After his leg appeared to buckle while he was on punt-safe team on Saturday, Penn State linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White is out for the season, said head coach James Franklin on Tuesday.
“I feel terrible for (him),” said Franklin. “It’s obviously significant. Feel for Nyeem, because he’s had two years in a row now where he’s missed the season. He’s worked really, really hard and has had an unbelievable attitude from a leadership standpoint. That’s always difficult. … We’re here to support Nyeem every step of the way.”
Wartman-White, a fifth-year senior, had started at both weak side linebacker and middle linebacker for the Nittany Lions through three games this season.
In the second quarter against Temple on Saturday, the Owls were forced to punt and Wartman-White lined up in punt-safe, a defense against trick plays in which the starting unit remains on the field in lieu of the normal special teams group. He appeared to plant his foot and his leg appeared to buckle under him. He was taken to the locker room and evaluated by athletic trainers, and returned to the sideline out-of-uniform and with his leg in a large brace.
Franklin said fellow starting linebacker Brandon Bell went with Wartman-White to the doctor for support.
Wartman-White played in one half as the Nittany Lions’ starting middle linebacker in 2015 before tearing his ACL in the season-opener, again against Temple. He had surgery to repair it and spent the remainder of the year rehabbing his knee. He also missed the 2012 season with a knee injury, likewise suffered on special teams.
“He handled the setback last year really well,” said Franklin, who added that he and the team doctors didn’t originally think the most recent injury was as bad as it was — Wartman-White jog-limped off the field unassisted after the fact.
“We thought he was more or less scared that something happened but it really didn’t,” said the head coach. “Then he hopped up, looked like he actually felt good and kind of jogged around, but it didn’t play out that way obviously.
“He’s got another setback in front of him.”
Wartman-White is eligible to apply for a sixth year of play, but Franklin did not elaborate when asked if that had been discussed.
Bell and starter Jason Cabinda also missed the game due to injury, meaning Penn State was without all three of its starting linebackers by the end of the first half last week in a 34-27 win against Temple. Their status is unknown for Saturday, as the team prepares for No. 4 Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Stepping up behind Bell, Cabinda and Wartman-White were sophomores Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper, and former walk-on redshirt junior Brandon Smith, who recorded his eight tackles for the Nittany Lions on Saturday.
Smith, a Winfield, Pa., native who is studying to be a doctor, chose to walk on to the Penn State football team over Penn and hardly took any snaps with the first team defense prior to stepping onto the field last weekend.
Smith is a player Franklin said Tuesday did not get enough credit for his “deceptive” athleticism.
“As far as measurable things, I’m pretty average,” the linebacker laughed in response. “But I think I’m able to use what I do have well. … As far as determination, drive and just fighting away, that’s something I can control when I’m playing. I just try to take full advantage of that, and whether that’s noticed or not, I can’t control that.”
Koa Farmer, a running back in high school and current redshirt sophomore who has spent time at both safety and on kick and punt return, will shift over to linebacker to help with depth issues.
“We think his best position long-term is an outside linebacker,” said Franklin. “He’s a guy that’s had to fight to keep his weight down. At one point I think he was as high as 227 (pounds) playing the safety. I think now he’s around 222, somewhere in that range. But genetics are telling him one thing.
“I know he’s excited about the opportunity. But he does, he has a lot of potential. But there is a transformation that has to happen from going in and being basically a running back in high school to a defensive player. Some guys pick those things up faster than others.”
Freshman Cam Brown may also contribute later in the year as he has gotten the “green light” from the staff — meaning they will not redshirt him. Former running back Johnathan Thomas also made the move to linebacker this offseason.