Many college coaches told UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee that he couldn’t play quarterback in college — including his current head coach.
Yep, way back when Malzahn — then the head coach at Auburn — was recruiting Plumlee before his senior year. He told the young Hattiesburg, Miss., native that he knew Plumlee wanted to be a quarterback, but he was more interested in the athletic high schooler as a slot receiver.
So, why did Plumlee ultimately transfer to UCF to play for Malzahn as a quarterback before the 2022 season? For the same reason, he came back for one more season with the Knights.
Malzahn is a straight shooter.
“Even though it was something I didn’t want to hear, he still said it, right?” Plumlee said. “So later on in the recruitment process, after I played another year of high school football (he was a senior in 2018), he started recruiting me as a quarterback. And so after that, I knew the guy wasn’t gonna lie to me, right? He already told me something I didn’t want to hear before. And so I knew that everything that he was telling me was truthful.”
Still, Plumlee went to Ole Miss to start his college career. But after three seasons of doing just about everything except play consistently at quarterback, he went to Orlando after the 2021 season to join Malzahn.
After a solid season as UCF’s quarterback in 2022, both Plumlee and Malzahn want him to take the next step in 2023. Malzahn loves what he’s seen from the fifth-year player.
“He has done an unbelievable job,” Malzahn said. “John Rhys is like night and day to where he was at this time last year.”
To make that happen, Malzahn lured Darin Hinshaw back as offensive coordinator. He’s familiar to UCF fans. He played quarterback for UCF in the 1990s (pre-Daunte Culpepper) and then carved out a long career as an assistant coach. He re-joined the Knights in 2021 as an analyst and took over as UAB’s OC in 2022 before returning to UCF for the 2023 season.
Malzahn’s directive is to make the offense more vertical after a 2022 season in which its yards per completion was No. 88 in the country, even though the offense was ranked No. 20 overall.
To do that, Hinshaw and Malzahn will have to get Plumlee to rely more on his arm than his legs.
Plumlee took to Malzahn’s offense in a way that belied their years of conversations and interactions.
He played in 13 games, earned Second-Team All-American Athletic Conference honors, and was the league’s offensive player of the week three times. He not only threw for 2,586 yards, 14 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, but he also led the Knights in rushing. He carried the ball 159 times for 861 yards and 11 scores. He tied a 35-year-old UCF record when he accounted for seven touchdowns against Temple. He rushed for more yards than any other FBS quarterback.
By season’s end he helped UCF ranked No. 9 in the nation in rushing (228.3 ypg) and No. 17 in total offense (469.5)
Before UCF, Plumlee spent three seasons — 2019-21 — at Ole Miss, playing first for Matt Luke and then for Lane Kiffin, the latter of which has a national championship ring as an offensive coordinator like Malzahn.
In 2019, he earned Freshman All-American awards as an all-purpose player who rushed for 1,023 yards and 16 total touchdowns (four passing, 12 rushing). He continued that role for his next two seasons, working as a rusher and receiver in 2020 and primarily as a receiver in 2021.
But Plumlee has always been a quarterback. At Oak Grove High School in Mississippi, he threw for 5,430 career yards with 51 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Now, in 2023, Plumlee wants to be the quarterback that he — and Malzahn — believe he can be.
You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard.