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UCF KNIGHTS 2023 PREVIEW


The University of Central Florida Knights finished 2022 with a 9-5 record capped off by a 30-13 loss to Duke in the Military Bowl. The Knights are entering their first season as members of the Big 12 Conference along with BYU, Houston, and Cincinnati.


Led by head coach Gus Malzahn, the Knights' transition to their new conference should be seamless. The offensive guru returns a ton of production on the offensive side of the ball. Getting the defense to catch up with the offense will be the key to the 2023 season.


OFFENSE

Quarterbacks: Senior John Rhys Plumlee completed 63.0% of his passes for 2,586 yards, 14 touchdowns, and eight interceptions in an injury-plagued 2022. Coach Malzahn has a legit starter in Plumlee who is tailor-made for Gus’ offense. Plumlee is a two-sport star for UCF as he also plays for the Knights baseball team. The backup quarterback will be USF transfer, sophomore Timmy McClain, who threw for 1,888 yards as a true freshman for USF in 2021. After losing the starting job in fall camp McClain entered the transfer portal and did not play in 2022.


Running Backs: The Knights' leading rusher in 2022 was quarterback John Rhys Plumlee with 862 yards and 11 touchdowns. UCF’s third and fourth leading rushers are back as senior RJ Harvey rushed for 796 yards and five touchdowns and senior Johnny Richardson rushed for 370 yards. Harvey will be the feature back in 2023 but expect Florida transfer, junior Demarkus Bowman, to work his way onto the field.


Receivers: Six of the top eight receivers return for UCF. The trio of seniors Javon Baker and Kobe Hudson and sophomore Xavier Townsend accounted for 118 catches for 1,564 yards and 12 touchdowns. Senior Alec Holler, who will be the starting tight end, had 22 receptions for 276 yards and one touchdown in 2022. A pair of transfers give the room some veteran depth with juniors Chauncey Magwood from Kentucky and Trent Whittemore from Florida.


Offensive Line: While the Knights lose three starters who all made the All-AAC postseason teams, they bring in four transfers to fill the voids. Right Guard Lokahi Pauole is one of the two returning starters and was a First Team All-AAC selection in 2022. Between the four transfers and two returning starters, this line boasts 126 starts combined. The line will be experienced; they just need to get the right combination set, and then gel as a unit.


DEFENSE

Defensive Line: UCF returns a lot of production from 2022 on the defensive line while also adding two freshmen - four-star John Walker and three-star Kaven Call. The top two returning D-Linemen were senior Defensive End Josh Celiscar and senior Defensive Tackle Ricky Barber. Celiscar was tied for third on the team with 54 tackles, while Barber was tied for seventh with 49. The duo also accounted for three sacks each and combined for 11.5 tackles for loss.

Linebackers: With 126 tackles in 2022, senior linebacker Jason Johnson more than doubled the next-highest tackler on the Knights' defense! The fifth-year senior is back to lead the Knights once again, this time against the much better Big 12 offenses. He was also named to the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, given to the nation's best linebacker. Senior Rian Davis transfers in from Georgia and will start alongside Johnson. Florida International transfer, senior Shaun Peterson will step in as the starter at the Buck position, which is a hybrid defensive end/linebacker.


Defensive Backs: The Knights' defense only had six interceptions in 2022, and all three of the players who had an interception are gone. However, Coach Malzahn hit the transfer portal and landed senior Cornerback Decorian Patterson who had seven picks in 2022 for Middle Tennessee State University. He also nabbed senior Free Safety Jireh Wilson who had three interceptions for East Carolina. This will be a very experienced group as starting Nickleback Nikai Martinez and backup Free Safety Demari Henderson are the only sophomores out of 10 defensive backs on the two-deep.


Special Teams: Both specialists are sophomores, which can be good and bad. Bad as in, they only have one year of experience. Good, because they have time to grow. Kicker Colton Boomer, aside from having a great last name for a kicker, hit 14-15 field goals and 42-43 PATs. Punter Mitch McCarthy averaged 38.3 yards per punt with a long of 60 yards and 13 were downed inside the 20-yard line. McCarthy was named to the preseason Ray Guy Award watch list as the nation's top punter.


PREDICTION for UCF

While some believe the transition to better competition in the Big 12 will be tough for UCF, I believe the Knights are going to finish the season 10-2 and surprise some people. Tough road games at Kansas State and Texas Tech will be their only losses in the regular season. Coach Malzahn has coached at the Power Five level and knows what it takes to win. He also has a number of players on his roster who have played for Power Five schools in the past. In the end, the Knights will enjoy a very good first season in the Big 12 and possibly hit 11 wins for the first time since 2018.

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