In Brent Pry's eyes, high school linebackers pick Penn State for the opportunity that lies ahead.
The competition at middle linebacker is wide-open with candidates eager to become the heartbeat of Penn State's defense. And the Nittany Lions' defensive coordinator is pleased watching it unfold.
"At that vaunted 'Mike' position, they all want to that guy. Who doesn't really?" Pry told the CDT, sitting in his dimly-lit office on an early April afternoon. "If you came to Linebacker U, you want to be that guy. You want to be the 'Mike' that's going to run the show and call the shots and be the man."
As Pry pondered the near and distant future, the play-caller and linebackers coach didn't have one particular player in mind to fill Jason Cabinda's vacancy. At this stage — with summer and fall camp still to go — Pry is fine with that. Everyone is in the mix at 'Mike.'
Redshirt juniors Jan Johnson and Jarvis Miller and redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks are "hungry for their opportunity." True freshman phenom Micah Parsons has primarily worked at 'Will' linebacker, but could slide back inside. Koa Farmer and Cam Brown are Penn State's projected starters at outside linebacker, but Pry wants the former to master all three positions for the sake of flexibility.
Johnson filled in at Michigan in 2016 — but outside of that, there's little to no experience at 'Mike' in that group. Whoever starts on Sept. 1 will be in uncharted waters.
That's why, for now, Pry is keeping things simple. He's not looking to name a starting middle linebacker by the Blue-White Game. The coordinator just wants to see progress.
"It's still early," Pry said. "If you feed 'em and give 'em too much too early, it stunts their growth. We grow 'em from the ground up mentally, tell 'em what they need to know, and then from there as they gain an understanding, you give them more and more. What we can do right now is tailored a little bit to make sure we don't screw these guys up."
Realistically, the goal is for a reliable option or two to emerge by fall camp.
The thought of not having a starter nailed down until August may concern Penn State fans. But it takes time to develop the confidence and command necessary to thrive at 'Mike.' Pry said by the time Cabinda was a senior, he "could say the wrong thing and all 11 would do it 110 miles per hour."
Now finding a replacement for Cabinda, Pry is looking for someone who, one day, can grow into that authoritative role.
Whether it ends up being Johnson, Miller, Brooks or Parsons, the linebackers coach is confident in what he is working with.
"Are they going to be Jason Cabinda their first year doing it? That's hard," Pry said. "But can they be a 'Mike' that we can win the league with? Yeah, I think so."