After an offseason full of questions at the quarterback position, Thursday’s season opener against FAMU may have only complicated things further for UCF.
The Knights easily dismantled the Rattlers for a 62-0 victory, but two different QB’s had a big impact.
Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush was named the starter and lived up to that role, throwing for 168 yards and two touchdowns despite a shaky completion percentage of 52 percent. If he had been the only quarterback to play, there probably wouldn’t even be a debate right now and he’d be cemented as the team’s starter.
He did overthrow the ball on a couple plays that would have been surefire touchdowns, but the fifth-year senior didn’t appear too concerned.
“I just gotta keep throwing it aggressive,” he said. “Tre, Gabe, Jacob Harris and the rest of those guys are gonna continue to run as hard as they can and as fast as they can and I’m not gonna take anything off those types of balls.”
But then there’s Dillon Gabriel. The true freshman got drives in the first and second half, and looked far more impressive than his age would suggest. He completed 69 percent of his passes, throwing for 127 yards and notching three touchdowns.
“He’s been dreaming about these nights. He’s currently my roommate now so we talk a lot, talk a lot of football and we talk about the things he wants to do and the things he looks forward to do,” running back Adrian Killins said. “So the things he did tonight is just the beginning for him and the sky’s the limit and it’s gonna be a lot of more big plays made from him this coming season.”
Yes, this all came against an FCS team, but given that the competition was close all summer, it’s clear that the Knights currently have two quarterbacks on the roster who could easily be among the best in the conference (not to mention the injured Darriel Mack, who more than proved his worth last season.)
Let’s be clear: this is a very good problem to have. There are much worse spots for a team to be in than “oh no! we have too many quarterbacks that can outplay the rest of our conference!”
But it also means that UCF is going to have to make a decision about what to do with the unit going forward. Here’s a look at the team’s potential options.
Keep Wimbush as the starter, and redshirt Gabriel after he has played in four games
This is probably the most level-headed plan and, as far as we can tell, it may be what the team is doing. Coach Josh Heupel implied that Gabriel would be playing again against FAU next week, another game that should be a straightforward win.
Obviously, it’s in the team’s best interest to get a young quarterback reps in an easily winnable game before shutting him down once he’s maxed out the four games he can play before losing his redshirt.
There are pros and cons to this option. The negative side is that Gabriel may very well be ready to be the starter now, but will have to wait a year. This could hurt the team, especially if Wimbush goes on to struggle.
But on the flip side, Wimbush showed at Notre Dame that, while he isn’t always spectacular, he’s rarely going to blow games for his team or be completely ineffective. Not to mention that this sets up Gabriel to be the starter for the next four seasons (assuming he wins the job next year). Not having to worry about finding a starting QB until 2024 is an excellent spot to be in.
Make Gabriel the starter and use Wimbush as a backup or situational player
This is probably the most radical choice available, but it’s not completely ridiculous. Regardless of your feelings towards either player, there’s no way around the fact that Gabriel outplayed Wimbush on Thursday. He was calm, commanding, ran the offense with ease and was devastatingly accurate.
But there are downsides to this strategy. As good as he looked, this was still FCS competition. Would you rather have a true freshman with a few drives under his belt or a fifth-year senior with plenty of big game experience trotting out onto the field against Stanford?
Also, Wimbush was outplayed but didn’t do enough to realistically be in danger of losing the job. A truly awful performance would be necessary in the upcoming games for this option to be viable. But it’s an option nonetheless.
Run a two-QB system with both players
This is definitely not a good option, but let’s go over it anyway. Heupel said after the game that the plan had always been for Gabriel to come in on the fourth drive regardless of what was happening in the game. This strategy could simply be continued through the season, with the young quarterback subbing in for Wimbush every fourth drive.
Of course, multi-QB systems have historically been recipes for disaster, despite sometimes working. UCF’s most recent experience with this came in 2011, when Blake Bortles began to outplay Jeff Godfrey and the team essentially couldn’t make up it’s mind between the two. That year wound up as a 5-7 campaign sandwiched between 10-win seasons. Not ideal.
But perhaps Heupel and the coaching staff feel they can make this work, and that Gabriel is good enough to have earned a spot on the field in every game.
Bench both players for Darriel Mack once he’s healthy
There was a lot to process from the game on Thursday, but let’s not forget that Mack should be back from his ankle injury very soon. And given what we saw from him last season, it’s not at all a stretch to call him the best quarterback on the roster.
Funnily enough, he also has more big game experience than Wimbush, having started both a conference championship and New Year’s Six game. Heupel could make the call to go with the best available and hand the reigns back to Mack.
But there’s no way around the fact that he did miss training camp and has been out of the loop for some time. Any coach would be hard pressed to bench a quarterback who is playing well on a team that’s winning. Heupel would have to bench two QB’s to bring in Mack as the starter. But at the end of the day, maybe it’s worth it to have the best.
Regardless of what the coaching staff decides, this is certainly not a bad spot to be in. UCF may very well be set at quarterback into the mid 2020’s.