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As UCF players went through early drills during their first spring football practice Monday, they did so in relative silence. Gone — for the moment — was the energizing beats of music pulsating from loudspeakers located just a few feet from the field.
The past coaching regimes would blare music as players swayed from side-to-side waiting to take part in a drill or receive instructions from their coaches.
This time around, the silence was broken only by the occasional coaches’ voices, the shrill of a whistle or the single drone flying overhead.
It’s been a tumultuous time for the Knights program, which has undergone an extreme makeover following the departure of coach Josh Heupel, who left Jan. 27 to take the same job at Tennessee. Nineteen days later, new athletics director Terry Mohajir announced the hiring of former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. Nine days after that, Malzahn named the last of his coaching staff.
“It’s been a whirlwind, but I’m grateful for it and I know a lot of the guys are grateful for it as well and we’re ready to go,” said quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who is set to start his third year with the program.
UCF kicked off the first of 15 spring practices Monday with a renewed attitude and enthusiasm not only demonstrated by the players but also by the new coaching staff.
“I told the guys at the very end I liked their attitude,” Malzahn said after practice. “I liked their effort. I did tell them we have a long way to go, but that’s the fun part. The key is going to be where we’re at after 15 days.”
“Right now, I feel like we’re all deer in the headlights. We’re all taking it in and looking around wide eyes,” added redshirt junior defensive lineman Anthony Montalvo.
This is the first time the Knights have been together on the football field since the team’s disappointing 49-23 loss to BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl Dec. 22, which capped a 6-4 season. It was a season ripe with adversity as the team dealt with the challenges of playing through the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was a lot of uncertainty, but we were prepared for that in the way of COVID and how the season went, not knowing if a game would go through or not,” Gabriel said of the coaching change. “Just that whole process, it prepared us for this whole process of a coaching change.”
One of the first things the new coaches did when they first arrived on campus was to begin to build a connection with the players. It’s that bond that’s helped make for a smooth transition so far.
“New guys coming in and you can see that they’re all love,” Montalvo said. “They’re definitely different from the old coaching staff. They seem down to earth. They’ll tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.”
Outside of the music, which Malzahn said he would bring back after giving his coaches some time for teaching, the players noticed other differences through the first practice.
“How organized it is,” Gabriel said. “Coach Gus told us how it was going to go from beginning to end. We were able to talk about it and know what reps we’re going to do here and it was super organized. It showed.”
Malzahn said spring camp is where the team can build a foundation while also allowing time for coaches to evaluate players. It will also allow the staff to begin the process of installing simple parts of the offensive and defensive systems.
“Everybody is equal,” Malzahn said. “We’re letting all of them play each practice and they earn the time they get. We’re just trying to set the standard.
“They’re bright eyes and they’re excited. The players have made a great impression on me so far.”