For the first time in several years, UCF will have a legitimate quarterback battle on its hands heading into spring practice. It looks to be a three-way race between a group of players who all offer tantalizing upside but come with some worrying flaws.
So, which quarterback should start? Which quarterbacks should ride the bench? Let’s make the case for and against each player in the running.
Why he will be the starter: Fans were not always happy with him (mainly because he wasn’t Dillon Gabriel or McKenzie Milton) but Keene had a very solid true freshman season for UCF. After being unexpectedly thrown into the fire, he led the Knights to a 7-3 record as a starter while throwing for 1,730 yards and 17 touchdowns to six picks.
While most freshman players tend to run out of steam and taper off as the year wears on, Keene only got better. In his first five starts, he threw nine touchdown passes to six interceptions. In his last five starts, he threw for seven touchdowns without a single pick. If he takes even a modest leap going into his sophomore year, he may end up the most talented quarterback on the roster.
“At first, you’d ask him a question and he’s good with everything,” Gus Malzahn said of Keene’s progress. “Now, he’s kind of getting to the point of ‘hey, I feel more comfortable with this, I feel more comfortable with that.’ That’s good. That’s growth and that tells you that he’s starting to kind of understand the big picture.”
It’s also important to remember that he has already defied the odds. Despite not being the typical dual-threat, shifty quarterback that Malzahn favors, he rose past both Parker Navarro and Joey Gatewood (two QB’s who easily fit that mold) in the depth chart to take over for Gabriel.
If Malzahn was willing to roll with Keene over better system fits because he was the best option last year, there’s nothing to say he won’t do so again. It also helps that Keene already has an established chemistry with the rest of the offense.
Why he won’t be the starter: No matter how talented Keene is or how much of a sophomore leap he takes, he just isn’t the right fit for UCF’s offense. Malzahn’s best seasons as a coach have come with run-first quarterbacks that can hurt opposing defenses in a variety of ways.
Like Gabriel, Keene just doesn’t have the dual-threat gene. He can likely improve there, but UCF simply will never be able to run the offense Malzahn envisioned when he took the job as long as Keene is the QB. This may cause the coaching staff to pass over him even if he is the best player available. Those are tough odds to overcome.
John Rhys Plumlee
Why he will be the starter: Simply put, Plumlee may end up as UCF’s starter because he was seemingly put on this earth to run a Malzahn offense. He’s crafty, can take hits and is blazingly fast. Everything that this staff wanted to do on offense last year but couldn’t due to Gabriel and Keene’s limitations is possible with Plumlee.
As Ole Miss’s starter in 2019, he rushed for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. In Malzahn’s one season as Auburn’s head coach where he had a 1,000-yard rusher at QB, the Tigers won 12 games and nearly took home the national championship. Throughout his career, Malzahn has been at his best with a dynamic QB who can use his legs to torch opposing defenses. Plumlee unquestionably fits that description.
Why he won’t be the starter: Of course, part of being a dual threat quarterback is being capable of attacking defenses through the air as well. And it’s not clear if Plumlee can do that at all. In his one season as Ole Miss’s starter, he threw for just 910 yards and four touchdowns to three picks. That is simply an unacceptable output and played a big role in the Rebels’ 4-8 finish and decision to move Plumlee to another position.
Even Malzahn himself didn’t buy that Plumlee could be a college quarterback. When he was recruiting him to Auburn several years ago, he envisioned him as a receiver, according to UCFSports.com.
On top of that, Plumlee will also be joining UCF’s baseball team. There’s obviously nothing wrong with this but it certainly is a tall order for him to win the quarterback job if he’s also in the middle of the season for another sport as spring practice goes on. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop Plumlee from being a big part of the Knights’ success without starting at QB. Malzahn could use him in a similar way as Gatewood was used in 2021 while starting the much more accurate (but less mobile) player in Keene.
Why he will be the starter: Castellanos can bring many of the same benefits to UCF’s offense as Plumlee can, and perhaps be even more effective. Despite being a true freshman and not necessarily as fast as Plumlee, he is still incredibly dynamic with his legs and arguably already more accurate.
“[He] reminds me of Nick Marshall,” Malzahn said. “Just can really extend plays, got a great arm. He can make all the throws.”
If Malzahn is committed to starting a running quarterback, wouldn’t it make more sense to opt for the younger player who will actually be here for more than one year? This could pay off in a huge way in 2023 if UCF enters the Big 12 with a second-year starter in Castellanos instead of having to once again break in a new quarterback after Plumlee has moved on.
As a senior in high school, Castellanos passed for over 2,600 yards and ran for almost 1,000 yards. High school to college is obviously a massive jump, but he clearly has the ability to run a Malzahn offense. Why waste a year on Plumlee when the Knights can jump straight to their future star?
Why he won’t be the starter: There’s no way around the fact that starting a true freshman quarterback is messy. It sometimes pays off long term but always lowers the expectations and abilities of the current team. UCF saw that in 2016, 2019, and 2021. Does this fanbase really have the patience to go through two straight years of freshman quarterback play?
Malzahn loves to preach that UCF is the future of college football. In Year 2 with a manageable schedule and a team returning talent on both sides of the ball in a wide open AAC, isn’t it time to start living up to that promise? At the end of the day, Plumlee and Keene both have more experience and are farther along in their development. Why tank 2022 for a player that still needs time to grow?