Taking Stock: Linebackers
Blue White Illustrated continues its multi-part series examining the Nittany Lion roster as it proceeds through winter workouts and eventually into spring practices. Today, we'll continue with a look at Penn State's linebackers:
KEY LOSSES OLB: Manny Bowen, Jake Cooper, Dae’lun Darien, Brelin Faison-Walden, Koa Farmer, Jarvis Miller
OUTLOOK At Penn State, this appears to be the linebacker renaissance fans have long awaited.
Returning a pair of starters in Cam Brown and Jan Johnson, plus the returning leading tackler for the 2018 season, Micah Parsons, the Nittany Lions are looking to continue a development that repeatedly manifest itself last fall.
In spite of some questions entering the season, especially given the return-then-departure of Manny Bowen, the Nittany Lions fielded a steady starting group as depth developed from behind. Johnson manned the starting Mike linebacker position for all 13 games while Brown started at Sam for all but the Rutgers game, serving a first-half suspension, and Koa Farmer started at the Will.
Johnson finished with 72 tackles, second to Parsons’ 83, while Brown notched 63. In the process, Parsons added 5.0 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, Johnson finished with 1.5 and half a sack, and Brown made 6.5 stops for a loss with 2.0 sacks, respectively.
That Parsons made such an impact was even more notable considering his 494 snaps for the season according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics. They were fewer than both Brown (719) and Farmer (544) while slightly edging out Johnson’s 477 reps.
Following close behind, redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks and true freshman Jesse Luketa were building experience of their own. Brooks appeared in 206 defensive snaps, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 1.5 TFL, and half a sack while Luketa appeared in all 13 games in his debut with the Nittany Lions, finishing with 61 defensive snaps and seven total tackles. Luketa also gained extensive experience on Penn State’s special teams units, compiling another 214 snaps and earning three of his seven tackles that way.
Both Brooks and Luketa appeared behind Johnson on the depth chart at Mike throughout the season, but could, in fact, give Penn State’s coaches flexibility elsewhere in the wake of a loss of depth at the two outside linebacker positions. Along with the graduations of Farmer and Jake Cooper, Jarvis Miller and Dae’Lun Darien entered the transfer portal, Miller heading to UMass and Darien to Delaware to finish out their eligibility.
Brown, who has always had the athleticism and physical prowess at 6-foot-5, 233 pounds, added another year of experience to his resume. He was ejected from the Citrus Bowl for targeting, but Brown showed improvement throughout the 2018 season and prompted strong praise from head coach James Franklin along the way.
“He always could run. He was always aggressive. He's an intelligent guy, as well. So yeah, we thought he could do a lot of different things for us,” Franklin told reporters in October. “I think part of it was kind of finding the right position for him. I think that was part of the journey for him, as well. I think the other thing is because he's so long, getting the right type of mass on him was challenging. When you're that big -- he put on 20 pounds, and it still didn't really look like it a whole lot, but there's one thing to putting on weight, it's another thing to put on strength and durability and those types of things.
“So we've been very pleased with him. He's playing aggressive. He's playing violent. He's playing fast. He's playing with a lot of confidence right now. So yeah, we've got very high expectations for him, not only this weekend but also in the near future. He's coming along nicely. I know Brent really enjoys working with him, but I think he's got a very bright future.”
Opposite Brown, Parsons is in line to assume Farmer’s vacated starting role. Having already made an instant impact in his true freshman season, this winter, spring, and summer will be important elements to Parsons’ continued development beyond the physical aspects of the game for which he already has a solid grip.
Examining a pair of quotes from Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry - one from before the 2018 season and another after the regular season’s conclusion - demonstrates that progression and the hopes that it will continue this offseason.
“He's able to play fast despite not knowing what the heck he's doing,” said Pry after working with Parsons in the spring of 2018. “He hasn't let his mind slow him down. He can be wrong and make himself right.”
Then, following the 2018 season:
“The fact that Micah led our defense in tackles and started only one game tells the tale,” said Pry. “He has some growing and maturing to do still, but my hat’s off to him for the year he did put in. He’s a young man that had never played linebacker, but he worked hard to learn it, played hard, and didn’t allow things to slow him down.”
By adding four-star prospects Brandon Smith, the No. 39 player in the Class of 2019 nationally and an early enrollee, and Lance Dixon, himself the No. 22-rated outside linebacker, the Nittany Lions expect the group to be even stronger.
Counting on its veterans, young backups and newcomers to progress, the unit should prove to exhibit a combination of talent, maturity, experience, and depth that it simply has not had in recent seasons.