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Five Biggest Questions for 2022: What Does John Rhys Plumlee Bring to the Offense?

We start our roundtable previews with the biggest question of them all

Photo: Derek Warden

It’s our last full week without UCF Knights football, and as we continue to preview the Knights for 2022, we give you our Five Biggest Questions facing the Knights heading into the season.

We start with the biggest one that just came down, as John Rhys Plumlee has been named the starter for the Knights’ opener against South Carolina State.

So, in Round Table format, we each give our answers to this question: What does John Rhys Plumlee bring to the Knights’ offense that made him Gus Malzahn’s choice to be the starter?

Answering the question are Jeff Sharon, Kyle Nash, Andrew Gluchov, and Bryson Turner.

Jeff: A higher ceiling.

It’s important to remember that Gus Malzahn’s offense is very much not like Josh Heupel’s. This is not a pass-first offense. Gus likes his QB to make things happen with his arm and his legs (Think Cam Newton), extending plays and giving his other playmakers more of a chance to get the ball. It’s a bit like street football in a way.

Obviously, it’s important for a QB to throw, but not as critical as it was in the Air Raid. What’s key is opening up the playbook and keeping the defense off-balance, and JRP does that in spades:

For all his success and development last season, Mikey Keene was quite limited. Gus had to tailor the offense to his strengths and avoid his weaknesses, and one of those weaknesses was his lack of mobility. Even Dillon Gabriel finished with more rushing yards than Keene last year (125 to -36). So the offense was playing with one hand tied behind its back.

Enter JRP, who was not really permitted to throw as much as he could have at Ole Miss — hence the lack of data. We caught a tantalizing glimpse of how much his throwing ability matured in the Spring Game. Combine his phenomenal speed, elusiveness, and experience (he’s three years older than Keene) and I think he brings exactly what this offense was lacking in the latter part of last season: The ability to make explosive plays on any down.

Kyle: In a word — versatility.

There’s not a universe where I think Gus Malzahn, fans, or other UCF players or coaches would question the contribution that Mikey Keene made coming in as a true freshman and helping the program win one of the biggest games in the program’s history at the Gus-Parilla Bowl last year.

But the truth is that regardless of what system the offense is running or anything armchair quarterbacks all over Orlando might say, running has become an essential element to the quarterback position at all levels. And considering the talent in all the skill positions and all the questions that surround the offensive line after losing two senior starters last year, Plumlee’s overall wider skillset includes mobility. Is Keene a more accurate passer? — perhaps.

But at day's end, Plumlee leaves defenses more spread out. If they stack the box to stop him and the running back corps, Ryan O’Keefe and company will feast on the play-action pass that doesn’t require pinpoint accuracy. If they play a base formation, they better get prepared to be punched in the mouth for a dogfight on the ground.

Andrew: Gus Malzahn has a certain style of player he likes as a quarterback. He likes guys who can tuck and run. We’ve seen it with Cam Newton. We’ve seen it with Nick Marshall. Sure, he’s had players like Jarrett Stidham and Bo Nix, who are closer to traditional quarterbacks, but that style isn’t the natural fit. He wants a running QB.

Malzahn tried this last year with Joey Gatewood as part of a two-quarterback system, but it didn’t work. Why? Because a running quarterback still has to be able to throw the ball. Gatewood struggled to give any confidence to his throwing game and thus, you knew he was running when he came onto the field. In Mikey Keene, then a freshman, you have a more traditional quarterback. He’s not thinking run first, will stay in the pocket more, and will tuck and run when necessary. He was still learning the speed of the game last year. Malzahn felt it necessary to force in that running component he likes so much by playing Gatewood. At times, he’d pull Keene for Gatewood at some very inopportune times, as if he was out-coaching himself. The experiment failed.

In John Rhys Plumlee, you get a run-first mentality. Not only do you have that runner’s mind, but you have an incredible set of legs to work with. Plumlee is really fast and becomes an extra running back. His throwing resume is a bit lean as he hasn’t had much QB action since his freshman year. It got to the point where he was moved to wide receiver last year, but he isn’t built for Lane Kiffin’s offense and that’s ok. There is cautious optimism that his accuracy has improved, but this team will be a run-first team. Isaiah Bowser is back for one more year and behind him is a very talented stable of running backs. Expect a lot of run plays, which in turn, will open the door to the pass by way of play-action. The success of the running game will pull linebackers in and maybe force defenses to spy on Plumlee. If he can hone in on his accuracy, this can be a very scary offense.

Bryson: Malzahn has always preferred athletic quarterbacks that can succeed on designed quarterback run plays. In Plumlee’s case, he reminds me of Nick Marshall.

In both 2013 and 2014, Marshall had the second-most rushing attempts and the second-most rushing yards on the team. In both seasons, Marshall finished in the bottom half of the SEC in passing yards and passing attempts. What he didn’t have in the passing game, he made up for it by becoming another weapon in the rushing attack, which allowed the less-frequent passes to be taken for big gains by Sammie Coates, who led the conference in yards per reception in both seasons.

The Tigers were 3-9 the season before. Malzahn came in, implemented his system, and took the team to the national title game. The fact that Malzahn turned that program around so quickly speaks to the merits of his system... if it has the right pieces in place.

Here in Orlando, he already has the multi-headed running back room (Bowser, Richardson, and Richards) and he has the playmaking wide receiver (Ryan O’Keefe). He just needed the quarterback.

Mikey Keene may have succeeded in a tough spot last season, but he has not (from what we’ve seen) showcased the mobile athleticism required for Malzahn’s system to function at its fullest potential.

John Rhys Plumlee has that athleticism, which means he has the greater ability to elevate the other players around him into bigger threats in their own right.