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 continue with a two-parter: Which players will be the Knights’ biggest breakout stars on offense and defense in 2022?
Once again, Jeff Sharon, Kyle Nash, Andrew Gluchov, and Bryson Turner all give their takes in Round Table format:
Jeff: On the offensive side, I think the guy with the biggest upside is the guy who we’ll be paying the most attention to: John Rhys Plumlee.
We know about the running ability. I think he’s a better thrower than what we’ve been led to believe, and given that Gus has had his eye on him since he tried to recruit him to Auburn four years ago, there is real potential for him to dramatically exceed expectations and become perhaps the best dual-threat QB in The American.
Defensively, I’ve had my eye on Brandon Adams. As a sophomore, he’s one of the youngest guys in the secondary, he’s enormous for a DB at 6-3, and given how we’ve seen him around the ball a disturbingly large amount of the time, I expect we’ll see him build on his 19 tackles and one pass defended from last season.
Kyle: Considering how stacked the running back corps is, it’s hard to say that anyone from that position grouping will do enough to improve huge enough to be a true breakout. And with Ryan O’Keefe’s performance last year, he will be drawing most of the attention from defenses at the wide receiver spot. Pairing that with the departure of Jaylon Robinson and the injury to Amari Johnson, I see Auburn transfer Kobe Hudson becoming a huge factor in the offense. Not only is he a guy that has played for head coach Gus Malzahn in the past, but Hudson will also have more opportunities playing opposite O’Keefe.
Defensively, Justin Hodges may be a name that’s already been pointed out in the position preview for defensive backs but considering his versatility playing the “Knight” position, he’s being asked to both attack the backfield and drop back into coverage, Hodges has the chance to be an incredible asset over and above his contribution in 2021. Defensive Coordinator Travis Williams pointed out in his final press conference of the offseason that Justin not only had to learn the position on the fly starting due to the long list of injuries on the roster, but he also did so while battling minor injuries himself. With all Hodges achieved last season, one can only imagine what he can potentially do fully healthy with last season’s experience under his belt.
Andrew: This is always an interesting discussion because it’s so speculative. I do recall calling out WR Ryan O’Keefe in both the spring game recap and in the 2021 WR positional preview and we all know how that turned out. Unfortunately, due to scheduling problems, I couldn’t be at the spring game, which makes the job a little more difficult. That’s ok though cause I love a good challenge.
On offense, junior wide receiver Javon Baker has been turning heads. The Alabama transfer hasn’t played much, with career stats of 9 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown as a member of the Crimson Tide. He comes over to the Knights and is primed to take over as he begins the second half of his college career. Between him and junior Auburn transfer Kobe Hudson, Knights fans might be saying “J-Who?” before the season is done.
On the defensive side of the ball, junior defensive lineman Ricky Barber is primed to be a wrecking ball against offensive linemen. Barber had 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks in nine games. While those numbers are a step back from his 2020 numbers at Western Kentucky, expectations are high. Also, the development of talented sophomore defensive back Brandon Adams should continue. As a true freshman, Adams had 19 tackles with a tackle for loss in eight games. There is going to be plenty of time for him to be on the field.
Bryson: Surprisingly, I think this is a tough question from an offensive standpoint. I think almost everyone in the skills positions is a known quantity: Plumlee needs no introduction, Bowser, Richardson, Holler and O’Keefe are back, Kobe Hudson led Auburn in receiving last season, Javon Baker had that over-the-head catch during fall camp, and we already know Kemore Gamble from the Gasparilla Bowl.
So, I’ll take a shot in the dark here and choose offensive lineman Paul Rubelt. This 6 foot, 10-inch, 330-pound giant of a man only played in three games last season but center Matt Lee called him “strong as an ox” during UCF Football Media Day, and fellow lineman Samuel Jackson and Lokahi Pauole had positive things to say about his development. Plus, he’s one of only three international-born players on the team, coming from Germany, and he’s wearing the No. 69 (Nice). These kinds of attributes seem like the kind of player that can catch on with the fans similar to how punter Mac Loudermilk did a few years back.
Defensively, coordinator Travis Williams and almost every defensive player that took the podium during preseason camp seemed to have one person in mind as the standout: true freshman defensive back Nikai Martinez. This Apopka native was a 4-start recruit according to 247sports and I could think of no better way for this coaching staff to show its recruiting local strategy is working by showcasing one of them succeeding in his true freshman season. While I don’t think he’ll be as dominant of a force statistically as others in the secondary may be, I could see him taking advantage of the more limited snaps he could get and capture fans’ imagination about what he could bring when the team heads to the Big 12.