UCF's defense has improved while the offense slipped; here are the players to know

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

When Gus Malzahn was hired as the head coach at UCF, he knew he had a lot of work to do on defense.

The Knights finished 122nd out of 128 teams in yards allowed per game at 491.8 in 2020.

After 12 games in 2021, it seems as though Malzahn has turned the team around as the Knights rank No. 55 at 368.8 yards allowed per game.

If reducing opponents’ yardage by more than 120 per game isn’t impressive enough, UCF also ranks 12th nationally in pass efficiency defense, which makes the Knights the second-best pass defense their Gasparilla Bowl opponent, the Florida Gators, will have faced in 2021.

UCF and Florida square off at 7 p.m. on Dec. 23 in Tampa.

UCF in bowls: A look at UCF's bowl history as the Knights prepare to play the Gators on Dec. 23 in Tampa

Gators watching: UCF Scouting Report for Gasparilla Bowl

No-win situation? Whitley's Believe It Or Not: The Gators are playing in a must-win bowl

The place where the Knights have gone in reverse is on offense.

In 2020, UCF was No. 2 of 128 teams averaging 568.1 yards per game. This year, the Knights are 68th at 399.7 yards per game.

A lot of that had to do with starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel’s injury, and the emergence of true freshman Mikey Keene at the signal-caller position.

As the Knights get set to play the Gators, here are the key players on offense and defense to know.

OFFENSE

UCF quarterback Mikey Keene throws a pass against Navy during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Annapolis, Md. Navy won 34-30. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
UCF quarterback Mikey Keene throws a pass against Navy during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Annapolis, Md. Navy won 34-30. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

QB Mikey Keene

The true freshman was thrown into the fire after Gabriel went down with a season-ending injury at the end of the third game of the season against Louisville. Keene struggled in his first start as UCF was upset by Navy 34-30 the following week. Keene’s other two losses came to AAC powers Cincinnati and SMU. He got better as the season went on but never threw for more than 229 yards in a game, done in back-to-back weeks against Temple and Tulane. Against Temple he threw an impressive five touchdowns. He finished with a 63 percent completion rate and 1,586 yards for the season with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. He will have to play mistake-free football and allow the running game to do its thing for UCF to defeat Florida.

UCF running back Johnny Richardson runs with the ball against Navy during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
UCF running back Johnny Richardson runs with the ball against Navy during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

RBs Johnny Richardson and Isaiah Bowser

If there’s one thing UCF could have learned from watching the LSU and Georgia games, it’s that Florida struggles against good running teams. UCF is a good running team. The Knights ranked 37th in the country in rushing offense and 19th in yards per rush attempt (5.3). Richardson led the team with 634 yards while Bowser had 548. Bowser, who missed five of UCF’s 12 games, led the team with seven touchdowns, while Richardson had three. Bowser is a powerful back while Richardson adds the speed. If Bowser is still struggling with injuries, Mark Anthony Richards can fill in admirably. He was second on the team with five rushing touchdowns.

Sep 17, 2021; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; UCF Knights wide receiver Ryan O'Keefe (4) catches a pass for a touchdown while defended by Louisville Cardinals defensive back Trey Franklin (28) during the first quarter at Cardinal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 17, 2021; Louisville, Kentucky, USA; UCF Knights wide receiver Ryan O'Keefe (4) catches a pass for a touchdown while defended by Louisville Cardinals defensive back Trey Franklin (28) during the first quarter at Cardinal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

WRs Ryan O’Keefe, Jaylon Robinson and Brandon Johnson

With a young quarterback learning on the fly, UCF’s passing stats weren’t quite what they have been in previous years. UCF finished with nearly 1,000 passing yards less than in 2020. Still, O’Keefe had a solid season, hauling in team-highs for receptions (77) and yards (727). The junior caught six touchdown passes and also rushed for 165 yards and a touchdown. He even threw three passes, two for touchdowns. Robinson, a junior who initially played at Oklahoma in 2019, has NFL talent but has struggled to stay healthy. He missed five games this season and finished with just 18 catches for 322 yards after amassing 979 yards on 55 receptions last year. Still, his 322 yards were good for third on the team. One possibility for Robinson is to forego the bowl and declare for the NFL Draft. If that happens, Johnson is a third viable option. He led the receivers with nine touchdowns and was second in receptions (34) and yards (486).

DEFENSE

UCF linebacker Tatum Bethune (15) chases BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) in the fourth quarter in the Boca Raton Bowl NCAA college football game at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Fla. Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.(Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)
UCF linebacker Tatum Bethune (15) chases BYU quarterback Zach Wilson (1) in the fourth quarter in the Boca Raton Bowl NCAA college football game at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton, Fla. Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.(Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)

LB Tatum Bethune

The junior linebacker led the team with 101 tackles, including 54 solo and 5.5 for a loss. He also tied with the team lead with two interceptions. Bethune is a product of perennial power Miami Central.

Central Florida defensive lineman Big Kat Bryant (1) sacks Connecticut quarterback Steven Krajewski (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Central Florida defensive lineman Big Kat Bryant (1) sacks Connecticut quarterback Steven Krajewski (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

DLs Big Kat Bryant and Tre’mon Morris-Brash

Bryant, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior led the team with six sacks, had 50 tackles, 27 solo and 13 for a loss, and was generally a menace for opposing offenses. He transferred to UCF prior to the season to be reunited with Malzahn, who had recruited him to Auburn. Brash, a junior, was second to Bryant with 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks. He also pulled down an interception.

Central Florida defensive back Quadric Bullard (37) attempts to tackle Louisville running back Jalen Mitchell (15) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Central Florida defensive back Quadric Bullard (37) attempts to tackle Louisville running back Jalen Mitchell (15) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky., Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

DBs Davonte Brown and Quadric Bullard

Brown, a sophomore, had a breakthrough season, breaking up a team-high 10 passes while nabbing one interception. He also was eighth on the team in total tackles, with 34. Brown played high school ball at American Heritage Plantation, a school coached by former Dolphins Pro Bowl cornerback Pat Surtain. The school has been nicknamed “DB High.” Bullard, a sophomore, led the team with three forced fumbles, was second on the team with 73 tackles, including 52 solo and four for a loss. He had two sacks and five pass breakups. He’s an alum of Chaminade-Madonna, which last week won the FHSAA Class 3A state championship. Brown and Bullard will be called upon to help cover Florida’s talented receivers, including Jacob Copeland and Justin Shorter. Emory Jones will be starting at QB for Florida, so there is the real possibility of interceptions for the UCF secondary.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: These UCF players could give Florida trouble in the Gasparilla Bowl