By Robert Wilson
Central Florida football fans found out Thursday night what Ole Miss and SEC fans have known for several years.
Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee can run fast. Really fast. And also Central Florida fans saw that Plumlee has improved his passing accuracy.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Oak Grove High graduate and Ole Miss transfer ran for 99 yards and one touchdown and completed 20 of 31 passes for 308 yards and four TDs to lead Central Florida to a 56-10 victory over South Carolina State in the season opener for both teams and Plumlee’s debut for Central Florida in Orlando.
It didn’t take long for Plumlee to show his talents in the game Thursday night. He ran nine yards for a first down on third down, then scrambled for a 28-yard gain to the South Carolina State 7. A play later, Plumlee connected with Alabama transfer Javon Baker for a 12-yard TD pass.
On the first play of the next Central Florida drive, Plumlee completed a 30-yard pass to Kemore Gamble for the second TD and a 14-0 lead with 7:17 to play in the first quarter.
Plumlee ran for a 17-yard TD for a 21-0 lead with 3:10 to play in the first quarter.
Plumlee completed 7 of 9 passes for 114 yards and two TDs and ran four times for 60 yards and one TD in the first quarter. He finished the first half with 14 of 20 passes for 224 yards and two TDs and 81 yards on 12 carries and one TD as Central Florida cruised to a 28-3 halftime lead.
Plumlee beat out returning starter Mike Keene to earn the starting spot for Thursday’s season opener. Second-year UCF head coach and former Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn named Plumlee the starter last week. Plumlee performed in the season opener like he had been performing in practices.
Not only did the nice crowd and an ESPN Plus audience watch Plumlee perform, but his parents (Lori and Denton), sisters (Rhyan, 23, and Reese, 18) and grandmother (Elaine Flynt) were in attendance in Orlando.
“John Rhys started with a bang, had a great game and I’m very proud of him,” Malzahn said. “Everyone can see what he can do with his legs, but I thought he made some really good throws. There is nothing like experience. You could tell he hadn’t played quarterback in a year and a half, but he will learn from that. He’s a competitor. John Rhys created some things with his legs on third down.”
“It has been a long time coming and I’m blessed for the opportunity tonight,” Plumlee said. “There are some things I can improve on. It was great being out there and playing quarterback again.”
Plumlee was a freshman All-American at Ole Miss when he ran for a freshman school record 1,023 yards and 12 TDs in nine games, eight starts, in 2019. He had five 100-yard games, including a career-high and quarterback school record 212 yards and four TDs in a loss to No. 1 LSU. He ran for TDs of 46, 60 and 35 yards in the second half. It was the most yards by a quarterback against LSU since Cam Newton ran for 217 yards in his Heisman Trophy year at Auburn in 2010.
Plumlee’s speed has been well documented. He ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash out of Oak Grove High and reportedly ran the 46-yard TD against LSU in 4.87 seconds, which converts to a 4.23 40.
When Lane Kiffin replaced Matt Luke as Ole Miss head coach in 2020, Plumlee was moved to wide receiver. He made one start at wide receiver, ran 25 times for 94 yards and caught six passes for 79 yards. He caught 19 passes for 201 yards and ran nine times for 72 yards last season before transferring to Central Florida in January.
Plumlee passed for 5,430 yards and 51 TDs in his high school career at Oak Grove and was named the MHSAA Class 6A Offensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2018.
Plumlee played baseball for two seasons at Ole Miss and is expected to play baseball at Central Florida. He would be the first player to play both sports at UCF since Dee Brown in 2003.
Plumlee and Central Florida step up the competition level next week when they play host to Louisville, picked to finish the middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference this season. The Cardinals received votes in the preseason AP Top 25 poll.