Penn State’s Brent Pry breaks down linebackers
Leaning back in his Beaver Stadium media room chair, letting out an audible exhale, Brent Pry briefly thought back to last spring. Linebacker, ironically, was a problem that needed solving for LBU. Youth filled the position room. Starting middle linebacker, the heart of the defense, was a spot up for grabs.
Now, though, as his relaxed body language and words proved early Saturday evening, Pry is more than just comfortable with where the position stands leaving spring camp. The defensive coordinator is confident in his linebackers — and it’s easy to see why.
“We’ve got some experience now,” Pry said after last weekend’s Blue-White Game. “I think we’ve got five guys we can win with right now.”
Three of those five — Micah Parsons, Cam Brown and Jan Johnson — should be Happy Valley household names by now. Parsons, a consensus freshman All-American after leading the Nittany Lions in tackles (83), played first-team snaps while starting only once at WILL in 2018. Johnson filled in at middle linebacker for departed captain Jason Cabinda and tallied 72 tackles, the second-most on the team. And Brown emerged as a lengthy, disruptive presence both off the edge and dropping into coverage, starting 12 of 13 games at SAM.
Barring injury, those three will be Penn State’s starting linebackers in 2019. Pry said he’s “obviously super excited” about the trio, and Brown feels the same way.
“With me, Jan and Micah, the confidence is through the roof right now,” Brown said. “We know what we’re doing. We have that chemistry right now. We know when we’re bumping, sliding, hiding, when we’re not. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
Added Pry: “I really like that threesome.”
But Pry believes Penn State’s potential at linebacker goes beyond Parsons, Brown and Johnson. The playcaller singled out redshirt sophomore Ellis Brooks and sophomore Jesse Luketa, rounding out the “five guys we can win with.” Brooks — the No. 13 inside linebacker in the 2017 recruiting cycle — appeared in all 13 games last season, making 30 stops as Johnson’s primary backup. Luketa — a four-star prospect and the linchpin of Penn State’s 2018 class — was one of eight true freshmen to play and not redshirt, mainly making an impact on special teams.
Pry said Luketa has “proven himself in a lot of ways to the staff and to his teammates,” and Brooks’ role in 2019 “is going to grow some” after a solid spring. On paper, Luketa figures to be Parsons’ backup at WILL while Brooks continues to operate behind Johnson.
But Penn State’s depth chart at linebacker might not be that cut and dried. Pry said Brown could play any of three positions — WILL, SAM or MIKE — if need be. Parsons also said on a conference call last week that he has taken reps at SAM, just to familiarize himself with the position. That versatility, Pry said, helps when there are backups pushing for (and earning) time.
“I explained to those guys last week: Everyone wants to play a bunch of snaps, but even if you’re the starter, how many snaps you play is still debatable,” Pry said. “There’s still a lot going on there (to decide) how that will shake out. The competition’s been good. Nobody’s bowed down.”
That’s a positive sign for Pry, who is still looking for a sixth linebacker to step up and join the rotation.
The natural fit would be four-star 2019 signee Lance Dixon, who slots in seamlessly as Brown’s backup and understudy. At 6-foot-2, Dixon isn’t as tall as Brown. But the former safety is explosive (4.55-second 40-yard dash, 35.8-inch vertical) and earned a comparison to former All-American and Notre Dame star Jaylon Smith from 247 Sports. There’s a lot to work with.
If Dixon isn’t the sixth man, perhaps it’s Brandon Smith — the No. 1 inside linebacker in the 2019 cycle. Smith, who is working at WILL, has the height (6-foot-4) and long arms necessary to play on the outside.
Pry called both Dixon and Smith “very talented” and said they made “great strides this spring.” But the two prospects have plenty to work on over the summer and in the fall — which is understandable considering they enrolled in January.
“They both are conscientious and want to be right; that slowed them down,” Pry said. “With Micah last spring, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. In some ways, that was a good thing for him. He didn’t know when he was wrong. He just played fast and chased the ball. These guys, they’ve played linebacker and have played more at the back end, so they have a better idea of things. Sometimes your mind can tie up your feet a bit.”
Dixon and Smith aren’t alone, either, in needing work. Pry said Parsons is “trying to master his craft” and to do that, there are “some technique things he needs to improve on.” Johnson, meanwhile, is the elder statesman of the room and, as Pry dubbed him, “a graduate student of the game.” But the playcaller wants to see Johnson “be more vocal, be a commander the way that Cabinda was.”
There is time for all that growth to take place. Penn State’s season opener is still more than four months away, after all.
But by time Aug. 31 rolls around, Pry wants to see those improvements. And so do the linebackers.
“Trust me, our expectations are very high,” Brown said. “We hold ourselves to a high standard, especially with the LBU name.”