On a hot sunny day in Orlando, a new day in UCF football has begun as the 2021 UCF Knights football team held their spring game. This was the first time fans got to see the Gus Malzahn version of UCF football and it did not dissapoint. While some players switched uniforms between one half and the next, the Black squad, also called the Knights, defeated the White squad, also called UCF, 34-17. Here are some knee-jerk reactions:
This is a completely new team
It didn’t take long to realize that this team is nothing like the 2020 team. For starters, the offense looks vastly different. When the Black squad started the game with the ball, quarterback Dillon Gabriel’s first pass and completion was to a tight end. This was something rarely seen in the Josh Heupel offense. Not only that, the team only threw a few deep passes down the sideline. Most plays were between the short and middle thirds of the field.
Not only that, but the offense showed a lot of crossing routes that require more agility than flat out speed. The running backs are utilized more as a check down receiver and the quarterbacks roll out more and use their athleticism to create opportunity.
Dillon Gabriel played exclusively for the Black team and only for the first half. Quadry Jones and freshman Mikey Keene played for the White in the first half and the Black in the second while Parker Navarro played exclusively for the White in the second half with Gaston Moore getting the last series.
Stand Up and Be Recognized
Despite the practices and scrimmages, this is the first real opportunity to play in a game atmosphere. Here are my five biggest standouts.
Ryan O’Keefe (WR)
Ryan O’Keefe was always known to be a fast guy. We got to also see him as a nimble guy who can create enough separation within the short end of the field and make plays. Using a combination of the time off from last season, throwing sessions, and other interactions with quarterback Dillon Gabriel, O’Keefe developed a strong chemistry with Gabriel that was put on display. In one drive, O’Keefe was responsible for four out of the first five plays of the drive, which ultimately ended in a touchdown. He also had a chance to make a 22-yard completion to Gabriel on an end around option pass. Despite playing two years as a quarterback in high school, that type of play may or may not happen in the regular season.
RJ Harvey (RB)
The quarterback turned running back, RJ Harvey is still learning the position. He’s very physical and can grow into a bruiser back the team has been sorely lacking. Harvey led the game in carries with nine and had two touchdowns. As head coach Gus Malzahn said, Harvey got better as the day wore on. He started to relax and let the game come to him.
Johnny Richardson (RB)
Johnny Richardson can easily be viewed as the second coming of Adrian Killins. He’s small, fast, elusive, and very dangerous in the open field. Richardson took a small outlet pass and turned it into a 70-yard scamper downfield. It didn't yield any points though as the White team got stopped on a goal line stand. He also had multiple double digit yard runs due to his elusiveness.
Tatum Bethune (LB)
One of the defensive leaders, Tatum Bethune is all business. He told reporters that he’s willing to do whatever it takes. UCF ran a dime package defense at one point and Bethune was the lone linebacker on the field. He also delivered results, making six tackles with one being for a loss.
Anthony Montalvo (DL)
Anthony Montalvo had himself a game. He took advantage of disruption at the line to deliver some heavy hits, especially on quarter Mikey Keene. He ended up with four total tackles, two and a half sacks and a half tackle for loss. Two of those sacks were on Keene and they were hard hits.
Future Stars in the Making
One major thing about spring games is we get to see the younger players in action.
UCF has a pair of quarterback studs in Parker Navarro and Mikey Keene. Each had their strengths, but both were fun to watch. Navarro, who played exclusively in the seconc half, showed great agility and ran the ball more than any other quarterback, running for 40 yards and a touchdown on five carries. Keene played one half for each team and was very accurate. He was 6-9 for 29 yards while being sacked twice in the first half for the White team and 7-8 for 70 yards and a touchdown for the Black team in the second half. He definitely got better as the day went on. With the possibility of Gabriel going pro after this season, the Knights are in good hands with these two duking it out.
Behind presumed starter Bentavious Thompson, there is room to maneuver within the running back corps. As noted above, both RJ Harvey and Johnny Richardson did a great job to help separate themselves from the pack. Damarius Good got quite a bit of playing time as well. While he didn’t excel as much as the other two did, he looks to be that fourth guy in the stable until the new transfers come in.
Players need to have fun and it was very obvious that they did. The coaches had fun too.
Defensive lineman Kalia Davis, a spring standout per multiple players, had a chance to run a play from the wildcat. While it didn’t score a touchdown, it did convert a third down into a first and goal and the team later scored. When being interviewed about it, Davis was all smiles as he played running back in high school.
The idea of having a full stadium this fall, the multiple players interviewed after the game (Dillon Gabriel, Ryan O’Keefe, Tatum Bethune, Kalia Davis) and Gus Malzahn all expressed excitement towards a packed Bounce House. For the players, who have all experienced it before, the general notion was that there is no experience anywhere else. Coach Malzahn, while never being in a full Bounce House, knows the value of a loud and full stadium.
UCF is currently in their spring break, so the plan is to take a little time off before getting back to work. Some coaches are still in the process of moving to Orlando and Coach Malzahn is looking forward to the short reprieve. It’s a bright new day in Orlando and it looks like this team is going to be lots of fun in 2021.
A Work in Progress
Okay, so not everything is sunshine and rainbows. There is work that still needs to be done ahead of the season. This is why we have a spring game.
While line coach Herb Hand has been having players cross-train in a variety of line positions, it was very clear that the depth behind center Matt Lee is thin. Nate Brady was the one who started for the White Squad opposite of Lee and the Black squad. Brady’s shotgun snaps were slow and wobbly back to the quarterback, which takes away between a half and a whole second of reaction time from the quarterback. The White team QBs, especially Quadry Jones and Mikey Keene in the first half against the top defense, had trouble setting up plays and executing. That is not going to work in live play.
The kicking game also needs work. That noise you just heard? That’s the collective groan of UCF fans after seeing kicker Daniel Obarski go one out of three in his field goals and miss an extra point. Punter Andrew Osteen had a very inconsistent day too, booting a 56 yard punt on one drive and then 20 yards the next.
Wide receiver Jaylon Robinson had trouble being a big presence in the offense. He had a pair of receptions, but was overshadowed by Ryan O’Keefe. With the offense focusing on shorter, more intricate patterns, Flash will need to work on creating more separation. As O’Keefe showed during the spring game, Dillon Gabriel doesn’t need much to make things work.
- Dillon Gabriel: 17-22 191 yds 2 TD
- Quadry Jones: 5-7 111 yds 1 TD
- Bentavious Thompson: 7 carries 48 yds
- Johnny Richardson: 7 carries 67 yds
- Ryan O’Keefe: 6 catches 83 yds 1 TD
- Dionte Marks: 4 catches 28 yds