Fall camp is days away — and soon enough, Penn State’s 2018 campaign will be, too.
With camp starting Friday, there are plenty of questions surrounding this year’s Nittany Lions. But we’ve narrowed down a list of five and will address one each day leading up to Penn State’s first practice.
On Monday, we analyzed Miles Sanders’ ability to replace Saquon Barkley. Now, it’s time for another obvious one:
What’s going on at linebacker?
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Well, a lot. More than any position room in the Lasch Football Building, there are moving parts at linebacker.
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry will have his hands full over the next month. The decision he and James Franklin make at MIKE will have ripple effects throughout the defense and could alter Penn State’s 2018 season.
Let’s break down the Nittany Lions’ current situation with a closer look at old faces, new faces and the question mark.
Koa Farmer ought to be the leader in the position room. Farmer, a 15-game starter, was a fixture at SAM linebacker in 2017. Since his early days as a safety, the California native has bulked up to 236 pounds, so a move to the middle is possible. He did say in the spring that he was learning all three linebacker positions. But expect Farmer, who had 5.5 tackles for loss last year, to stay in that opportunistic SAM role.
Cam Brown, considered a youngster the past two years, has veteran experience. Now a junior, Brown started twice as a true freshman and recorded 64 tackles in 24 appearances in 2016 and 2017 combined. Brown should start; it’s just a matter of where. Surprisingly, he worked primarily at MIKE linebacker in the spring. But when asked about middle linebackers in Chicago, Franklin didn’t mention Brown in the laundry list of names he rattled off.
The head coach did, however, rave about Jan Johnson. The former Penn State wrestler has never started for Penn State — but Franklin called the redshirt junior “an interesting piece to the puzzle.”
“I think Jan Johnson has had a really good offseason,” Franklin added. “He’s very respected in our program from our strength staff, coaching staff and players. He’s really improved his athleticism. This is probably the first time he’s been healthy for an extended period of time where he can really develop and grow. He’s freakishly intelligent. He asks tough questions and challenges his coaches and teammates.”
Redshirt junior Jarvis Miller and senior Jake Cooper will also compete for time.
Micah Parsons, Jesse Luketa, Charlie Katshir, Ellis Brooks and Dae’Lun Darien are all new in their own right. The first three are true freshmen; Parsons and Luketa enrolled in January, while Katshir joined the program a month ago. Brooks is a redshirt freshman, and Darien is a converted wide receiver.
Parsons is undoubtedly the biggest name of the bunch. This spring, it became clear to Franklin and the staff that the “roller-coaster” recruiting process was worth it to bring a player of Parsons’ caliber to Happy Valley. But where does the five-star fit in 2018? Parsons started his Penn State career at MIKE and later transitioned to outside linebacker. Whether he’s starting or not, Parsons’ speed off the edge can and should make an impact.
Meanwhile, Luketa and Brooks could play “multiple positions,” Franklin said. Like Parsons, Luketa turned heads this spring, and Brooks is listed as the starting middle linebacker in Phil Steele’s preview magazine, for what it’s worth.
The question mark
Oddly enough, Penn State’s starting middle linebacker might not be on the roster.
Rumors have swirled that Manny Bowen — who was dismissed from the program in December — might return. And if that happens, he will almost certainly man the MIKE position.
As a refresher, Bowen was suspended for the Rose Bowl for an unspecified violation of team rules, and then suspended again for the final three regular-season games before being kicked off the team with Irvin Charles prior to the Fiesta Bowl. When asked about Bowen’s possible return, Franklin said, “We don’t live in a world of rumors and innuendos. If the roster changes, it changes.” As of Tuesday, it hasn’t.
But if it does, Bowen’s presence would clear up the linebacker situation. Franklin said they need their MIKE in place before figuring out the starting WILL and SAM spots, and that likely won’t happen until later in fall camp.
Right now, there isn’t a lot of clarity. But unlike the Sanders-Barkley replacement question, this linebacker issue should have answers in the coming weeks.
“There’s some flexibility that factors in there,” Franklin said. “We’ll see how it plays out.”