Heading into the UCF Knights Football team’s off-season, four seniors announced last week that they would be returning to the team for their final year of eligibility.
The line at Burger U on UCF’s main campus Sunday night, during the “Mission Comeback” Welcome Back Event for the quartet, extended outside as fans waited to meet them: RB Isaiah Bowser, OL Samuel Jackson, DL Anthony Montalvo, and LS Alex Ward.
Head Coach Gus Malzahn said in a press conference that all four of these players will be leaders of the team in the upcoming season in the fall.
“We’ll be in great hands in that aspect,” Malzahn said.
While their leadership abilities should prove invaluable to the team, especially since they will be mentoring the players that will shepherd the UCF program into the Big 12, the quartet will also provide invaluable on-field contributions to the 2022 team.
Isaiah Bowser, Running Back
Malzahn said that the original plan for Bowser was for him to play at UCF for a year before declaring for the 2022 NFL Draft. However, injuries had something to say about that and his absence was felt in the rushing attack’s production.
Games when Bowser had 10+ carries: 1,450 rushing yards, 6-1 record
Games when Bowser had <10 carries: 1,102 rushing yards, 3-3 record
In addition, despite being injured in the Louisville game, limiting him to 6 carries, and being inactive for five games entirely, Bowser still led the team with 159 rushing attempts.
The only other running back with over 100 carries was sophomore Johnny Richardson, who only beat Bowser for the most rushing yards on the team this season by 30 yards, despite playing in five more games than him.
Bowser ended his season averaging with 87.88 yards per game, while Richardson averaged 56.38 yards per game.
“I think it was pretty easy to see when he was healthy, we were very strong on offense.” Malzahn said. “So, you know he’s a game changer.”
Richardson is a very shifty running back that is always a threat to break away and make a big play. He finished the season averaging 7.0 yards per carry compared to Bowser’s 4.4 yard per carry average.
However, no other running back on the roster this season could do what Bowser does, which is be the bruiser. Bowser was the back that can succeed in the trenches, using his 225-pound body to grind for every yard, a crucial element to have in short-yardage situations.
He will likely play that role again in 2022, though the addition of incoming freshman Jordan McDonald, who weighs in at 220 lbs., implies a mentorship role as well.
Bowser touched on this in his return press conference, such as how he wants to help the young backs in the room to “do little things” and adapt to the “cause life.”
A healthy Bowser is a dangerous one, as he showcased in the Gasparilla Bowl, where he rushed for 155 yards, his second-most yards in a game this season. That performance only fell short of his UCF debut against Boise State, when he rushed for 172 yards.
“I plan to get better, even from the Florida game,” Bowser said. “I think you can plan to see somebody even better than that.”
So, somebody better warn Princess Peach, because Bowser is back.
Samuel Jackson, Offensive Line
Malzahn said that Jackson’s return brings “a lot of stability up front,” and for an offensive line that is losing Cole Schneider, Marcus Tatum, Josh McMullen, and Brett Bell, it could use some of that.
For Jackson, however, his decision to come back stems from a more personal goal.
“At the end of the day, I want to go professional,” Jackson said. “I felt like I would have a better opportunity to work on myself with another year.”
In addition, Jackson also said he had some “unfinished business,” desiring to leave UCF how he came in, undefeated.
In a quartet of returners that have been praised for their leadership, Jackson’s was especially spotlighted.
“When he talks, everyone listens,” Malzahn said. “He’s won championships here. He knows what it takes.”
However, Jackson’s versatility might be the quality that makes the most difference on the field in 2022.
With Tylan Grable and Ryan Swoboda, both offensive tackles, coming in from Jacksonville State and Virginia respectively, Jackson could very well be shifted once more after mainly playing right tackle in 2021.
However, his versatility and ability to play all the O-line positions, even getting reps at center during practice for the Gasparilla Bowl, per Malzahn, ensures that there is always a place for Jackson on the line, regardless of who comes through the portal.
Anthony Montalvo, Defensive Line
Montalvo is a natural defensive tackle. He started all 10 games at the position in 2020.
However, with the departure of DE Stephon Zayas and the return of DT Kalia Davis after he opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, Montalvo started the season as a defensive end, per game notes.
Montalvo stayed as the starter at defensive end before a season-ending injury to Davis moved him back to defensive tackle. As for next season, Davis’ departure after running out of eligibility should leave defensive tackle Montalvo’s for the taking once more.
However, with the new experience last season at defensive end, Montalvo has identified an aspect of his game he said he needed to work on.
“I noticed, this year, I wasn’t really in the backfield too much,” Montalvo said. “A couple plays, I was, but for the most part, it’s just my first step, my first exposure step and just pressing the O-linemen off me.”
For a unit that has lost Davis, Big Kat Bryant, Noah Hancock, and Austin Camden, Montalvo serves as a leader that will usher the unit forward, now back in the position he knows quite well.
Alex Ward, Long Snapper
“Long snapper is best done when nobody knows who you are,” Ward said in his return press conference.
Well, the UCF fans know Ward now, and it isn’t for any kind of gaffe.
Ward returns to the team coming off a season that made him a finalist for the Patrick Mannely Award, which awards the best collegiate long snapper in the country.
Even so, Ward said there is “no ceiling” as a long snapper on where he can improve.
“I can’t go perfect on field goals or anything, so I can improve everything: snapping, speed and accuracy, blocking speed, violence, my hands coverage ability,” Ward said. “Anything you can think of that I do, I can improve on.”
Factoring in his spotlight appearance on ESPN+’s “Our Time: UCF Football” and recovering a fumble against Memphis, Ward has stepped out from the typical anonymity of a long snapper.
Now, next season, he’ll get to improve on that.