UCF spring football: How does new QB KJ Jefferson fit in with Knights?

UCF coach Gus Malzahn made it clear that last season’s 6-7 record — its first in the Big 12 — was unacceptable.

He took decisive action in the offseason, making staff changes, reshaping the strength and conditioning program and returning to play-calling duties.

The team’s new recruits and transfers, along with the best recruiting class in school history, should provide depth, experience and athleticism. With these changes in place, the Knights believe they are poised for success in Year 2 of the Big 12.

UCF begins the process Monday with the first of 15 spring practices leading up to the April 12 spring game.

Here are a few questions facing the Knights:

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How does KJ Jefferson fit into the plan?

Malzahn wouldn’t publicly admit that quarterback was in a position of need during the December transfer window. However, with the departure of two-year starter John Rhys Plumlee, it became apparent that the Knights could benefit from another experienced one.

Enter Jefferson, whose 6-foot-3, 247-pound frame has many pro scouts comparing him to another former Malzahn quarterback: Cam Newton. The fifth-year senior excelled at Arkansas, where his size and athleticism helped him set multiple school records, including passing yards (7,911) and passing touchdowns (67).

Jefferson fits well into Malzahn’s run-heavy, spread offense that relies on the Mississippi native to utilize pre-snap motions and shifts. His size and time in the SEC should be an asset.

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What changes under new coordinators?

Much to nobody’s surprise, Malzahn resumes play-calling duties. The 58-year-old coach briefly relinquished control of UCF’s offense to offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw, only to seize it back during a midseason losing streak.

Surprisingly, Malzahn brought Tim Harris Jr. back as the program’s offensive coordinator, shifting Hinshaw’s duties to quarterbacks. The pair is expected to provide guidance regarding plays, but most decision-making still falls to Malzahn.

After two seasons at Oklahoma, Ted Roof reunites with his former boss as UCF’s defensive coordinator. Roof, 60, was brought on board to revamp the Knights’ run defense, which was the worst in the Big 12. He’ll also manage the linebackers while co-defensive coordinator Addison Williams focuses on defensive backs.

Can Knights learn to finish games?

This wasn’t UCF’s strong suit last season.

Injuries and depth issues caught up with the Knights, who either led or were tied late in five of their six Big 12 losses.

Enter Anthony Kincy, who was hired to lead UCF’s strength and conditioning program. A native of St. Petersburg, Kincy is another familiar face after playing halfback for Malzahn at Arkansas State (2012) before following him to Auburn (’13), where he was the Tigers’ assistant strength and conditioning coach. He recently worked at Tennessee under former Knights coach Josh Heupel.

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Kincy is tasked with preparing the team to face bigger, stronger and faster competition.

Which position group faces the biggest climb?

The departures of starters Jason Johnson and Walter Yates III — who exhausted their eligibility — left UCF seeking experience at linebacker.

That meant dipping into the transfer market, where the Knights signed three players this offseason: Xe’ree Alexander (Idaho), Ethan Barr (Vanderbilt) and Jesiah Pierre (Texas Tech).

Alexander led the Vandals in assisted tackles (46) as a true freshman, while Barr and Pierre were multi-year starters at their schools. They combined for 352 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks.

Versatile defensive back Deshawn Pace (Cincinnati) also could be called up to occasionally step in at outside linebacker in certain defensive formations and at corner, safety and nickel.

Kam Moore, who appeared in 21 games through his first two seasons at UCF, is among a handful of returning players who could be counted on, as are true freshmen Derrick McCormick and Qua Birdsong.

Who emerges on the offensive line?

UCF’s ground game was one of the best in the country, with running back RJ Harvey leading the way with 1,416 yards.

Much of that success can be attributed to the offensive line, which was anchored by seniors Tylan Grable and Lokahi Pauole, along with Marcellus Marshall, Adrian Medley and Amari Kight.

Marshall, Medley and Kight, who combined for 1,912 offensive snaps, return, leaving the team searching for replacements for Grable and Pauole.

Transfer Wes Dorsey (Western Kentucky) is a solid option at tackle, a position he’s played the last four seasons with the Hilltoppers.

Center was a point of concern last season as four players split time.

Caden Kitler, appearing in five games with two starts, could be a viable option. He’s joined by transfer Jabari Brooks, who split time at left guard (24 games) and center (19) during his four seasons at Samford.

Email Matt Murschel at or follow him on X at @osmattmurschel.