How UCF's John Rhys Plumlee juggled football and baseball this spring


ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is multitasking. Then there is UCF quarterback/center fielder John Rhys Plumlee's version of multitasking, complete with a private plane, pickup trucks, golf carts, calendars, group texts, and a team of coaches, nutritionists, trainers and teammates standing ready to help.

Plumlee plays football and baseball for the Knights and does so at an extremely high level. He's the starting quarterback for a team transitioning into the Big 12 next season. He's also the starting center fielder on the baseball team. Remarkably, he missed only one football practice and one baseball game this entire spring.

The result has been what Plumlee describes as "some of the coolest days of my life." It would not have happened without a football coach who believed -- six years ago -- in what Plumlee wanted to do, then finally got a chance to follow through.

"I think, at a lot of places, what I did would not be possible, whether it's too much on the baseball side or too much on the football side," Plumlee said. "This has been my dream since I've been in second grade, and I'm getting to live my dream. It's really, really fun."

As UCF prepares to play in the American Athletic Conference baseball tournament starting Tuesday (ESPN+), Plumlee recently reflected on a wild four weeks split between spring football practices and the baseball regular season, a stretch that included playing a baseball game and the spring football game on the same evening. Handling both responsibilities required a herculean effort from many, but it all started with a meeting with Plumlee, UCF football coach Gus Malzahn and UCF baseball coach Greg Lovelady.

And a giant calendar.

"The stars really just aligned in terms of how do we make this happen?" Lovelady said. "When you start thinking about it, I think on the front end, you're like, 'There are going to be a ton of issues.' But in reality, it worked out perfectly."

This spring journey actually began in 2021, after Plumlee entered the transfer portal from Ole Miss. Plumlee had played baseball for two seasons there, but football had not gone as well as he had wanted. After early success at quarterback as a freshman, Plumlee was moved to receiver for 2021 because coach Lane Kiffin chose Matt Corral as his starter.

Plumlee entered the portal after that season ended, and he made it clear to any program that showed interest that he wanted to play quarterback again. But he also had another request: He wanted to continue his baseball career, too.

While he was the head coach at Auburn, Malzahn had recruited Plumlee out of high school. At the time, Malzahn had promised Plumlee he could play both sports if he signed with the Tigers. Now at UCF, Malzahn saw an opportunity to get a quarterback he always wanted, six years later.

Malzahn gave him a simple response: "Come on, I'll let you play."

Plumlee didn't arrive at UCF until January 2022, too late to play baseball. So this spring was his first two-sport trial at UCF. It's a unique position to be in with only a handful of other football/baseball players around the country, including Virginia quarterback/pitcher Jay Woolfolk.

In Plumlee's case, UCF went to extraordinary lengths to ensure Plumlee was able to navigate his schedule to participate in nearly every spring football practice -- including the spring game.

The first step was to compare practice schedules. The fact that football has morning practices and baseball practices or plays games in the afternoon and evening made figuring out logistics a little smoother.

But there were potential conflicts they pinpointed right away -- a midweek baseball game at Miami on a football practice day; a road trip to East Carolina on a day UCF had a football scrimmage scheduled; and ... the spring football game set for April 14, the same day the baseball team hosted Memphis. To make matters more challenging, those conflicts were scheduled over a 10-day span.

Plumlee refused to shortchange one sport in favor of another, so he asked everyone to work together so he could make every practice and every game. That included keeping track of his athletic-related activity hours so he did not go over limits set by the NCAA.

"To be honest, I was worried about him mentally and physically wearing down because he was beat up at the end of last year, but I've never seen anything like it. He got better every practice. He had great energy. It was something else just to watch," Malzahn said. "It's really amazing."

On a typical football practice day, Plumlee would wake up between 5:45 and 6 a.m. and get to the facility around 6:30 to eat breakfast and get taped up. Team meetings started at 7:30 a.m., followed by offensive and positional meetings. At 9, players start heading to the field. By 11:15 a.m., practice would be done, and Plumlee would get treatment on whatever he needed -- whether it was sore hamstrings, hips or shoulders.

Then he would eat lunch and head to baseball at 1 p.m. to do some early batting cage work. Team meetings at 2:15 or 2:30, then practice until 4:30 or 5. He would shower and go home to do his schoolwork and eat dinner -- Plumlee had online classes to finish his interdisciplinary studies degree and graduated in early May. Lights out around 9:30 p.m.

"I think 99.9% of the country, you go from football in the morning, baseball in the afternoon, at 6 o'clock, you want to shower, get into bed and just get to the next day," said tight end Alec Holler, one of Plumlee's closest friends on the football team. "But instead, he's moving on to the third part of his day, school. He had three extreme responsibilities, and he handled them really great."

Holler called what Plumlee did this spring "unheard of and impressive" and noted that even when Plumlee was on the road with baseball, he would have his iPad with him watching football game tape and going over the new playbook. His football teammates cheered his decision to do both, and they wound up becoming newfound baseball fans in the process.

"A lot of people asked me, 'How are you doing it?'" Plumlee said. "But I got up every day this spring excited -- I get to go to football, and I get to go to baseball, and it's going to be awesome. Now, obviously, I'm going to get tired. I was tired some days. But that's when my teammates stepped in to get me through. The village that it took to make it happen, it shows that people care here at UCF. It was a whirlwind."

To keep Plumlee fresh for both football and baseball, the training staff set up a group text message chain to keep each other in the loop, including associate athletics director for sports medicine Mary Vander Heiden and trainers Mackenzie Kennedy and Kaylee Shores.

"They were in constant communication to tell each other what we worked on," Plumlee said. "Maybe one day I had tight hips, or I was sore and threw less during baseball practice. There was a constant line of communication that was happening. Without them, I don't make it through the spring."

On the strength side, Plumlee lifted with the football team but his regimen was tailored around what was going on with baseball. On game days, perhaps he did not lift with as much volume but there were certain sets and reps he had to do to maintain his weight and arm strength. Plumlee can recall only one time over that four-week span when his shoulder felt sore.

But tired? That was another matter. From April 4 to 14 proved to be the most challenging. On April 4, UCF had a football practice in the morning and a baseball game that night at Miami. After Plumlee finished practice, he showered and his lunch was packaged and waiting for him to eat on his road trip south.

Assistant director of football operations Kenny Yerves had his truck pulled up in front. Plumlee hopped in, and they made the four-hour drive down to Coral Gables for the game. He arrived five minutes before they started batting practice, then went 1-for-4 in a 14-3 loss.

Plumlee stayed the night and headed back to Orlando on Wednesday. On Thursday, he played in a football scrimmage in the stadium, then sprinted past everybody, showered, changed and went back into the truck with Yerves. This time, he was headed to the airport and a private plane to take him to Greenville, North Carolina, where a doubleheader against East Carolina was scheduled to begin later that afternoon.

"We drove right up to the plane," Plumlee said. "I felt like a rock star. I was watching the pilots fly the plane, thinking, 'Man this is really cool.'" He proceeded to take a nap, and when he woke up, they had landed. Plumlee arrived at the baseball stadium 30 minutes before the first pitch and played in both games, with three hits and two runs scored.

"I'm tired just thinking about it, and again, he played great, and I never felt, 'What a day he's had, he's out of gas,'" Lovelady said. "He was ready to go when he showed up. I know it's been a dream of his to do this, so he was excited about it all."

The next week, UCF had its spring game planned. Lovelady agreed to move the start time for the home opener against Memphis to 5 p.m., and football agreed to start the spring game at 7:30 p.m., hoping Plumlee could play in both. When inclement weather forced the baseball game to start 30 minutes late, there were more than a few people -- Plumlee included -- who started sweating whether he would be able to make it to the football stadium right next door.

Luckily for him, UCF jumped out to a 10-3 lead in the seventh inning. At this point, everyone inside the baseball stadium could hear the music blaring from the football stadium.

Just beyond the outfield, the tailgating was in full swing, "You could feel the vibe from the football stadium from our stadium, so I'm sure that gets some juices flowing for him," Lovelady said. "I told him it was all up to him. I'm not going to tell him what to do. I said, 'You tell me, you want to go football, we'll do that,' and he was like, 'I'm not missing the game.'"

Plumlee asked Lovelady whether he could go over to football after his at-bat in the seventh. Lovelady agreed. When it was his turn, Plumlee hit a single to first. He ended his day going 2-for-3 with 2 RBIs.

"I'm coaching first base, and he gets to first and I looked at him, and he looked at me, and I was like, 'Now?' He was like, 'Yup!' I was like, 'All right, pinch runner.' There he went, running off the field. It was pretty surreal just watching him run and go. You're kind of watching the whole thing transpire in front of your eyes," Lovelady said.

The UCF social media team was there to document it all, as Plumlee hopped on a golf cart with Yerves at the wheel and headed over to the football stadium and into the locker room to get into his football uniform.

Plumlee narrated his journey for the cameras, "Now we're going to have to see how quick this quick change is going to be." Yerves was there to help Plumlee put on his shoulder pads, and then Plumlee ran into the stadium, where the game had already started.

When he walked onto the field, the crowd welcomed him with a rousing ovation.

"I'm warming up, and everybody's like, 'Let's go!' You've got little kids screaming, 'Let's go, John Rhys!' It was really cool. Because I remember being that age, looking up to athletes and thinking, 'I want to be that guy one day, and so to have the roles reversed and a little guy looking at me is really cool. Really cool."

Plumlee followed up his big performance in the baseball game with a big performance in the spring football game -- completing 10 of 17 passes for 236 yards with two touchdowns. New offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw and Malzahn made a concerted effort this spring to work on Plumlee's downfield passing -- and it showed in his performance. Malzahn also points out that last spring was the first time Plumlee had played quarterback since 2020.

"Now that he's got a year under his belt, Darin has done a super job with his mechanics, he's more accurate, his pocket awareness and calmness has really improved," Malzahn said. "Throwing the ball vertically down the field was really our main emphasis in the spring, and he's improved in that, too. It's been good to watch."

But maybe more impressive is what Plumlee has done on the baseball diamond this season.

"He didn't see a live pitch for 18 months, and for him to come out here and do what he's done, it's pretty remarkable," Lovelady said. "You've just got to be really talented and gifted. I thought his second-half numbers would be way better than his first-half numbers as he got into the rhythm of doing this every day.

"But man, he shot out right out of the chute ready to go. He was hitting .318 two months into the season. I was just flabbergasted. It's really a testament to him, his ability, his work ethic and just his demeanor.

This is the first football-baseball athlete Lovelady has coached, and he would be willing to do it all over again -- but he also noted how hard Plumlee has worked to make it all happen. "It's not that easy, and he has made it look really, really easy," Lovelady said.

This will be Plumlee's last year of college football, and at some point he will have to make a decision about what path to take moving forward. At 6 feet, 200 pounds, he is undersized for the NFL, but Malzahn said, "I believe he's capable of being an NFL quarterback." Because of the COVID-19 year and his decision to enter the transfer portal, Plumlee could stay at UCF for at least one more season and continue playing baseball, where he is a late-round Major League Baseball draft possibility.

"I haven't really thought that far ahead in the big scheme of things," Plumlee said. "But football, this is my last year. We'll have to see, but I'm looking to perform really good this year and do some big things and put myself in an opportunity to get drafted."

Although Plumlee is now well past spring football season, a part of him thinks back to what he did over that four-week stretch with wonder.

"If we didn't video half of it, you wouldn't believe it," Plumlee said.