UNIVERSITY PARK — Rannell Hall and J.J. Worton aren’t studying performing arts at Central Florida but that doesn’t mean the two wide receivers haven’t learned a thing or two about improvisation in their time on campus.
In fact, the two juniors have taken on starring roles in an offense that thrives on their ability to adjust on the fly. Their co-star, junior quarterback Blake Bortles is the type to demand it of them.
Hall and Worton have combined to catch 12 passes for 255 yards so far this season from Bortles, a quarterback whose run-and-gun, backyard style has generated 3,587 yards, 29 touchdowns, just seven interceptions in 16 games and requires flexibility from his targets.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior will make his 17th start for the Knights (2-0) when they visit Beaver Stadium on Saturday at 6 p.m. Bortles, has been consistently good for a UCF team that used a balanced offensive attack last season to roll to 10 wins.
Then, Bortles established himself as one of the country’s top collegiate passers with a knack for generating yardage when plays had seemingly gone south. He’s a candidate for numerous awards given to the nation’s top quarterback, including the Davey O’Brien award and will find himself on another watchlist on Saturday, that of the Penn State defense.
“He’s a great player, so we have to be on our A game,” junior safety Jesse Della Valle said.
Bortles will try to keep his improv streak alive against a defense that has yet to surrender a passing touchdown this season. He hasn’t thrown an interception in 217 attempts and has made a habit of keeping plays alive with his feet, continuing them with his arm and letting his wideouts finish them off down the field.
Take his performances in demonstrative wins over Akron and Florida International as examples.
Against the Golden Panthers last week, Bortles hit Hall for a 28-yard gain in the second quarter after being flushed from the pocket by a host of FIU defenders. With little blocking in front of him, the right-handed Bortles calmly rolled to his left and reset his feet to fire a strike to Hall along the sideline. The quarterback fumbled a shotgun snap later in the game but plucked it from the grass and found Worton in the end zone for a five-yard touchdown pass. Worton broke his route to the inside as soon as he saw Bortles in trouble.
Against Akron, Bortles kept a play alive that seemed doomed from the get-go. After taking the shotgun snap, Bortles fumbled the ball as the pocket collapsed around him. He picked it up, stepped up to his right, threw a stiff arm into Akron defensive tackle Nico Caponi while keeping his eyes down the field.
There was Worton, who altered his route to run between the Akron safeties, who were suddenly in disarray. Bortles delivered a throw on the run and Worton hauled in the pass to complete the 39-yard scoring play that could’ve easily been a turnover just seconds prior.
“It’s just trust. When things start to get rough and start to break down, you’ve got to trust your quarterback and know that he’s going to make a play,” Worton said. “And you’ve got to be ready to get in a good spot where he can see you in the open and try and connect with you.”
Hall, who has racked up most of his yardage after the catch and initial contact, agreed.
“I feel like it’s something we’ve grown over the years and we’ve got down pat,” Hall said. “That’s also been a good reason why we’ve been able to establish so many yards on completions with the wide receiver corps.”
UCF receivers are averaging 16.5 yards per catch. They’ll be up against their stiffest competition yet in Penn State’s Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams. Experienced safeties Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos back them up.
But Penn State hasn’t lined up against a wideout group this physical yet this season. Hall, Worton and Breshad Perriman — who’s added 125 yards on four catches — all check in over 6-feet tall and all hover between 195 and 210 pounds.
“They have speed, a lot of physicality on the outside edges and we just have to be sure that we’re on top of our game come Saturday,” Willis said.
And Bortles adds physicality from the quarterback position. Against FIU, he flew up the middle on a quarterback draw, broke to the outside and bowled over Panther safety Mitch Wozniak for a 10-yard gain and a first down. Bortles has rushed for 309 yards and nine touchdowns as a starter.
His penchant for keeping plays alive has worked against him, however. Bortles has been sacked three times this season and was brought down 22 times last season. Penn State senior linebacker Glenn Carson realizes it could be a chore to bring the big quarterback down, however.
“With his big frame, he’s able to move pretty well and he can get out of the pocket,” Carson said. “Really, it comes down to fundamental football and if you have an opportunity to make a sack you’ve got to make it as well as, if we’re dropping into pass coverage we have to be aware that he can run as well.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.