The 2021 football season is right around the corner for the UCF Knights. It’s a new era with head coach Gus Malzahn running the show, With a new season comes new expectations. Today, we’re going to look at the quarterbacks.
This year, it’s all about Dillon Gabriel. Gone is the specter of McKenzie Milton, who transferred to Florida State. Gone is backup Darriel Mack Jr, who transferred to Old Dominion. Now, the pressure is fully on Gabriel’s shoulders. Beyond Gabriel, there is a big drop-off in experience.
Dillon Gabriel is currently chasing a number of school records. Some he might break this year while some would require staying for a fourth year. With how the quarterback class is shaping up for 2022, there is a good possibility that the 2021 season will be Gabriel’s last in Orlando.
Coming into the 2021 season, Gabriel is 6th in passing yards with 7,223 yards. With the Malzahn offense not as downfield as the air raid Josh Heupel ran, the expectation is that Gabriel should be able to pass for between 3,000 and 3,500 yards. If he passes for somewhere in that range, it would put him at third all-time at UCF behind Daunte Culpepper (11,412) and Ryan Schneider(10,976). A fourth season should proper him to the top. Gabriel is also chasing the all-time touchdown mark of 84 by Culpepper. Gabriel currently has 61, so he is within a season’s range of breaking the record.
Gabriel is also extremely good at preventing turnovers. His 11 interceptions is on pace to be the lowest any three year plus starter at UCF has done. Out of the seven FBS quarterbacks with 700 or more attempts, the next closes to Gabriel is Blake Bortles with 19. As of today, Gabriel has the highest QB rating of 156.6, just ahead of the trio of Bortles, Culpepper, and Milton.
An Inexperienced Bench
After losing Milton and Mack to transfers, UCF’s depth is an issue. While there is talent there, there isn’t game experience. The presumed second string quarterback is Quadry Jones. The redshirt junior has thrown a total of six passes in three years. Behind him is the duo of redshirt freshman Parker Navarro and true freshman Mikey Keene.
At the spring game, Keene definitely looked more comfortable in the Malzahn offense, but this was a few months ago and there is a lot of room to grow for both of these quarterbacks. This is definitely something to keep an eye on, because my guess is that one of these two will be leading the offense in 2022. Rounding out the group is redshirt senior walk-on Andrew Brito, who transferred from UMass. He needs to be the designated survivor of the group and segregated in case something covid related happens. Brito is actually the most game experienced backup, playing in 11 games and throwing 171 passes, with almost all of that in 2019. His 7/6 touchdown to interception ratio wasn’t great, but this was on a 1-11 Minuteman squad, which begs the question how he would fare with UCF’s offense.
Proving the Doubters Wrong
One thing that has been dogging Dillon Gabriel is the perception that he is a “system” quarterback. Coming from the air raid system, can you blame them? Utilizing Malzahn’s more traditional offense, this will give Gabriel a good opportunity to prove to the world outside of UCF that he isn’t a system quarterback. Gabriel also needs to prove that he can win the big game. While his numbers might have been good, the team seemed to fall short in big games against Cincinnati, Memphis, and Tulsa. He also struggled against 4-2-5 defenses, which have been used by many teams to try to neutralize the air raid. This defense dares teams to run the ball by having a minimum number of players in the box while giving extra help downfield to help negate the passing game. With Malzahn getting away from the air raid, he shouldn’t be seeing this defense as much.