When Penn State kicks off with UCF in Dublin, it pits against one another two teams with big question marks, and plenty of differences. Penn State welcomes James Franklin; George O'Leary might be kicking off his farewell tour. Penn State returns one of the best quarterbacks in the country; UCF looks to replace the #3 pick in April's NFL draft. But both teams have gaping holes on the offensive line, and neither fanbase seems to have any idea what to expect on Saturday. That's where Harry Nolan, of Underdog Dynasty, comes in. Harry's shed some light on this Central Florida squad, and given us some inside insight on how the Knights stack up.
Black Shoe Diaries: UCF returns a lot of its pieces from last year's team, but loses arguably the two best players from that squad. How hard will it be to replace Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson?
Underdog Dynasty: I don't think replacing Storm Johnson will be as difficult as some as made it out to be. Don't get me wrong, Storm was a great player. But I think William Stanback will put up bigger numbers than Storm did. If you don't know William Stanback, he's 6'1 225 lbs. The most apt comparison I can make is a young Chris Perry. He runs like a wrecking ball, but has speed and elusiveness. He had over 100 carries last year for over 400 yards and 6 tds. Towards the end of the season he became a bigger focal point in the offense. I think Stanback is going to carry the Knights this year.
Replacing Bortles is a different story. Nobody can replace what Bortles meant to the program on and off the field. He's the hometown hero who led UCF to its greatest season ever. He has replaced Daunte Culpepper as the best quarterback UCF ever produced. I don't see anyone able to step into that role. Pete DiNovo is a redshirt freshman. He's a pure pocket passer and isn't as mobile as Bortles was. However, he did set the record for passing tds and yards in Hillsborough County. The staff has said he is ahead of where Bortles was as a freshman. Expect to see short and intermediate passes to get him comfortable the first few games of the season. He's not going to be Bortles, but he can be solid especially with the talent around him.
BSD: With those big question marks, but an incredibly soft schedule, what kind of results would make this season a success? Is another AAC championship in the cards?
UD: I can see this team going 9-3 this year. It all depends on how DiNovo plays. A successful season is probably 9-10 wins. The Penn State game is a toss up. The only other out of conference game of substance is at Missouri. If UCF ends up beating Penn State and/or Missouri, it will be a successful season. In the American(or ACK) the only competition I see on the schedule is Houston. I'm not sold on ECU as they have been known to disappoint when they have high expectations. UCF doesn't play Cincinnati again this year, high inch is strange as they are the two major powers in that conference. The game at Houston will determines who wins the AAC. Like I said, 9-10 wins this year would be considered successful.
BSD: Last year, Johnson ran all over Penn State, and Bortles and JJ Worton carved up the Nittany Lion secondary. What players, on both sides of the ball, do you see making a difference for the Knights on Saturday?
UD: On offense, I will say the receivers are the players to watch. They were overshadowed by Bortles and Storm last year and weren't given the credit they deserve. They are probably a top ten unit in college football. Everyone knows JJ Worton from his miraculous catch against Temple last year. He is quick and has great hands. Rannell Hall is one of the fastest wide receivers in the to country. UCF will use short passes to get Hall into space where he makes plays happen as evidenced in the Fiesta Bowl. The best of the group is Breshad Perriman. He has the hands, speed, and route running to be special this year. So many times last year Perriman found a way to beat the secondary. The group also includes Josh Reese and UAB transfer Jackie Williams.
On defense, I don't think it will be a player that will make a difference. It will be the new defensive coordinator Tyson Summers. Summers was the linebackers coach last year, until Jim Flemming left for the Rhode Island job. Summers defense perplexed Baylor for much of the Fiesta Bowl. Let's not forget Baylor was supposed to score 70 on UCF, according to Mensa member Mark May. But UCF was able to get pressure with his 3-4 defense and cover 2 looks. Summers is one of the best coaches on the staff and I think he will show that on Saturday. He will be aggressive given Penn State's offensive line issues. Summers is a really good coach and recruiter. I expect him to take the defense to a new level.
BSD: Like Penn State, UCF has some major question marks on the offensive line. How confident are you in a unit that has to replace three starters?
UD: UCF's offensive line did lose a lot this year. It is a major cause for concern especially with a freshman QB. I think they will be a bit exposed during games this year, which will cause UCF to rely heavily on short passes. Blitzing will take a toll on the oline this year. Tarik Cook, Michael Campbell, and Chester Brown have played in games, but have not started any of them. It'll be interesting to see how they perform as starters. I do think Penn State will blitz and take advantage of the youth on this line on Sarurday. All is not lost. Center Joey Grant returns as does tackle Torrian Wilson. Wilson is on the Outland Trophy award list this year. Both will bring stability to the line. Brent Key is a tremendous offensive line coach. You can just watch the Fiesta Bowl and see how that line mauled Baylor's defensive line. Last year, three UCF lineman won conference honors. While those players are gone, I have faith in Key to eventually stabilize the line later in the year.
BSD: It seems like a rumor swirling around the UCF program is that George O'Leary will step down after the season with OL coach Brent Key taking over. If that happens, how would you judge the O'Leary era, and what do you think of the potential promotion of Key?
UD: I actually wrote about this on Underdog Dynasty. I do think O'Leary will retire at the end of the year. There are too many signs to deny it. Brent Key is now the assistant head coach, probably to learn the ropes and O'Leary's philosophy. Also, Key's close friend and recruiting buddy Tyson Summers is now the defensive coordinator. There's no doubt that O'Leary is grooming Key to take over next year. I don't think he will leave after the Penn State game as Bruce Feldman reported. O'Leary is a lot of things, but not a quitter. Key has been a great recruiter and offensive line coach. I do wish he had more experience as a coordinator, but he's been with UCF for 10 years and should know the ins and outs of the program. I like that he will get a shot.
To say O'Leary's legacy is complex is an understatement. On the field, he took one of the worst programs in the NCAA in 2004. He has built it into one of the strongest non-power five conference teams in the country. He has done this with unhearalded players, while having to fight for recruits with FSU, UM, UF. I mean UCF won the Fiesta bowl last year. Who expected that? No one. On the field, I give him all the credit in the world. Off the field is where it's complicated. O'Leary has been abrasive with the fanbase ala his "gator-knights" comments in 2010. And of course the death of Erik Plancher will always be a scar on the program. So its very hard to judge O'Leary's legacy.
BSD: How do you see this game shaping up?
UD: Well I don't see it being an offensive explosion like it was last year due to the fact of the changes on the offensive lines for both teams. I see it being a defensive struggle. I do think penn state's run game will be effective, but so will Stanback for UCF. The key will be Hackenberg vs an experienced, loaded secondary. I think UCF's secondary will take advantage of the fact that Robinson is now in the NFL and contains Hackenberg better. I think on a neutral field, UCF keeps it's magic and wins 23-17.
Thanks again, Harry, and remember to read Underdog Dynasty all season long to stay up-to-date with the best of the non-Power 5.