In a way, kicking off the James Franklin era at Penn State with a game in Ireland seems fitting.
Why you ask?
Oh just because the energetic first-year Nittany Lions coach does everything with flair. From his over-the-top business cards to his pension for juicy quotes, Franklin is ushering in a new era for Penn State football. And he’s doing it his way.
The first game for Franklin’s Nittany Lions will be a transatlantic affair setup a few years ago by then-coach Bill O’Brien against the UCF Knights at the Croke Park Classic in Dublin on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 8:30 am eastern time.
Penn State fans will be anxious to see sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg, fresh off a Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, grow in his second season under center in Happy Valley, and under the tutelage of the offensive-minded Franklin at that.
Hackenberg leads a younger 2014 team that will be replacing standouts from the 7-5 (4-4 Big Ten) team of a year ago, including All-Big Ten receiver Allen Robinson and three of its starting offensive lineman on offense in addition to Glenn Carson and DaQuan Jones on defense.
Coach Franklin has already stated that young players, specifically freshman, will have to play big roles for the 2014 team. Among those set to make an immediate impact will be freshman receivers De’Andre Thompkins, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall.
“Guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and impact the roster quickly,” Franklin told ESPN.com’s Big Ten blog.
But those fresh faces at receiver will have some upperclassmen to run with, as the Nittany Lions return leading rushers Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton as well as last years second leading receiver in Geno Lewis, who figures to be Hackenberg’s new go-to guy on the outside.
As if those aren’t weapons enough for the Penn State QB, there’s still a stable of quality pass catchers at tight end amassed by O’Brien with Jesse James and Kyle Carter.
The offensive is certainly set at the skill positions, but has some depth issues up-front on the offensive line. Losing three starters to graduation and replacing them is hard enough, but has been made even tougher with scholarship reductions and injuries over the offseason. The line will feature to converted defensive lineman (Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey) at the guard spots and a true freshman in Andrew Nelson at right tackle. Left tackle Donovan Smith, however, returns to anchor a young but talented group.
On the other side of the ball, new coordinator Bob Schoop will be charged with turning around an uncharacteristically shaky Penn State defense from 2013 that surrendered 380 yards and 26 points per game.
Schoop hopes that a more aggressive game plan leads to more pressure on opposing offenses in 2014, and wants to return the unit to what Nittany Lions fans have come to expect.
“The expectations are very, very high for the defensive performance here,” Schoop told PennLive last week. “People expect a Big Ten championship caliber defense. That’s the standard. That’s the norm here.”
Deon Barnes, Mike Hull, Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos return to lead the defensive turnaround that should get a boost from improved play from sophomore linebackers Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman.
Both the players and coaches have set the bar high for the unit, expecting nothing less than a top-25 defense in 2014.
As far as specialists go, you won’t find a more improved kicker in the country that Sam Ficken, who has transformed himself into one of the nation’s best place kickers over the past two seasons. Since missing four kicks in a loss at Virginia in 2012, Ficken, has converted 28 of 39 field goal attempts (71%). The senior has also been named a team captain for the season.
The Knights will be a much different team in 2014 than they were in 2013 when they edged Penn State in Happy Valley, 34-31 and rolled to a 12-1 record that culminated with the programs first BCS bowl game win in the Fiesta Bowl.
Gone is star quarterback Blake Bortles, who was a top-five pick in the NFL Draft, and standout tailback Storm Johnson. Both players were instrumental in the upset of the Lions and the Knights’ historic 2013 season. Coach George O’Leary is no stranger to elite talent, but will likely struggle replacing the production of Bortles and Johnson in 2014.
The teams will be competing for the Dan Rooney Trophy on Saturday. Croke Park has a capacity of 82,000, around 20,000 less than a typical home game for the Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium.