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UCF QB John Rhys Plumlee Relishing Return To The Quarterback Role


UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee has been around the positional houses. This football journey has taken him from being the starter at Ole Miss, to a backup, a wide receiver, a situational rusher, and eventually the transfer portal. Arriving at UCF earlier this year, there was no guarantee Plumlee would return to being a starter but he has. He’s been around the houses, but Plumlee is finally home. And he’s relishing his return to being QB1 this college football season.

UCF QB John Rhys Plumlee relishing his return to the role

“It has been a long time coming,” Plumlee reflected in the aftermath of his UCF debut — a resounding 56-10 win over South Carolina State. “I’m blessed for the opportunity. There are some things I can improve on. It was great being out there and playing quarterback again.”

A long time coming is putting it lightly. There’s been a global pandemic and a change of presidents since Plumlee was a freshman starter at Ole Miss with the world at his feet. Tom Brady has won a Super Bowl, retired, and then came out of retirement since Plumlee last sat atop the QB depth chart.

In the two seasons since he was named a freshman All-American, Plumlee’s attempted just eight passes — compared to 25 receptions and 34 rushing attempts as he played second fiddle to Matt Corral — with his feet rather than his arm being his primary playmaking weapon.

Herein lies the perceived problem for Plumlee. Smashing program quarterback rushing records during the 2019 season, his 1,023 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns far outstripped his production as a passer. The 6’0″, 200-pound playmaker threw for just 910 yards, completing less than 60% of his passes, with a TD:INT ratio of four to three. With a change of coaching staff, Plumlee never had the opportunity to prove that he could be an effective passer for the Rebels.

John Rhys Plumlee is an effective and efficient passer

At multiple stops along this journey around the houses, Plumlee has been able to prove that he can be an effective and efficient passer. Beginning his high school career at safety, it didn’t take long for the coaching staff to realize they had a special talent who could lead the team under center. It wasn’t in the plan for the coaches at Hattiesburg Oak Grove High School, but Plumlee positioned himself as a passer with standout play from the beginning.

“We called a play we wanted to run — motion shift, roll right, run-pass option,” Oak Grove coach Drew Causey recalled in a phone interview with the Daytona Beach Journal. “He threw it back across the field to the running back for the score. We let him learn on the fly from there.”

You can’t throw back across the field without having a high level of arm talent. Few quarterbacks possess the arm elasticity required to generate the velocity to drive the ball in the opposite direction to the motion of your body. Regardless of the level, you don’t see wide receivers nor running backs make that type of throw. That’s a QB throw, and a genuine quarterback to boot.

Over two seasons at Oak Grove, Plumlee accounted for 6,635 yards of offense with 74 touchdowns. It’s easy to presume that a chunk of that yardage came from his dynamic rushing ability predicated on elite-level speed. The presumption would be wrong. Plumlee threw for 5,430 yards and 51 touchdowns during his high school career, leading Oak Grove to a state championship game. The arm talent was — is — there.

High school talent doesn’t always translate to the college level. Plumlee was clearly more dynamic as a rusher than a passer during 2019 with Ole Miss. However, that’s not to say the arm talent had diminished or didn’t exist in the first place. Even in 2020 as he rode the pine behind Corral, with his offensive contributions being limited to the oddly designed QB run or reception lined up out wide, Plumlee’s arm talent was recognized and respected by even the greatest head coach in the game of college football.

“He played quarterback a lot last year, and he’s very capable of throwing the ball,” Nick Saban told reporters ahead of the 2020 clash between Ole Miss and Alabama. “We have to respect his ability to throw the ball, because when we played against him last year, he was very effective as a passer as well as, you know, very athletic and very fast as a quarterback.”

While the opposition coaches were respecting his ability to throw the ball, the same level of respect wasn’t coming from within his own program. Waiting patiently behind Corral, Plumlee saw Jaxson Dart added via the transfer portal alongside the addition of highly regarded high school recruit Luke Altmyer. It was time for Plumlee to find another opportunity to fulfill his dream of playing high-level football and baseball, and so he entered the transfer portal.

Plumlee finds a home at UCF

There were no guarantees with UCF. Mikey Keene had performed admirably in relief of the injured Dillon Gabriel last season, and even with the former UCF quarterback departing for Oklahoma, Plumlee wasn’t a shoo-in for a starting role. For many, Keene was the favorite to start the season despite an existing relationship between head coach Gus Malzahn and Plumlee dating back to Auburn’s attempts to recruit him while at Oak Grove.

Plumlee had to earn it. No one was going to hand him the keys to the Bounce House. He was going to have to take them and make it his home. One week out from the UCF season opener, Malzahn announced that Plumlee had done enough to earn the start against SC State, with one particular line resonating from his reasoning.

“He’s got good command of what’s going on, and he’s made all the throws.”

Earning the starting job is one thing, keeping it is another. That’s especially true when you’re in a tight competition with a young, talented contemporary. “Once you play, you have to keep your job, too,” opined UCF offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey in mid-August.

It’s fair to say that Plumlee, relishing being back in command of an offense, did everything and more to ensure that he doesn’t lose that starting job again. With 16 carries for 100 yards and one touchdown, Plumlee’s dynamic athleticism was on full show.

He’s a 4.3-second 40-yard-dash-level athlete, whose speed on a TD run against LSU while at Ole Miss actually translated to the equivalent of sub 4.3 seconds. Plumlee’s unique multi-sport athleticism — only eligibility is preventing him from playing baseball — has never been in doubt. His ability as a passer is what has been called into question.

Those questions were answered in Week 1. The long-term consistency will need to come, but Plumlee was consistently on the money against SC State. Completing 20 of 31 attempts, he averaged 9.9 yards per throw on his way to 308 passing yards and four touchdowns. The statistics are impressive, the throws themselves even more so. Deep balls, tight windows, and smart, accurate passes allowed him to showcase his arm talent.

“Everyone can see what he can do with his legs,” Malzahn stated after the game in reference to the game-breaking ground performance. “But I thought he made some really good throws.”

Plumlee appeared confident on the field and in the post-game press conference. The UCF QB celebrated each touchdown as if it were the first of his career. He clearly had fun directing an offense for the first time in nearly two years. He’s been around the positional houses, but in the Bounce House, Plumlee clearly feels at home — and he’s thriving in it.

Oliver Hodgkinson is an NFL Draft and College Football Analyst for Pro Football Network. Check out the rest of his work here, and you can find him on Twitter: @ojhodgkinson.





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