Before this Penn State football season began, Bill O’Brien had concerns about his team’s depth at linebacker.
Those worries have been compounded by nagging injuries that have plagued nearly every member of the unit this fall. A season-ending injury to junior Ben Kline is the most recent setback for the group.
Kline, who was in and out of the lineup with shoulder issues following offseason shoulder surgery, tore a pectoral muscle on the second play of the game against Minnesota on Saturday.
Kline finished the game, but will miss the remainder of the season. He’s due for surgery to repair the chest muscle in the coming days, O’Brien said. Kline will also require another shoulder surgery sometime in the offseason.
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O’Brien sat down with Kline on Monday and made it clear he has confidence Kline will be able to rehab and return as a healthy, key contributor next season.
Kline redshirted in 2011 and has two years of eligibility remaining.
“We’re going to miss him,” O’Brien said. “I think with the surgical procedures that will take place, I think number one he can definitely come back from those. I really do. I think a lot of that has to do with the rehab and things. But I know, knowing Ben Kline, I know he’s going to rehab.”
Kline earned his first career starts in back-to-back games against Illinois and Minnesota, and is also one of Penn State’s brightest players maintaining a 4.0 GPA. His loss frees up more playing time for players who had fallen behind him on recent depth charts.
Redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman, senior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and true freshman Brandon Bell have all seen time at outside linebacker this season and will use the next few days of practice to vie for more playing time vacated by Kline.
But Obeng-Agyapong, who transitioned from safety, and Wartman have both played through shoulder injuries, too. Wartman started four games on the outside at the beginning of the season, three of which for Mike Hull who was injured in the season opener. Wartman hasn’t started since the Ohio State game and played sparingly behind Kline in the past two games.
“Nyeem’s played good at times this year and other times hasn’t played so good,” O’Brien said. “He’s made plays for us and other times he’s missed plays. Just like any young player would do. ... He’s a guy that’s only going to get better.”
Obeng-Agyapong has started four games, but hasn’t since the Indiana game. Middle linebacker Glenn Carson has been a steady presence and leads the team with 72 tackles. Hull has 56 while Obeng-Agyapong is third among linebackers with 32. Wartman has made 27 while Bell has nine, primarily in mop-up duty.
Meanwhile, Penn State avoided a serious injury to Hull, who appeared to injure his right leg in the first quarter of the Minnesota game. Hull, who had hurt his right knee against Syracuse, was bent backward as Minnesota fullback Mike Henry landed on the back of his legs as Hull was driven backward by a surging pile.
Hull missed just three plays as trainers taped him up, adjusted his knee brace and gave him some medicine to curtail the pain. He returned to lead the team with nine tackles. He added a tackle for loss to diffuse Minnesota’s first offensive play of the second half to set the tone for a scoreless, two-quarter stretch.
“I was wearing a knee brace and it was my injured knee already, so I think that kind of saved me,” Hull said. “I think there was a little bit of luck in there, too. It hurt for about five or 10 minutes, but after that it was pretty much good.”
Penn State is also dealing with an injury to wide receiver Allen Robinson. O’Brien said the junior wide receiver has “a bit of a shoulder issue” but will likely play on Saturday when Penn State hosts Purdue at Beaver Stadium at noon.
Robinson was hit after catching a screen pass and received treatment on the sideline. He returned to the game for the fourth quarter, when he logged two more catches.
“I think that injuries are a part of the game and I think every team out there has to deal with injuries, that’s the way it goes, especially this time of year,” O’Brien said.