Jason Cabinda isn’t quite used to having a shadow.
The young middle linebacker, just a sophomore when he stepped into a big-time starting role after a torn ACL sidelined teammate Nyeem Wartman-White for the season, spent the entirety of 2015 in “transition mode,” thrust into a new position and a lot of pressure.
Now, another new experience is underway for Cabinda. He’s getting pushed by competition and a maturing depth chart — specifically, by sophomore Jake Cooper.
“It’s an interesting perspective,” said Cabinda. “Before, it would just be me and Nyeem keeping up with each other in camp so that I could learn the playbook, and now it’s Coop buggin’ me to learn the playbook.”
Cooper, whose first collegiate start came in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia and who put on 10 pounds of muscle this spring, is nipping at the heels of the ‘backers in front of him and eager to see some time on the field this season.
But where that will be is fluid.
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry is a bit of a wild card in terms of scheme, now even more so in the second tier due to the fact that the unit is a bit thin.
Pry wants to rotate Wartman-White, Brandon Bell, Cabinda, Cooper and Manny Bowen throughout most of the spots in the second tier — orbiting around the Mike spot, as needed. While Bell and Cooper can both play Mike if the defense should call for it, the main battle is between Cabinda and Wartman-White.
“It is going to ultimately be an important decision who lines up at Mike and commands the defense,” said Pry. “You go back to 2014 and the job that Mike Hull did, and that’s what we’re looking for. That’s kind of the model. A guy that can do what Mike (Hull) did for us.
“Each year it’s a little bit different. Guys bring different qualities to the table as far as strengths. Jason’s got some strengths that you just don’t find everywhere in his leadership, his command, his confidence, his knowledge of the game. The awesome thing in the room is that Nyeem’s got a lot of those same qualities. So it is an important decision. I think there will be some separation, some delineation between those guys in what takes place.”
Cooper is training to be versatile at the Mike and the Will — he will back up either Wartman-White or Cabinda in the middle, and be a big contributor on the weak side.
“I’ll take whatever opportunity I can get,” he said. “Being able to play two positions helps out the team as well, it gives us a bit more breathing room depth-wise. If you have a guys who can play two spots, wherever help is needed you can put him in that role. I think, for the most part, every guy here plays two spots.”
And Bowen is Bell’s “shadow” at Sam but is also learning the Will.
“It’s definitely a learning process, coming from the field and being moved to the boundary,” Bowen said. “And then, coming from the boundary and moving to the field. Because those are two positions that really ask for a lot. So it’s going to be a transition but I’m excited to make it happen when it needs to happen, and show everybody what I can do.”
The sophomore, much like Cooper, was thrust into play much earlier than expected as injuries plagued the unit last season. He said he had originally been told he would “yellowshirt” — Penn State’s word for a player who isn’t confined to a redshirt but won’t see much time on the field — but began to be an impact player on special teams and a go-to backup at linebacker when Bell got hurt in 2016.
“Me and Coop, we came in together and we’re doing the same thing. We both are young guys who are grinding behind more experienced players and trying to see time on the field,” he said.
“We’re really excited, both of them are going to have a good camp,” said Cabinda. “I think the competition in the room is the best it’s been since I’ve been here. That’s really important.”