Jason Cabinda’s Fiesta Bowl encore ought to be appreciated by Penn State fans because come Sunday morning — when the Nittany Lions are back in State College and the 2017 season is behind them — there will be a significant hole in the middle of Brent Pry’s defense.
Cabinda’s 35 starts, 350 tackles and immeasurable leadership will be missed in 2018, even more so now that starting linebacker Manny Bowen is no longer with the program. Bowen — who still needs “a lot of development to reach his potential,” per Pry — was kicked off the team Tuesday.
So where do the Nittany Lions go from here, especially considering fifth-year senior Brandon Smith is also set to play his last game Saturday? Who will fill the shoes left behind by Cabinda?
Well, the Nittany Lions don’t have one clear answer. But Penn State’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach is trying to stay optimistic.
“It’s a challenge to replace someone like Jason,” Pry said Wednesday. “But we’ve recruited at a high level, and I’m excited about the candidates and pool we have to draw from.”
And by the sounds of it, all options will be exhausted.
Redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks is a natural fit, Cam Brown has the athleticism to move inside from outside linebacker, and incoming five-star talent Micah Parsons will start off at the “Mike” position. Penn State also welcomed Jesse Luketa and Nick Tarburton on signing day, both of whom will be enrolling early. Jan Johnson has experience starting at Michigan last year, and Jake Cooper will be around, too.
Any of the above could start at middle linebacker when Penn State opens the 2018 season against Appalachian State.
“I even told Koa (Farmer), ‘Don’t be surprised, buddy,’” Pry said. “His eyes got kinda big, but Koa could go through there.”
Farmer — a rising redshirt senior who started all 12 games at “Sam” linebacker this year — would be an intriguing choice. Parsons, a 6-foot-3 nightmare, is capable of playing anywhere on the front-seven. Don’t count out Luketa or Tarburton, either.
But judging by Penn State’s seniors, the odds-on favorites to land the starting role is Brown or Brooks.
Cabinda himself vouched for Brown, a 6-foot-5 sophomore with a 227-pound frame. Some may be scared off by Brown’s height and the fact that he looks more like an edge pass-rusher than a typical middle linebacker. But Cabinda doesn’t see that height as a hindrance.
“You look at Brian Urlacher, and he’s 6-foot-4,” Cabinda said with a grin. “I think Cam Brown is really going to take another step next year. No doubt about it.”
Cabinda heaped praise on Brooks, too — a four-star linebacker who chose Penn State late in last year’s recruiting process. The senior said Brooks, a Corps of Cadets first lieutenant at Benedictine College Preparatory school in Virginia, reminds him a bit of himself from a leadership perspective.
Senior cornerback Grant Haley sees it, too.
“They have their own presence when they come in the room,” Haley said. “Ever since he came in, we knew who Jason was just by the way he talked and carried himself. I see similar things in Ellis, as well. I’m excited for him, and I think he’s going to be a great leader. That’s the most important thing on and off the field.”
Added senior safety Marcus Allen: “I see a lot of leadership characteristics from Ellis Brooks. He’s mature for his age. I believe he’ll have a great chance, great opportunity to fill that role. But I’m not the coach.”
The coach, Pry, is going to have one heck of a decision to make.
For three years now, Penn State has been spoiled by stability at the defensive position where it’s needed most. Calling out plays, identifying offensive wrinkles and making sure everyone is in place, Cabinda has been the heartbeat of Pry’s unit.
“The expectation and the standard is incredibly high,” Pry said of Penn State’s “Linebacker U” mantra. “That's the culture. That's the climate. You never know who the next (Paul) Posluszny is.”
And after Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, it will be up to Pry to find him.