Better or worse? Setting expectations for Penn State football's linebackers
Blue White Illustrated's Nate Bauer, Dave Eckert and Greg Pickel are taking stock of the Nittany Lions as the start of the 2021 season quickly approaches.
What are their expectations for each of Penn State's position groups, particularly set against the performances that marked the Nittany Lions' 4-5 campaign in 2020?
No overthinking permitted here: This is an up or down vote across the board.
So, will the Nittany Lions be better or worse at linebacker this year from last? Find out their thoughts, below:
Lance Dixon is gone from last year’s two-deep, but the rest of the Lions’ linebackers corp returns intact.
Is that better or worse entering the 2021 season?
Watching former four-star recruits Brandon Smith and Curtis Jacobs grow together on the field should be one of the more enjoyable parts of the fall, as both have an extreme amount of talent and the ability to play in both the base defense and the sub-packages. James Franklin said at the end of spring practice that Jesse Luketa could line up elsewhere, which means it may not be as much of a battle as we think between him and Ellis Brooks for the middle job. Instead, perhaps Charlie Katshir, who has worked inside some, can battle for backup snaps. The same goes for freshman Kobe King.
We’ll take the glass half full approach here and say this group will be better this fall than last, and maybe that has as much to do with having a full, normal offseason plus preseason camp as anything else. That said, if Smith and Jacobs play as advertised, the Lions will be fast and aggressive in the middle and also have the kind of big-play eraser they sorely lacked once Micah Parsons opted out of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m going with ‘better’ here, but I’m still not exactly bullish on this group’s prospects this season. Mostly, I just find it difficult to believe they could be much worse than they were a year ago.
The three-man unit of Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa and Brandon Smith ranked among the more disappointing aspects of Penn State’s 2020 campaign. They struggled collectively against the run and weren’t an asset to the defense in pass coverage, either.
Of course, Micah Parsons’s decision to opt-out of the season shortly before it began is important context to consider. A year’s preparation should help the Nittany Lions account for his absence this season better than they did a year ago.
Additionally, I think there’s reason to be optimistic about Smith’s move to Will linebacker, where he should be closer to the line of scrimmage and should be able to impact the game more with his physicality. Curtis Jacobs is an intriguing breakout prospect who should see time at Smith’s vacated Sam spot as well.
Franklin also teased a position change — or at least some experimentation — could be in the works with Luketa, who was a limited participant this spring. So, there are some changes afoot. That’s a good thing, because the Nittany Lions need to get better here in a hurry.
This is another instance in which the evaluation has to be accompanied by a reality check on what last season actually was for Penn State at linebacker. And that reality, given the abrupt departure of All-American Micah Parsons a few weeks before the start of the regular season, and a few weeks more than that before the COVID-amended schedule, proved to be an absolute punch to the gut that Penn State couldn't overcome.
The reality ahead of this season is substantially different at linebacker, though. A year of seasoning for Curtis Jacobs was enough to allow Penn State's coaches to move Brandon Smith to his more natural role as a Will, which allows Jesse Luketa to battle it out with Ellis Brooks for the starting Mike job.
Having the best players on the field is one thing, but having them on the field in their best positions is another entirely, and last season was a perfect example of how things can go wrong when you're constantly scrambling to make up for personnel setbacks. Get good, experienced players into the right spots on the field and the results are naturally going to be improved.
Throw a full offseason of consistent work into the mix and Penn State's linebackers have an opportunity to be quite a bit better as a unit than the one that struggled at times through the 2020 season.
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