UCF kicked off the Gus Malzahn Era with a solid foundational year in 2021, going 9-4 and claiming the title of best team in the state despite a virtually apocalyptic number of injuries.
Heading into 2022, the Knights are looking to reclaim their status as an elite program in their final year in the AAC. These are the 10 players who will be most important to making that happen.
10. Tre’Mon Morris-Brash
UCF benefited from some stellar defensive line play in 2021, and Morris-Brash will be one of the key difference makers in continuing that success into 2022.
The senior defensive end recorded 10 tackles for loss and five sacks last season and will look to be the Knights’ top pass rusher in 2022.
Morris-Brash living up to his potential will be key for the d-line to anchor UCF’s defense as effectively as it did last year.
9. Samuel Jackson
UCF got a major boost to an offensive line in transition when Jackson decided to return for a fifth year. He’s a versatile lineman who can make a difference wherever the Knights place him, helping to alleviate some worries about what was undoubtedly a position of concern headed into the offseason.
Jackson served as a team captain in 2021 as well, and his presence as both a leader and reliably effective starter will make him a key cog in the Knights’ 2022 offense.
8. Ricky Barber
One of UCF’s more underrated performers on defense in 2021 was Barber, who transferred in from Western Kentucky.
Big Kat Bryant may have made more headlines, but Barber was a difference maker on the d-line throughout the season. Despite missing a couple of games to injury, Barber finished the year with 29 tackles – including 5.5 for a loss – as well as three sacks.
He has the potential to emerge into a real gamebreaker for UCF in 2022 and will need to be as effective as he was last year for the defense to reach its full potential.
7. Mikey Keene
Keene did an admirable job stepping in as the starter for most of 2021. The true freshman improved game-to-game, going on to finish the year with 1,730 yards and 17 touchdowns to six interceptions on a 64 percent completion rate.
There are arguments to be made that he should be much higher on this list, but it’s hard to justify until we know if he will once again be the starter in 2022.
The quarterback competition is far from decided (although Keene may be heading into fall camp with the upper hand) but he will be an important part of UCF’s success whether he goes on to win the job or not.
UCF is in the enviable position that few teams can claim in the Transfer Portal Era of having two starting-caliber QBs on its roster.
Whether Keene serves as an excellent backup who can hop into action at a moment’s notice or retains his position as the starter, he will be an important part of the Knights’ success this season.
6. Davonte Brown
Brown quietly had a very strong season for UCF in 2022, bringing much-needed talent and stability to a position that had seen its ups and downs in recent years.
The junior cornerback led the team with 13 pass breakups, recorded one interception and was named third-team All-AAC by Pro Football Focus.
He didn’t allow a touchdown throughout the entire season despite 418 coverage snaps.
Brown has the potential to emerge as an elite corner on a defense that is already looking to be one of the best in the AAC. If he can not only maintain last year’s performance but improve on it, he can quickly become one of the Knights’ most valuable players – and a serious problem for opposing offenses.
5. Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste
UCF may not yet have a starting quarterback, but linebacker remains the position with the most uncertainty heading into 2022.
Tatum Bethune and Bryson Armstrong are gone, and it remains to be seen how ready to contribute blue chip transfers Terrence Lewis and Branden Jennings will be this season.
The uncertainty surrounding the position makes Jean-Baptiste an incredibly important component to UCF’s success this year. As the only returning linebacker with meaningful experience, he will have to step up and help anchor a unit in flux.
The good news is that he’s likely up to the task. Last year, he finished with 51 tackles – including 6.5 for loss – to go along with an interception, a sack and a forced fumble.
With both the d-line and secondary looking strong, Jean-Baptiste will need to be ready to elevate his game to secure the only position on the team that is truly in doubt.
4. John Rhys Plumlee
Whether he ends up starting or not, the Ole Miss transfer looks to be a key part of UCF’s offense in 2022.
Plumlee was the Rebels’ starting QB back in 2019 before being relegated to the wide receivers, but there are few coaches under which a switch back to quarterback may be more seamless than Gus Malzahn.
He’s lightning fast, shifty and showed off a surprisingly strong arm in the spring game.
Even if Keene does win the job, expect Plumlee to be a regular fixture on the field in the way that Joey Gatewood and Parker Navarro were used last year.
Plumlee will help to bring a new dimension to the Knights’ offense and keep opposing defenses guessing – something that was sorely missing from the team in 2021.
3. Ryan O’Keefe
As UCF’s offense sputtered to a halt in 2021 while the team dealt with a combination of injuries and inexperience, O’Keefe remained the one reliable source of firepower throughout the season.
Malzahn found several creative ways to utilize his talent that kept the Knights on the right side of some very close games.
O’Keefe caught 84 balls for 812 yards and seven touchdowns while picking up another 274 yards on the ground as well.
With much more skill talent across the board heading into 2022, UCF can now offer O’Keefe the chance to grow into a versatile and constant threat for opposing defenses, instead of a player that was essentially relied upon to bail the offense out of tough situations over and over last year.
If all goes well, O’Keefe has the potential to put his name in the category of other UCF WR greats like Gabe Davis and Tre’Quan Smith.
2. Koby Perry
UCF relied on several key defensive transfers in Armstrong, Bryant and Barber to help remake the defense in 2021.
It will look to do so again this season with the addition of Perry. The Austin Peay transfer was the Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year last season and was also an FCS All-American.
He has the potential to step in and immediately become one of, if not the, most important players on defense for the Knights.
If the fifth-year senior lives up to the hype, UCF may be able to strive for a truly dominant defense in 2022.
1. Isaiah Bowser
There may be no player more critical to UCF’s success in 2022 than Bowser. When he was healthy last year, he was an absolute wrecking ball that opposing defenses had no answer for.
He opened the season with a stellar 172 yards on 35 carries against Boise State and followed that up a week later with four touchdowns in a half against Bethune-Cookman.
Bowser suffered his first injury setback against Louisville and struggled to get back to 100% throughout the rest of the year, missing five games and playing sparingly in several that he made it onto the field for.
But after a month off to rest up and get healthy, he came back out against Florida and was his dominant self, rushing for 155 yards and two touchdowns. An SEC d-line full of former blue-chip recruits had no answer for him.
If UCF can manage him properly and he can stay healthy in 2022, Bowser can act as a virtual cheat code for the Knights. Adding a tough, seasoned running back that will always get you the three or four yards that you need in any situation to an offense that includes two strong QB options and bevy of skill players could set up for a very successful year.