He arrived an hour before he was asked to. He walked in with a smile as wide as possible and an attitude of a confident and excited person. UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee was back indeed, even though it's happening at his new home.
Plumlee was scheduled to be a guest on UCF's weekly football radio show and he wanted to get there early. I asked him why. He answered:
"I want to meet and thank everyone for coming out tonight."
Plumlee met everyone in the room and shook hands, posed for pictures and signed whatever was put in front of him. He talked with fans about the upcoming season, his time in Orlando, his teammates, the weather...you name it. Like a candidate days before a close election, he worked the room. But this was more like someone who just was embracing the moment, a moment he wanted to recapture.
John Rhys Plumlee missed playing quarterback and everything that comes with it, on and off the field, and it appears he has found what was missing at UCF.
Plumlee edged out returner Mikey Keene to be named the starter as UCF gets set to begin the new season against South Carolina State on Thursday. When he takes the field it will mark the first time he started a game since the Egg Bowl November 28, 2019 as the quarterback at Ole Miss in their rivalry game against Mississippi State. His last pass in a college game was in the Outback Bowl in Tampa January 2, 2021.
Plumlee was a two-sport star in Hattiesburg, Mississippi coming out of high school with plenty of options of where to play football and baseball in college. After initially committing to play for Kirby Smart at Georgia, Plumlee settled on Ole Miss and started as a freshman. He ran for over 1,000 yards and felt his future was bright in Oxford. But the school hired Lane Kiffin after his freshman season and Kiffin had a different plan for his offense. Kiffin chose Matt Corral, who battled for playing time with Plumlee in 2019, to run his offense and Plumlee threw just seven passes in 2020 and moved to wide receiver in 2021.
Thinking he'd have a chance to play quarterback again 2022, Plumlee was focused on just that but the Rebels and Kiffin had other plans. Plumlee entered the transfer portal and a familiar coach came calling.
Back during his recruitment in high school Gus Malzahn aggressively pursued Plumlee thinking his style was perfect for his offense. The two connected and Plumlee and Malzahn developed a bond- even a passion for ping pong that led to a pair of showdowns between the two. Each claimed victory on their home court, one at Malzahn's home in Auburn and the other at Plumlee's house in Hattiesburg. Worth noting, Malzahn said on the radio show that he felt the need to ease up on Plumlee in the rematch since he really wanted the quarterback to commit to come play for him. Plumlee's version is a bit different.
But their connection paid off for both as Plumlee chose to come to UCF and play for Malzahn...as a quarterback.
Plumlee was and is again a quarterback. He started playing the position at age seven and began running around and making plays when his helmet barely fit on his head. He played the position into high school and became one of the most decorated players at the position in the state, region and nation. In 2021 he missed all the things that he loved. He's reunited again with his passion and he is cherishing every moment.
Plumlee has been given the keys to an offense that is loaded with talent. UCF returns three starters on their offensive line and added two transfers who started at their previous school. They bring back every running back from last season and added depth there as well. He has star Ryan O'Keefe at wide receiver and returning starter Alec Holler at tight end and UCF added Auburn's top pass catcher from 2021 in Kobe Hudson and also added Alabama transfer Javon Baker and Florida tight end Kamore Gamble. But Plumlee might be the fastest weapon UCF has added in years.
Plumlee gives UCF the option of running by design and running fast. He is one of the quickest players on the UCF roster and Gus Malzahn will unleash that at times but also knows Plumlee will get plenty of help with the weapons surrounding him.
But John Rhys Plumlee is himself again. He is home at the position he believes he was meant to play. He wants to be a team leader and knows his position gives him the chance to earn that image among his teammates. But he also knows the position gets attention on and off the field. Plumlee has been smiling since he arrived at UCF. Plumlee, the baseball player, was denied an appeal to play for the Knights after his arrival at UCF, but there he was before games smiling and laughing with teammates and fans. He was posing for pics and shaking hands during the spring football game in April. He was out and about engaging with fans during the summer and now named the starter for the Knights he is embracing the moment.
Plumlee knows his performance on the field is the ultimate factor in how fans take to their quarterback. He's ready to make fans cheer his performance on the field and he is willing and wanting to play the role of team leader off the field and become a face of the UCF program.
It was just a radio show and his appearance was about 10 minutes talking with me after Gus Malzahn had previewed his team, season and the upcoming opponent. Plumlee was cordial, funny, informative and energetic. When our interview was done he could have left for the night. Instead, Plumlee took a seat behind our broadcast area to listen to his teammate, linebacker Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste, talk about the season. When the show ended, Plumlee posed for more pictures, signed more autographs and shook more hands and smiled. John Rhys Plumlee's smile is part of who he is but it might be a bit bigger these days because he's back where he belongs...playing quarterback.
Final note: Englishman David Foster introduced the game of ping pong/table tennis in 1890.