During Penn State’s media day, Nittany Lions coach James Franklin waved to the cameras and said hello to Central Florida coach George O’Leary.
Franklin said his staff watches opposing press conferences and reads everything it can to try to get as much information as possible. He expected O’Leary takes a similar approach.
In the last three-plus weeks, both teams have gone through training camp and developed game plans for their season-opening matchup Saturday at 8:30 a.m. in Dublin, Ireland. It will be Franklin’s first game leading Penn State, and O’Leary’s starting quarterback will be making his college debut. But both Franklin and O’Leary have said they know what to expect from their opponent based on their returning players and coaching styles.
“As we all know, George O’Leary’s a defensive guy,” Franklin said. “I doubt that they’ll do too many things different than what they’ve done in the past. It’s his overall philosophy. I’m really excited about the challenge there.”
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UCF boasts a talented defense with nine returning starters. The Knights ranked 17th in the country in scoring defense (21.3 points per game) and 29th in total defense (362 yards per game) last season.
The group is led by linebacker Terrance Plummer, who recorded a team-high 110 tackles in 2013. Plummer recorded a game-high 11 tackles and forced a fumble in the Knights’ victory over the Nittany Lions last season.
Franklin called Plummer “a difference maker” in Central Florida’s veteran defense.
“We got to come prepared to play and that’s what we’ve been doing all camp,” senior running back Bill Belton said. “We’ve been preparing, doing what we have to do as an offense to get ready for that experienced group.”
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg and his receiving corps will be going against one of the most experienced secondaries in the nation.
All four starters from 2013 return this season. The Knights’ defensive backs have made 97 career starts, tied for the sixth-most in the country.
“They don’t bust coverages,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said of the UCF defense. “So they’re talented, they’re experienced and they’re fundamentally sound, so that’s a pretty good combination. So we have our work cut out for us.”
Franklin specifically highlighted strong safety Clayton Geathers and cornerback Jacoby Glenn as players that grabbed the attention of the Penn State coaching staff during preparation.
Geathers has started all 39 games the last three seasons and finished second on the team with 100 tackles in 2013. Geathers and Glenn each had two interceptions a year ago.
Free safety Brandon Alexander, who led the team with three interceptions, and cornerback Jordan Ozerities round out the experienced group.
O’Leary said his focus starts with ensuring his team is fundamentally sound in tackling and blocking. To prepare for the first-year Penn State coaching staff, he said UCF examined what the Nittany Lions did last year with their returning players in addition to looking at what Franklin and his coaches have done in the past.
Ultimately, O’Leary said the end result goes back to the team’s execution.
“I still always fall back on base fundamentals,” O’Leary said on the American Athletic Conference teleconference. “And being good at the things you need to be good at as far as your run fundamentals, your tackling fundamentals and your blocking fundamentals, because eventually that’s who wins the game is the guys who can tackle and block the best.”
Still, both staffs have schemed and prepared for their opponents.
Franklin started his press conference Tuesday by skimming through the game notes pointing out key stats from a season ago.
The Knights generally held the edge.
UCF ranked higher in scoring offense and scoring defense, and the Knights were better in total offense, total defense and turnover margin.
It’s a new year with new faces filling key positions on each side. Most notably, Central Florida starting quarterback Pete DiNovo replaces Blake Bortles after spending last season on the scout team as a redshirt freshman. Bortles is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars as the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
But Franklin said he and his staff study the stats from week to week.
And with nine starters back, UCF’s defense is a proven unit.
“They’re fast, they’re aggressive, they don’t give up a whole lot of big plays,” Franklin said. “George O’Leary is I think one of the better defensive coaches around. It’s been that way for a long time with him.”