to hear a lot” this season. Richardson is also a true frosh and could be another option in the return game. Somehow, despite his legitimate track speed and 5-foot-7 frame, he doesn’t seem to have an established nickname.

However, Otis Anderson might consider him to be The Invisible Man:

With so many mouths to feed in this offense, each part of this trio will have to make do with limited targets or touches. Regardless, each man is another weapon on a team already possessing a small army’s worth of big guns.