Four Questions Entering UCF Spring Football

ORLANDO - Fans of the University of Central Florida are already on a hype wave for the 2022 football season to get underway. However, as we remain over 200 days away from the start of the regular season, they’ll have to settle for spring football.

No date has yet been set for the spring game, however it normally is played in the beginning of April at The Bounce House. Coaches and fans alike have had news to get excited though, as UCF announced the return of four elite players, as well as several major recruits and transfers already enrolling into the program.

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Returning to the Knights you have running back Isaiah Bowser, offensive lineman Samuel Jackson, defensive lineman Anthony Montalvo, and long snapper Alex Ward, those players returning are massive to UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn’s season as he looks to build on the momentum he finished the year with. They also have added an elite group of recruits and transfers as Spring semester enrollees, kicker Colton Boomer, quarterback Tommy Castellanos, cornerback Nikai Martinez, running back Jordan McDonald, and tight end Grant Stevens are all expected to compete for early playing time as freshmen.

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While the incoming transfers of offensive tackle Tylan Grable, wide receiver Kobe Hudson, linebacker Terrence Lewis, edge rusher KD McDaniel, defensive back Koby Perry, quarterback John Rys Plumlee, and offensive tackle Ryan Swoboda all look to show immediate impacts.

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Who Wins the Quarterback Competition?

The most pressing question for UCF fans is who will leave spring practices as the starter entering fall camp, most seem to think Plumlee will earn that role as of right now, but returning quarterbacks Mikey Keene and Parker Navarro, as well as freshman Castellanos are all in the mix. Plumlee announced his decision to come to UCF, after a turbulent career at the University of Mississippi.

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He put up electric numbers as a true freshman, with just under 2,000 yards of total offense and 16 total touchdowns, in nine games as he played a backup role, starting eight games in response to the starter being injured. In 2020 and 2021, to avoid letting a talented player ride the bench, Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin moved Plumlee around playing a mix of quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, now he returns to being a full time quarterback and joins an offense in which his skillset is perfectly complemented.

Keene returns to UCF as the previous season’s starter, stepping up for UCF after former quarterback Dillon Gabriel’s season ended with a shoulder injury. He took his opportunity well, and despite some freshman shakiness, solidified himself and limited mistakes, steadying the ship.

Keene finished his true freshman season with 1,730 yards passing and 17 passing touchdowns in 10 starts, also adding a single touchdown on the ground. Now with a second round of spring practices, Keene will look to take a step up, especially in his confidence to run the football, which is a major part of Coach Malzahn’s scheme.

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Navarro also returns to UCF and while he’s definitely on the outside looking in as a starter, his streak of three games with a rushing touchdown in 2021 gave fans something to look to, and he’ll be hoping his athleticism can keep him in the race.

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Castellanos adds a different dynamic to the unit as a true freshman he has the ability to sprint past defenders, while also splitting defenses with his passing prowess. The schematic fit for Coach Malzahn’s offense is very clear to see, and it will be hard to keep Castellanos out of the starting lineup early. I do think that he eventually gets a hold of the starting job, but it all depends on how quickly he can master the playbook and develop a leadership role among his teammates on how early he’s handed the reins of the UCF program.

Who Fills the Brandon Johnson Role?

Outside receiver is probably the hardest position in the entire receiving unit of a college football team to play, as you’re not only expected to play along the boundaries making possession catches, you also become a lead blocker on most screens and outside runs.

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In 2021, UCF had one of the best outside receivers in the American Athletic Conference in Brandon Johnson, he recorded 11 touchdowns from the position and also caught several clutch third down passes. With Johnson’s departure the spot was expected to be given to Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, however he wanted to be closer to home of Ewa Beach, Hawaii, and chose to transfer to the University of California-Los Angeles.

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That opens the door for other receivers to step up and become starters during Spring, like Johnson did last Spring. UCF could even implement some tight ends onto the outside with Jordan Davis, Alec Holler, and Grant Stevens all showing the athletic ability to stretch the field.

Incoming transfer Kobe Hudson is the likely favorite to play there immediately as he’s relatively the same size as Johnson, and Coach Malzahn will want to get him on the field immediately. Another solid option is former Notre Dame transfer Jordan Johnson, who dealt with drop issues during practice last year, but has the potential to breakout, as well as Jaylon Griffin who shined during Spring practices as a junior college transfer, but was redshirted and only received one pass for 14 yards against Southern Methodist in his home state of Texas.

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An out of the box option would be walk on Stephen Martin, he has amazing size for a wide receiver at 6’5, 210 lbs, and the redshirt sophomore looks to take another step up, as he continues to build his way up the receiver depth chart.

How Does the Starting Defensive Backfield Look?

To end the 2021 season, UCF’s starting defensive backfield had an interesting look, Davonte Brown and Brandon Adams had secured their roles as starting cornerbacks, with Quadric Bullard and Divaad Wilson starting at safety, and Justin Hodges playing as the defensive back-hybrid linebacker position.

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That worked well down the stretch, but UCF continues to have influxes of talent, who will be vying for a spot as starters, and the defensive backfield positions will be tightly contested. Incoming freshman Nikai Martinez will be pushing both Brown and Adams tightly for a starting outside cornerback position, with Martinez potentially being the most naturally gifted player in the entire secondary.

Another player to watch is incoming transfer Koby Perry, as he also threatens to take a starting position. He could start at either safety position or move into the “Knight” linebacker position. Perry was seen as an elite box safety, with good coverage skills while playing at the FCS level. Another safety that could move to that position is Divaad Wilson who did have some issues in deep coverage playing as the roaming safety for UCF, a role closer to the line of scrimmage would play to his strengths more, and would have him in a more natural position as he was originally a slot cornerback.

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Where Does Everyone Line Up on the Offensive Line?

The offensive line is probably the unit, besides running back with the fewest question marks, however one major question does remain, how exactly will offensive line coach Herb Hand choose to line them up. The projected starting group of Tylan Grable, Sam Jackson, Matthew Lee, Lokahi Pauole, and Ryan Swoboda, has three tackles, one guard, and one center which doesn’t fit a cohesive offensive line.

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However, Jackson likely slides into a guard position with Grable and Swoboda handling the outer offensive line duties. This does help Jackson’s NFL prospects as versatility is very important for late round offensive linemen, as well as him projecting to be more of a guard at the next level, than as a tackle.

So that just begs the question which of Grable and Swoboda would play as the left tackle, both have the sheer size for the role, and both played as blindside blockers at their last school. There’s the possibility that Grable, who’s more agile as he was a high school quarterback, moves to right tackle, and leads the way as a pulling athletic tackle, whereas Swoboda becomes a premier blindside blocker using his 6’10 frame to just shut out defensive ends. Both players are capable of playing left or right tackle, and that’s also important to note.

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