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Three season-defining questions for Penn State's linebackers: Entrance Exam

The Penn State Nittany Lions football season begins in less than a month, and Blue-White Illustrated is breaking down the key questions facing each Penn State position group in its new series, Entrance Exam, continuing on the defensive side of the ball with Penn State's linebackers.

Check out previous Entrance Exam stories:

Safeties

Cornerbacks

1. Will the position changes among Penn State football's linebackers pay off?

Penn State enters the 2021 season with much of the same personnel that it used throughout the 2020 season, but it's clear that plenty has changed.

Brandon Smith is moving from the Sam linebacker spot to the Will linebacker spot, where he should be less occupied by pass coverage obligations and freer to make plays at the line of scrimmage.

That clears the way for the versatile Curtis Jacobs to come in at the Sam spot — a role that should suit his skill set.

Additionally, James Franklin publicly confirmed this week that Jesse Luketa, a starter at linebacker for the Nittany Lions last season, will take the majority of his practice reps during the preseason at defensive end as he adjusts what is being called a "hybrid" role.

For some, this may seem like rearranging the deck chairs within a unit that was not very good last season, and that may turn out to be the case.

But it's worth keeping in mind that Penn State conducted much of its preparation for the 2020 season under the assumption that it would have first-round NFL Draft choice Micah Parsons available, and was forced to make adjustments on the fly when he opted out of the season.

With more time — and a more normal offseason schedule — to evaluate its options and develop a plan, arranging last year's linebackers differently could have a considerable impact. If it does, that will be a big boost to Penn State's defense as a whole.

RELATED: Two Penn State Nittany Lions earn a place on The Athletic's 'Freaks List'


Penn State Nittany Lions football linebacker Brandon Smith could be in for a breakout season.
Penn State Nittany Lions football linebacker Brandon Smith could be in for a breakout season. (Penn State Athletics)

2. Where does the depth come from, and is it good enough? 

Interestingly, Penn State has frequently transitioned players who lined up at linebacker in their high school days into roles on the defensive line in college.

Nick Tarburton, Zuriah Fisher and now Luketa all fall into that category among the names currently on Penn State's roster.

Now looking beyond three presumptive starters — Brooks, Smith and Jacobs — there aren't very many known commodities.

The Nittany Lions lost Lance Dixon, who played a fair bit last year, to the transfer portal, as he eventually landed with West Virginia.

Players like redshirt junior Charlie Katshir, who we haven't seen too much of, and redshirt freshman Tyler Elsdon are going to be absolutely crucial to the success of this group, especially if one of the starters suffers an injury at some point.

Interestingly, Franklin revealed that safety Jonathan Sutherland is getting some looks at the Sam linebacker spot, which would give the Nittany Lions another depth option there.

Beyond that, Penn State has two true freshmen: four-star Kobe King and three-star Jamari Buddin. It's not outlandish to think that one or maybe even both of those two will see some meaningful action with depth snaps certainly up for grabs here.

3. Who provides the impact?

More than any other position on the defensive side of the ball for the Nittany Lions last season, it felt like Penn State didn't have the guy at the linebacker spot.

The type of impact and star power that we were used to seeing at a school that carries the 'Linebacker U' name just wasn't apparent.

Can Brooks take a big leap forward in his redshirt senior season? Can Smith or Jacobs turn potential into something more tangible?

Neither seems out of the question. But what is for sure is that this position group lacks a true anchor right now, and that's a big question mark that needs to be answered.

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