Can you say, “Linebacker Who?”
For a position that’s synonymous with greatness at Penn State, even the most fervent fans have to admit that this year’s linebacking corps is a mystery.
Aside from Glenn Carson, who started all 12 games in the middle last season, and Mike Hull, a reserve who saw extended action, the rest of the linebacking unit has little time against opposing offenses.
The lack of experience is why coach Bill O’Brien has expressed some concern about his team’s depth at the school’s signature position.
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So who are these mystery men?
Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman looks to have the final starting spot locked up. Wartman was one of just six true freshmen to see action last season, but suffered a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff against Virginia in the second game. He took a medical redshirt, but worked his way back to participate in spring drills.
While he appears destined to play alongside Carson and Hull, Wartman isn’t paying attention to the depth chart.
“Honestly, I’m not really the starting linebacker, yet,” said Wartman, a 6-foot-1, 241-pounder from Philadelphia. “I haven’t started one game so I don’t know how it feels. Right now, I’m just worried about working hard for my team.”
Wartman said he’s definitely a better player than last fall. “I improved a lot,” Wartman said. “I got stronger, faster and bigger. I got a smarter watching film.”
Linebacker coach Ron Vanderlinden agrees. “I think the first three are going to be as good as what our expectations have been here at Penn State,” he said of the three starters.
After those guys, well that’s another question.
“It’s a work in progress,” Vanderlinden said. “We’re still developing.”
Ben Kline, Gary Wooten and Brandon Bell are the three names that came up most often during Thursday’s Media Day at Beaver Stadium.
Kline saw limited action last season and had shoulder surgery in the offseason. O’Brien and his medical staff are keeping a close watch on Kline’s shoulder this fall. Kline did not participate in practice on Thursday.
Vanderlinden is high on Kline, who has the versatility to play all three positions.
“We’re all working hard and doing whatever we can to help the team,” said the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Kline, who referred all questions about his health to O’Brien. “It goes the same for me. I’m working hard every day, finding my role and doing whatever coach O’Brien asks me to do.”
Wooten, a 6-foot-2, 238-pound redshirt freshman, backs up Carson in the middle. He’s a long way from Miami and the football crazed South.
“It was a last-minute choice,” Wooten said of coming to Penn State. “A school let me down and Penn State gave me a call and took me in. It’s nice here. I like it a lot.”
Wooten is harnessing raw talent.
“Gary has increased his football IQ,” Vanderlinden. “He’s more assertive than he was.”
And when Wooten is assertive, he can make opponents pay.
“Gary Wooten is a strong guy who is ready to play and willing to lay some wood on somebody,” Wartman said.
Bell, a 6-foot-1, 226-pound true freshman from New Jersey, has impressed the Penn State coaches in limited practice time.
“He’s off to a good start,” Vanderlinden said. “I’m encouraged. It’s just practice No. 3, so we still have a long way to go.”
Vanderlinden said every minute of practice time is important this fall.
“There’s a multitude of other players that we’re trying to sort through,” he said. “ It’s really way too early. We’re going to have to bring them along and develop them as we go.”
Of course, the nature of the game may not allow that development to happen. Just last season, starters Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges missed games with injuries.
“That’s football everywhere where one or two plays can change things significantly,” Vanderlinden said. “We are constantly planning for ‘what-ifs.’ You’re constantly tinkering with depth, personnel and schemes. It’s really an ongoing process.”
Given the team’s depth in the secondary, O’Brien has hinted that he’d consider moving safeties Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Adrian Amos to linebacker if needed.
Wartman, who along with Wooten is playing on four special teams units, says he’s confident in the depth of the linebacking corps if injuries occur.
“We’re just worried about being better for our team,” Wartman said. “We’re all a bunch of tough guys. If anyone goes down, we know the next guy is ready to step up.”
“Whenever I get my chance, I’ll do my part,” added Wooten, who said he has learned much from Carson. “I’m prepared.”
And, being prepared is part of the job at a place known especially for one position.
“As a team and as a linebacking unit, we take a lot of pride in everything we do,” Kline said. “We take the Penn State football and the Linebacker U reputation very seriously. We work hard and try to win every day and get better and better.
“The expectations are the same — from the best player on the team to the guys that don’t see the field. We all know our roles and what we need to do.”