UCF coach Gus Malzahn announced Sunday that Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee will begin the season as the Golden Knights' starting quarterback 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 he 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 following an injury to star Dillon Gabriel in the third game of the season. Gabriel has since transferred to Oklahoma, where he is reuniting with former UCF offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby. Keene threw for 1,730 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions on 63.6% passing while filling in for Gabriel, but he lacked the mobility that Malzahn typically preferred from his signal-callers during an eight-year run as Auburn's head coach.
Plumlee, by contrast, is known for his athleticism, which he showed while running 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 listed on UCF's baseball roster as well.
UCF finished 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 24 possible first-place votes and finished just behind Houston and Cincinnati in the poll.
Below are some takeaways as Plumlee goes back under center to help potentially lead the Knights to the top of the league in 2022.
While Keene filled in quite admirably as a freshman last season following Gabriel's injury, the former three-star prospect wasn't a Malzahn signee. 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 Lindsay dating back to his recruitment as a member of the 2019 class. Plumlee initially committed to Georgia after Malzahn's Auburn staff offered him as a receiver.
Though the Tigers reportedly began to change their perception of Plumlee to view him as a quarterback later in his recruitment, he wound up at Ole Miss as a quarterback. Malzahn got an up-close view of Plumlee's ability at the position in 2019 during Auburn's 20-14 win over the Rebels. Plumlee ran for 92 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries while also completing 11 of 21 passes in a 20-14 win in that game.
Back to the comfort zone
As Keene is learning now, coaching changes that entail significant shifts in offensive scheme can alter the calculus for where certain players fit on the depth chart. That was the story for Plumlee amid the Ole Miss coaching transition from Matt Luke to Lane Kiffin following the 2019 season.
Though Plumlee had shown promise as a dual-threat quarterback in his freshman season under Luke, Kiffin went with Matt Corral as the program's starting quarterback. Plumlee backed up Corral in the 2020 season until moving full-time to receiver ahead of the program's 26-20 Outback Bowl victory over Indiana that season.
Plumlee caught five passes for 73 yards in that game in 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's always been growing up," Plumlee said in the spring. "It's always what I loved to do. To be able to do it again and to be able to get back behind center, it's truly a blessing and something I love to do."