football Edit

Pro Football Focus evaluates Penn State's linebackers & defensive backs

Penn State football wrapped up its 2020 season with a 4-5 record this past weekend, defeating Illinois with ease.

Although many will likely remember the circus that the Big Ten displayed leading up to (and during) the season , it'll also be looked back upon by Penn State fans as a season of "what ifs." Losing Micah Parsons and Journey Brown was just the tip of the iceberg this year, and it ultimately had a bigger impact than anyone would've imagined, as the Nittany Lions lost their first five games this season. Also, it was the way they lost to teams like Maryland and Iowa - inside Beaver Stadium, might I add - that had some wondering whether James Franklin would still be the head coach come Christmas.

Franklin's job was never truly on the line, but nonetheless, he and the team do deserve credit for the way they rallied. Two days after Thanksgiving, they defeated the Big Ten's other major storyline, Michigan, in Ann Arbor for the first time in more than a decade. The Wolverines were every worse than Penn State this season, but it proved to the spark that they needed, as the Nittany Lions went on to win three more games against Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois. In fact, with other teams not playing all of their games, Penn State went from last place to third in the East Division, behind Indiana (6-1) and Ohio State (6-0).

To get a better feel for how Penn State's linebackers and defensive backs performed overall, we used the Pro Football Focus database to compare Penn State's defensive players to not only others in the Big Ten, but all Power Five teams.

If you're unfamiliar with how PFF works and grades out players, check out their FAQ page here.

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Penn State Nittany Lions Football
LB Ellis Brooks was rated Penn State's best linebacker this season.
Player Overall Grades Run Defense Pass Defense

Ellis Brooks




Brandon Smith




Jesse Luketa




Lance Dixon




When Micah Parsons declared that he wouldn't be coming back to Penn State for his junior season, everyone knew this unit would take a step back, but expectations were still high. Ellis Brooks played nearly 500 snaps between 2018 and 2019, while Jesse Luketa played a little more than 200 snaps in 2019. Those two, along with Brandon Smith, were also coveted four-star players coming out of high school.

Whenever there's change, growing pains are expected, but the first few weeks of the season were hard to watch at times. Not only did they struggle in pass coverage, but even fundamental issues like gap control were regularly an issue. Smith and Luketa earned overall defensive grades of 54.0 and 42.2, respectively, between weeks 1-5. Luketa's pass coverage grade of 28.7 was the worst of any linebacker in the Big Ten. Respectfully, the play of the linebackers was a major reason why Penn State's defense struggled as much as it did those first five games.

While the competition dropped in the final four games, this group does deserve credit for playing much better down the stretch. Luketa's overall grade in those final games improved over 30 points to a 75.1. He graded out as the team's best defensive player against Rutgers and Illinois. Brooks also made major strides in the final three games. In the first six games, he graded in the 50s or 40s in five of the six. In the final three games, he earned a 75.3 against Rutgers, 68.0 against Michigan State and an 82.1 against Illinois.


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