Penn State’s group of linebackers hasn’t been perfect, but defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Thursday afternoon that he’s pleased with their performance so far.
Although he praised the pass-coverage potential of his linebackers, he said the primary area of improvement needs to come on the blitz. Those aggressive plays simply need to be more effective.
“We’re blitzing better, but I think we got to be a little bit more of a factor when we’re sending those guys on that side of the line of scrimmage,” he said. “That’s been a key for us over the last two years and I think, each of the guys there needs to see improvement. As often as we send them, it needs to mean something.”
Pry addressed and evaluated each of the starters Thursday. Here’s how it broke down:
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MLB Jan Johnson, redshirt junior
Stats: 29 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception
Earlier in the week, fellow linebacker Cam Brown called Johnson “the biggest surprise” of the position group because of his deceptive athleticism. Pry didn’t seem to disagree.
Middle linebacker was one of the Nittany Lions’ biggest question marks of the offseason. And Johnson has been solid so far, leading the team in tackles and watching his snap count increase as the season progresses.
“Jan’s done a nice job for us; probably exceeded my expectations,” Pry said. “I mean, I’ve been a Jan Johnson fan for a while, but he’s really playing well.”
Pry said Johnson was not on the field on Ohio State’s game-winning drive because the walk-on usually isn’t on the field on third down or on subpackages. (Pry praised several of Johnson’s teammates for defending the pass but left out Johnson.)
“But each week his snaps are growing,” Pry added. “There’s more and more trust, and one of the jobs that we have as coaches is to minimize players’ liabilities and maximize their assets, and I think we’ve done a nice job of that with Jan, where he’s playing winning football for us doing what he’s doing right now.
“He’s embraced it, he’s maximized that, and anyone who tackles a role and does a nice job, you re-evaluate and say, ‘Can their role grow?’ And that’s kind of where things are with Jan.”
WILL Cam Brown, junior
Stats: 24 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 pass breakups, 2 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble
Right before the Illinois game, when talking about finding an “eraser” on defense, James Franklin said Brown was Penn State’s closest thing at his position group. “We’ll probably need a little more consistently out of him,” Franklin added.
Brown is playing the best football of anyone right now at linebacker. And that’s not a huge surprise. Even before the season, Franklin praised him and said he was the linebacker who really separated himself.
Pry said Thursday he was especially impressed with Brown’s last performance.
“Cam Brown has gotten better each week and probably played his best game (last) Saturday,” Pry said. “He’s playing physical, helps playing reckless. When you have a 6-5 guy that’s running by people and being physical, he’s a factor in the game. And I think he did that for us.”
Brown wants to be even more physical. He said he would like to add some weight to his frame, as he’s currently between 220 and 225 pounds. And the main advice he’s received? Just eat more.
“I get lazy sometimes,” Brown said, smiling. “I feel like I’d rather sleep than stay up and stuff my face.”
He’s about 20 pounds heavier than he was when he first arrived as a freshman. He doesn’t want to gain too much — Pry likes how Brown matches up with running backs and tight ends out of the backfield — but he believes that’s one way to elevate his game.
SAM Micah Parsons, freshman
Stats: 23 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 2 QB Hurries
As a true freshman who played defensive end in high school, some growing pains were expected for Parsons. But, overall, it’s hard not to be impressed by his development.
He’s seen an increased role each week and essentially already has a 50/50 split at the position with Koa Farmer.
“I think he’s progressed well,” Pry said. “I’m pleased with his development at this point. ... He’s been able to play fast. He’s been able to make plays. He’s made his fair share of mistakes — he’s had some growing pains that should be expected — but, at the same time, each week he gets better and eliminates more and more of the negative plays.”
Pry also complimented his ability on the edge. That’s one of the main strengths of Parsons’ game.
“He’s got to use that a little bit more as part of his game,” Pry added, “and we got to do some things to help him. I’m not even talking about rushing the quarterback; he’s an edge guy that’s got good instincts, and just got to speed that up a little bit and use what he does well a little bit more.”
Parsons is incredibly athletic, and he has the quickness to make up for a misread. He makes a lot of plays that can’t be fully appreciated unless you’re watching frame by frame.
SAM Koa Farmer, redshirt senior
Stats: 18 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss
As Parsons’ reps increase, Farmer’s decrease.
It’s no secret that Farmer’s diminishing role is as much a product of Parsons’ success as it is Farmer’s struggles. Franklin said during spring camp that Farmer needed to step up, and the staff’s thoughts on Farmer are made more evident by what they don’t say — rather than what they do.
When directly asked about Brown and Farmer, Pry commented on Brown but then answered around Farmer. He praised Brown and Farmer as a group but didn’t say anything individually about the ‘backer. Franklin called Brown the linebackers’ best bet as an “eraser” and said in August that Brown was the one who differentiated himself in camp.
Nothing was said about Farmer.
Maybe that’s too much between-the-line reading, but the fact is Parsons is the future. And Farmer, the former safety and pass-coverage ‘backer, is the past. Here’s what Farmer said when asked Week 2 about Parsons’ increased role at his position:
“I guess it just brings the competition up,” he said. “I wouldn’t want it any other way, to be honest. I think people are settled at a certain position and then kind of taking everything for granted, and I think that has to bring the potential out of an individual. As long as I’m getting better each week, reaching my highest potential of play in my game, that’s all that matters.”