Penn State’s defensive backs are ready for Round II.
They haven’t forgotten how Round I against a shifty group of Central Florida receivers ended at Beaver Stadium last season. Then, UCF quarterback Blake Bortles spread the ball around to six different targets for 288 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-31 win.
Bortles is gone, on to the NFL after the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him third overall in May’s NFL Draft. His three primary weapons, Rannell Hall, J.J. Worton and Breshad Perriman are back.
“They have some great, athletic, big-play receivers on Central Florida,” senior safety Ryan Keiser said. “We feel like we’re more prepared because (we have) just more experience under our belts and having played them last year. I think we’ll be ready.”
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Penn State was not ready for the elusiveness all three players brought last season. In addition, their chemistry with Bortles — whose ability to extend plays with his feet and direct his receivers to open areas — resulted in numerous coverage breakdowns.
Penn State allowed pass big plays Worton and Perriman and another one to Josh Reese, who’s also back for UCF. All-in-all, Hall, Worton and Perriman combined to catch 15 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown. Reese added a 25-yard touchdown reception in the second half that broke the game open for the Knights.
Penn State’s new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was with Vanderbilt last season but has seen plenty of UCF’s receiving corps to know what the Knights’ receivers can do.
“We’re going to have our hands full. It’s going to be a great challenge for our guys on the perimeter,” Shoop said before running down the list with his own scouting report.
While all three of UCF’s primary receivers have speed, Perriman is the biggest deep threat. He averaged a team best 21 yards per catch last season good for fifth nationally. Perriman was targeted seven times last season with each of his catches against Penn State resulting in a UCF first down.
“He’s a guy that can stretch the field,” Shoop said.
At 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, Worton has size and athletic ability to boot. A versatile receiver who can split out or play in the slot, Worton made his most memorable play against Temple last season.
Then, with less than two minutes to go, UCF was down by seven but had a first down from Temple’s 30-yard line. Worton ran a slant but adjusted when he saw Bortles flushed from the pocket. Worton sprinted toward the corner of the end zone as Bortles released a slightly overthrown ball. Worton made the one-handed, diving touchdown catch look easy with his right hand. UCF won the game.
Shoop called it “one of the catches of the year last year.”
Meanwhile, he called Hall “one of our guys” as in a player Penn State’s staff would love to recruit if they could.
“That’s what I say when I watch Rannell Hall,” Shoop said. “Great yards after the catch, great return guy, he covers kicks for them. He’s a really good player.”
Hall was often used as a pace-setter last season as 31 of his team-leading 57 catches came on first down plays. If he’s used in the same fashion, it will be with a new quarterback. UCF coach George O’Leary named Pete DiNovo the team’s starting quarterback earlier this summer. Shoop said he and the rest of Penn State’s staff are familiar with DiNovo, a former Tampa area standout who as recruited while Shoop was at Vanderbilt.
“We know who Pete DiNovo is and have a lot of respect for him and what he can do as a quarterback,” Shoop said.
Penn State’s defensive backs were taking the same tone as it pertained to UCF’s wideouts after arriving in Dublin, Ireland on Wednesday.
“Experience always helps,” senior safety Adrian Amos said. “It’s a new team. We have a new system. We just have to go out, execute, watch what we watch on film, watch mistakes that we made last year against the same players and hopefully come out and execute.”
The Nittany Lions rotated Trevor Williams and Da’Quan Davis in at the cornerback spot opposite Jordan Lucas during the portion of practice open to reporters on Wednesday at University College Dublin. Ryan Keiser and Amos will start at the safety spots. While Williams is listed as the starter opposite Lucas, Franklin said the battle to earn the most playing time there will continue.
Williams started half the season at cornerback last season before losing his starting job midway through the year. Davis got on the field a lot as a true freshman in 2012 but barely played last season.
“Trevor’s has had a good camp. Trevor’s made some really good plays in camp,” Shoop said. “I feel very, very confident in Trevor Williams and the guy that’s kind of that third guy if you will is Da’Quan Davis. Da’Quan has also had a good camp. We assured him when we got on staff that he had a clean slate and he took advantage of that this spring and really maybe was as productive the second half of spring as any player and really picked it up again during camp. Both of those players need to play with a bit more consistency there. That’s what we’re looking for.”
In addition, true freshman Grant Haley has raised eyes, Shoop said. He could be one of at least nine defensive backs Penn State coaches plan to use within the framework of the game. Their primary objective is to stop the Big 3 — Hall, Worton and Perriman.
“They’re real good, explosive receivers,” Amos said. “As you saw last year, they had a lot of success.”