UCF Knights’ Top 10 Returning Players in 2024 Include RJ Harvey, KJ Jefferson

    Gus Malzahn and the top 10 returning players for the UCF Knights head into change once again, but they're more prepared for it in 2024.

    After their first year in the Big 12, the UCF Knights will inherit a new challenge in 2024. New teams to the conference mean teams will feel each other out, but their top 10 returning players put the Knights in an excellent place to be competitive.

    UCF Knights’ Top 10 Returners in 2024

    Analyzing the returning players at every school is a difficult task in the transfer portal area. As such, we’ve included transfer-portal athletes on each team’s roster page to open spring camp in addition to the rostered players from last year.

    10) Nikai Martinez, DB

    One of the bigger questions for the defense is how defensive coordinator Ted Roof will utilize Nikai Martinez. The former four-star didn’t waste time inserting himself into the lineup, and he gives the Knights flexibility to move him around on the back end of the defense.

    The junior from Apopka, Florida, took on a more prominent role in the defense to produce 54 tackles and three interceptions. His ball skills make him a great option at either cornerback or safety, so it’s on the staff to find the right fit for him this year.

    9) Ethan Barr, LB

    Vanderbilt didn’t experience the success they wanted, but they produced plenty of talented players. Unfortunately for them, many of those impact players left, including linebacker Ethan Barr. The senior recorded 219 tackles in his time with the Commodores and will fill an important role with the Knights.

    Tackling machine Jason Johnson is gone, and the defense needs someone to fill his shoes. Barr faced some of the most talented players in the country the last four years, so this shouldn’t be a difficult transition for him.

    8) Deshawn Pace, DB

    Another player that Roof and the defensive staff must figure out is Deshawn Pace. He began his career at Cincinnati as a linebacker but transitioned to a defensive back the past two seasons. He’s an athletic player who grew more comfortable in his new role, but how will they use him with the Knights?

    A hybrid role feels like the right fit for Pace. He’s good in space and brings six career interceptions to the Knights’ defense. At 6’2″ and 215 pounds, Pace gives UCF a unique player that many other teams don’t have on their roster, and that should help this defense continue to thrive this year.

    7) Malachi Lawrence, DE

    With veterans Tre’mon Morris-Brash and Josh Celiscar departing, the Knights’ defense needed to ensure they could transition to a new era. Fortunately for them, Malachi Lawrence put together a season that let them exhale a bit.

    The redshirt junior from Louisville, Kentucky, finished third on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and second with 7.5 sacks. He becomes more of a leader on the line this year, and he looks to develop his game more with teams preparing for him better in 2024.

    6) Marcellus Marshall, OG

    A College Football Network second-team All-Big 12 selection last fall, Marcellus Marshall brings stability to an offensive line that lost multiple veterans the past few seasons. He began his career at Kent State and took his chance in the transfer portal before landing in Orlando.

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    The 6’5″ and 310-pound senior thrived immediately and will lead what could be another explosive offense for the Knights this fall. Up front, it’s a physical group, so Marshall and the line are preparing to repeat that mentality to help run the ball efficiently again this season.

    5) Kobe Hudson, WR

    With Javon Baker off to the NFL, someone must be the go-to downfield weapon. Baker averaged 21.9 yards per catch on 52 receptions last year, but the Knights have someone who mostly kept up with him.

    Kobe Hudson is electric with the ball in his hands, but last year, he showed that he can stretch the field vertically in addition to being a yards-after-catch nightmare. Hudson finished with 44 catches for 900 yards (20.5 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns last year, and those numbers should improve.

    4) Demari Henderson, S

    UCF had three players intercept three passes last year and two return for 2024. The aforementioned Martinez is one of them, and safety Demari Henderson is the other. Roof has a luxury that most don’t have, with the talent returning (and coming in from the transfer portal), and Henderson will be a significant contributor to this group.

    3) Lee Hunter, DT

    Gus Malzahn and his staff tapped into multiple former connections to bring talent to the roster. A handful of former Auburn Tigers continue making an impact on the team, and Lee Hunter is just the latest to join that list.

    Hunter made play after play last year, evidenced by his 69 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. He was productive at the defensive tackle position, but this defense must improve against the run in 2024.

    The Knights finished 125th in rush defense last year, and opposing teams averaged nearly five yards per carry against this group.

    2) KJ Jefferson, QB

    Losing John Rhys Plumlee didn’t leave a huge hold in the offense, thanks to Timmy McClain’s return, but that didn’t stop Malzahn from adding another quarterback from the transfer portal. Without much in the way of experienced depth behind McClain, adding KJ Jefferson was a no-brainer.

    KEEP READING: 2024 Big 12 Weekly Football Schedule

    Jefferson stands 6’3″ and 247 pounds, so tackling a player of that size will require everything defenders have. He’s surprisingly agile for his size and can make incredible plays with his legs. How quickly he gels with the new wide receivers will dictate if the Knights can compete for a Big 12 title this year.

    1) RJ Harvey, RB

    It’s hard not to root for RJ Harvey at this point. The former Virginia transfer hit plenty of road bumps early in his career, but he finally saw the field in 2022. He finished with 796 yards and five touchdowns in the Knights’ rotation that year, but it was his show to run last year.

    Harvey led the team with 1,416 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2023, and returns next to one of the biggest quarterbacks in the country in Jefferson. The offense also got him more involved as a pass catcher last fall, as he caught 19 passes for 238 yards and another score.

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