On Monday afternoon, Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda tweeted a gif that generated some buzz — it was of comedian Dave Chappelle walking outside and yelling, “Free!”
Media and fans alike, based on the tweet, formed the same question: could the injured linebacker be back this weekend against No. 2 Ohio State?
It’s a possibility.
Penn State head coach James Franklin said Cabinda, as well as fellow linebackers Brandon Bell and Jake Cooper, could return to the field on Saturday for the first time in weeks.
But Franklin preached proceeding with caution.
“We’re excited to have a possibility of having them back,” Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference. “But you also have to say, these guys haven’t played. ... To think they’re going to jump back into it and be the players they were before they left, I don’t think that’s realistic.
“We need to make sure as coaches as well as players that we remember that.”
Cabinda, a junior, has missed the last five games after making 11 tackles in the season opener against Kent State. He showed up to Heinz Field a week later with a cast on his left arm.
Bell, a senior, started the first two games of the season before picking up an unspecified injury against Pittsburgh, being held out of every game since.
And Cooper, a sophomore backup before the season thrust into a starting role after Bell’s knock, missed Penn State’s most recent game, a 38-14 Homecoming win over Maryland.
With leader Nyeem Wartman-White and fourth-stringer Jan Johnson both lost for the season, the Penn State linebacking corps has been in desperation mode. Former walk-on Brandon Smith, true freshman Cam Brown, and sophomore Manny Bowen have been starting in their stead, but it’d be a huge boost to the unit to have one, two or all three of Cabinda, Bell and Cooper back in action.
But first, they’d actually have to practice — something none of them have done since picking up their respective injuries.
Then, the trio would have to be cleared by doctors.
“We’ll work those guys in, and we’ll see if they’re ready to go if the doctors clear them,” Franklin said. “That would be nice. It’d be a nice bonus.”
Penn State cornerback Grant Haley concurred.
Haley, who missed a couple games himself this year and returned Oct. 1 against Minnesota, said the entire defense knows the importance of Cabinda, Bell and Cooper to the unit.
“Even though they haven’t been on the field with us, they’ve been on the field with us by teaching the younger guys,” Haley noted. “Having those guys back would be excellent.”
The junior, when asked about how long it takes a player to get back in the flow of playing after injury, said it’s a person-to-person situation.
“It might take a half or might take a quarter,” Haley said. “But those are experienced guys. They should get back in the swing of things when they come back.”
Gillikin all good
While the return of Penn State’s linebackers remains somewhat up in the air, Franklin fully expects one of his best 2016 performers to come back from injury.
True freshman punter Blake Gillikin, who sustained a hamstring injury the week leading up to the Maryland game which limited him against the Terrapins, will be a factor when Ohio State visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
“That shouldn’t be anything moving forward,” Frankin said of Gillikin’s injury. “As we all know, he’s been a weapon for us this year, so we need him back full speed.”
In six games this season, the Georgia native has averaged 42.3 yards per punt — good for 43rd in the country and sixth-best nationally among freshmen punters.
Defensive tackle switch
While redshirt freshman Kevin Givens has started the first six games of the season at defensive tackle alongside Parker Cothren, the Nittany Lions have made a slight alteration to the depth chart.
Redshirt junior Curtis Cothran, who missed the first four games of the year and the first half of the Maryland game due to a targeting call the week prior, has replaced Givens as the starting defensive tackle.
Franklin said it’s not a big deal, though.
“We’re really, really happy with Kevin and impressed with Kevin,” the coach said. “We think Curtis is doing some nice things for us, as well. We have three guys there, Curtis, (Antoine White) and Kevin that are all playing really well.”
Franklin noted that the trio will be rotated in-and-out. Givens has three tackles for loss this season (1.5 sacks), while White also has 1.5 sacks.
Franklin continued, “We just feel like Curtis has earned the opportunity to step up there and be the starter.”