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UCF QB Dillon Gabriel embraces change under ‘role model’ coach Gus Malzahn

                                Central Florida quarterback Dillon Gabriel warms up before a game against Cincinnati on Nov. 21.


    Central Florida quarterback Dillon Gabriel warms up before a game against Cincinnati on Nov. 21.

When Dillon Gabriel first arrived at UCF during the spring semester of 2019, he was a fresh-faced, soft-spoken newcomer eager to make a name for himself. He was the rookie on a team of veterans who had recently set a school record with 25 straight wins and back-to-back New Year’s Six appearances.

Two years later, Gabriel opens this spring as the face of the Knights football program. With 22 starts, the Mililani High graduate established himself as the leader among the quarterbacks on the roster.

“I think it’s crazy looking back two years ago and I was the youngest and suddenly I’m the veteran,” Gabriel said following the team’s first spring practice Monday. “It’s crazy at how things change.”

Change has been the common theme this offseason at UCF with the sudden departures of athletics director Danny White and football coach Josh Heupel — both leaving the school for jobs at Tennessee.

There was also the departure of quarterback and Mililani alum McKenzie Milton, who transferred to Florida State after five seasons with the Knights, clearing a path for his friend to remain in charge of the offense.

During that period of uncertainty, it was players such as Gabriel who stepped up to take on larger leadership roles in the absence of a coaching staff.

“Naturally, that’s where the leaders will step in,” Gabriel said. “With no head coach, it was player-led in a lot of aspects — in the weight room, in the meeting room, or wherever it was. I am all for it.

“I love it here. I’m with these boys — I love my teammates so much, and being able to be that if they choose me, I’m excited to do it.”

Gabriel’s impact reached back home to Hawaii, where he played a role in convincing his close friend Titus Mokiao-Atimalala, a 4-star receiver from Campbell High, to sign with the Knights as part of its 2021 recruiting class. It was a shocking development considering the program had no coach.

“I’m close to Titus and I love that guy like my brother,” Gabriel said. “I was pushing for him and I’m glad he decided to come here.”

When Gus Malzahn took over the program Feb. 15, Gabriel knew little of his new coach except for his time at Auburn. But after several meetings, he’s excited about his and the team’s prospects for the future.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for him after having continuous conversations with him,” Gabriel said. “He’s someone I look up to. He’s a role model. The way he handles himself, the way he holds himself and the way he speaks to others, he’s very loving and caring and he said he’s going to coach me up the hardest. So I’m ready for it and excited for it.”

Added Malzahn, “To have a chance to win a championship, you need a big-time quarterback. What he’s done before, and I think he’s in a really good spot, and I think he’s got a good understanding of the big picture of what we want to accomplish this spring, too.”

The challenge this offseason for Gabriel is making the progression from Year 2 to Year 3 as a quarterback. He’s been proficient so far, completing nearly 60% of his passes for 7,223 yards with 61 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But with a new offensive system, there’s plenty of opportunity for growth.

“The longer you’re in a system, you’re going to feel more comfortable and you’re going to be able to master that system,” new quarterbacks coach GJ Kinne said. “You look at a guy like Tom Brady that’s spent so many years in a system, there’s a reason he’s so efficient at it. We’ve got to get him in the film room and I’ve got to meet with him and get him to a level where he would master the offense.”

Gabriel is eager to learn from Kinne, who spent time in the NFL as a player and a coach.

“I’m excited to be a sponge and just learn from him and soak it all in,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel has remained even-keeled throughout the process.

“Change is inevitable and you just have to soak it all in,” Gabriel explained. “If you overthink or you get overwhelmed, you have to take a deep breath. My whole approach is to forget what happened, you’re in the present and this is what’s happening.

“You have to adapt, and that’s something I pride myself in is my ability to adapt. It’s been good so far and there’s going to be some ups and downs, but you have to stay positive and push forward.”

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