Penn State and UCF have both spent the offseason looking for new faces to emerge in the trenches. Following a potentially season-ending knee injury to right guard Miles Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions will have four new starters among their front five. UCF meanwhile lost three big men to the NFL. Left tackle Donovan Smith will make his 21st start for the Nittany Lions while his counterpart, UCF’s Torrian Wilson will make his 30th start at the same spot for the Knights. Also back for UCF is center Joey Grant who started all 13 games last season. Although he has never started in three years, Penn State’s Angelo Mangiro has copious experience as a reserve and will be counted on heavily. Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey have moved over from defense and will likely man the guard spots for the Nittany Lions while youngster Andrew Nelson has emerged at right tackle. Michel Campbell played in 12 games last season for UCF at left guard. Tarik Cook (right guard) and Chester Brown (right tackle) have been in the program for four and three seasons respectively but have little game experience. These offensive lines could be ongoing works in progress for both teams early in the season. It’s a push.
Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg spent his true freshman season slinging footballs, progressing each week and earning the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year award. Pete DiNovo spent his watching from the sideline and saw no game action. Now that Blake Bortles is gone, DiNovo will make his first career start for the Knights. The last time the 6-foot-2, 205-pound DiNovo played in a meaningful game, the pocket-passer was capping his senior season at East Lake High School near Tampa where he was named the Tampa Bay Times’ Suncoast Player of the Year in 2012. Hackenberg’s last outing saw him carve up a talented Wisconsin defense — he completed 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns. Advantage: Penn State
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Bill Belton emerged as Penn State’s most versatile back last season. The shifty tailback contributed on the ground, as a receiver out of the backfield and handled heavy pass protection detail. With his bulldozing style and goal line prowess, Zach Zwinak is a proven commodity. Akeel Lynch showed flashes last season but was slowed by injuries. On the other side, UCF’s returning leading rusher William Stanback rushed for 443 yards on 105 carries in a secondary role. Over the last five games, Stanback emerged as a receiving threat with 13 of his 15 catches in the final half of the season. Cedric Thompson and Micah Reed add untested depth for the Knights. Advantage: Penn State
UCF returns a deep receiving corps with wideouts Rannell Hall, J.J. Worton and Breshad Perriman all back after solid 2013 seasons. They combined for 143 catches, 2,418 yards and 16 touchdowns last season. Hall was a consistent target and led the group with 57 catches for 886 yards. Perriman, at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, averaged 21 yards per reception. Meanwhile, UCF adds Jackie Williams who sat out last season after transferring from UAB where he left among the program’s career leaders in catches (140), receiving yards (1,733) and all-purpose yards (1,733). Penn State will count on its tight ends to buoy it passing game. Kyle Carter and Jesse James are proven targets. The Nittany Lions have options at receiver with veteran Matt Zanellato and rising talent Geno Lewis back. The rest of the unit is green, however. Advantage: UCF
UCF returns two starters — tackle Demetris Anderson and end Thomas Niles — along its defensive front and a handful of players that rotated in at the other end spot. Senior Jaryl Mamea spent spring ball as the starter at the other tackle position and UCF will likely use a combination of Miles Pace, Luke Adams and Syvon Lowry at the other end. All made starts last season. The athletic Deion Green is looking for a bounce back season after losing 2013 to an injury. Green was a standout as a freshman in 2012 with four sacks and 6 ½ tackles for loss. Penn State’s top ends, Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan are experienced and capable while Anthony Zettel has added to his frame to handle the rigors of playing on the inside after switching to tackle. He’ll play alongside Austin Johnson who also has plenty of experience to form a deep, Nittany Lion front. Advantage: Penn State
Mike Hull is the de facto leader of Penn State’s linebacker group and the defense as a whole. He’s moved to the middle and will be flanked by an inexperienced duo. Nyeem Wartman saw his playing time cut last season as he dealt with injuries but Brandon Bell surfaced in the final game with a start and solid performance. Gary Wooten, Koa Farmer and Von Walker and depth but also come with limited experience. UCF has two athletic tacklers in Terrance Plummer and Troy Gray. Plummer’s done it all in his career and enters his final season in the middle of the Knights’ defense as one of the best defensive players in the American Athletic Conference. He made 110 tackles last season and was a First Team All-American for the conference. Gray showed marked improvement last season, nearly doubling his previous season’s output with 62 tackles. Five linebackers return who worked into the UCF defense last season to give the Knights the experience and depth edge. Advantage: UCF
Despite a down 2013, the Nittany Lions should benefit from the experience most of their younger players gleaned. Jordan Lucas was a standout as one of the conference’s most physical cornerbacks and he established himself as a leader on the field, too. Adrian Amos will move around per defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s wishes and gives the back end much needed versatility as he can play safety, corner and nickelback. Ryan Keiser’s football IQ from the safety spot should not be underestimated. Trevor Williams will look for improvement after losing his starting spot opposite Lucas. A coaching change from inexperienced John Butler to veteran coordinator Shoop will likely help this group as communication was often a problem last season. UCF’s secondary is athletic and experienced with all four of its defensive backs starting at least 12 games last season. Clayton Geathers is as physical as they come from the safety spot and has 39 starts dating to 2011. He broke up 10 passes last season. Brandon Alexander also adds versatility and experience as he can seamlessly switch from corner to safety and is effective in run support. It’s a push
Sam Ficken set a Penn State record with 15-straight field goals last season but tailed off, making just seven of his final 13 kicks due in large part to a revolving cast of holders after Keiser was injured. All-in-all, Penn State’s kicking and punting units were fraught with shakeups as the Nittany Lions used three different longsnappers and three different holders throughout the season. Penn State will count on a rookie punter, Chris Gulla to improve what was a mediocre at best punting team last season. Save for blocked punts, one in 2010 and another in 2012, Penn State has not returned a punt for a touchdown since Oct. 11, 2008. The Nittany Lions’ last kick return touchdown came on Sept. 3, 2011. UCF kicker Shawn Moffit went 21-for-23 last season while UCF’s kick return team was solid, posting an average of 23 yards per return. Advantage: UCF
The Knights could be playing their last game for Coach George O’Leary. The Nittany Lions are playing their first for James Franklin. Both circumstances potentially offer their own motivating situations. This will be a new experience for all players involved and whichever team can handle the five-hour time difference, long travel and overall exotic atmosphere will likely have a big mental edge. It’s a push.