UCF names John Rhys Plumlee as starting QB: Gus Malzahn picks former Ole Miss star to lead Knights offense

UCF coach Gus Malzahn announced Sunday that Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee will begin the season as the starting quarterback for the Golden Knights after playing wide receiver for the Rebels last season. Plumlee last started a game at quarterback in 2019 as a freshman at Ole Miss and transferred to UCF with the intention of returning the position.

To win the job, Plumlee had to beat out sophomore Mikey Keene, who started 10 games last season for the Knights after star Dillon Gabriel was injured in the third game of the season. Gabriel has since moved to Oklahoma, where he reunited with former UCF offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. Keane threw for 1,730 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions on 63.6 percent passing while filling in for Gabriel, but he lacked the mobility Malzahn typically preferred from his signal-callers during an eight-year tenure as Auburn’s head coach.

Plumlee, on the other hand, is known for his athleticism, which he displayed while rushing for 1,023 yards and 12 touchdowns from the position for the Rebels in 2019. Plumlee also played outfield for the Ole Miss baseball team and is also listed on the baseball roster of UCF.

UCF went 9-4 in 2021 during Malzahn’s first year, capping the season with a Gasparilla Bowl win over Florida. The Knights were picked to finish third in the AAC in the league’s 2022 preseason media poll, but received seven of a possible 24 first-place votes and finished just behind Houston and Cincinnati in the poll.

Below are some takeaways as Plumlee returns under center to potentially help lead the Knights to the top of the league in 2022.

A convenient choice

Although Keane performed quite admirably as a freshman last season following Gabriel’s injury, the former three-star prospect was not signed by Malzahn. Keene signed with UCF under former coach Josh Heupel in December 2020, roughly two months before Malzahn was introduced. Plumlee, meanwhile, has a relationship with Malzahn and UCF offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey dating back to his recruitment as a member of the class of 2019. Plumlee originally committed to Georgia after Malzahn’s team at Auburn offered him as a receiver.

Although the Tigers reportedly began to change their perception of Plumlee to view him as a quarterback later in his recruitment, he ended up at Ole Miss as a quarterback. Malzahn got an up-close look at Plumlee’s options at the position in 2019 during Auburn’s 20-14 win over the Rebels. Plumlee rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries while completing 11 of 21 passes in a 20-14 victory in that game.

Back to the comfort zone

As Keene is now learning, coaching changes that lead to significant changes in the offensive scheme can alter the calculus of where certain players fit on the depth chart. That was the story for Plumlee amid Ole Miss’ coaching transition from Matt Luke to Lane Kiffin after the 2019 season.

Although Plumlee showed promise as a dual-threat quarterback in his first season under Luke, Kiffin went with Matt Corral as the program’s starting quarterback. Plumlee backed Corral through the 2020 season until moving full-time to receiver before the program’s 26-20 Outback Bowl victory over Indiana that season.

Plumlee caught five passes for 73 yards in that game, a sign that perhaps his future could be bright at the position. But he struggled to carve out a steady role in 2021, finishing the year with 19 receptions for 201 yards. Now, Plumlee will be back in his comfort zone at the position he prefers.

“That’s where my heart has always grown,” Plumlee said in the spring. “I’ve always loved doing this. To be able to do it again and to be able to get back behind center is really a blessing and something I love to do.”

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