Lion Wartman Adjusts to Life in the Middle

The veteran linebacker has taken over play-calling duties for the Penn State defense. But it is not clear if you will see him in the Blue-White Game.

The line keeps moving at Linebacker U. Mike Hull steps aside, and now here comes Nyeem Wartman, an outside 'backer for Penn State last season but now the man in the middle, playing the spot Hull played so well in 2014.

The goal, it appears, is not to be Hull, the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year last season. The goal is more realistic, more Stuart Smalley-esque -- to be the best Nyeem Wartman he can be.

As he put it during a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning, he wants to “play with a confidence I never had before -- like a great confidence.”

“I gained a lot of confidence last season,” he said. “I want to play with a confidence where now it's just knowing I can be the person I think I can be.”

Because he's good enough, he's smart enough and doggone it, people seem to like him. Brandon Bell, who returns at field 'backer for the Lions, said Wartman is a “perfect fit” in the middle, which he has played almost exclusively in spring practice.

And last season defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was effusive in his praise of Wartman.

“If Mike Hull's an A-plus in football intelligence, Nyeem Wartman's an A,” Shoop said at one point, adding that Warman played the weak side better than anybody had in the four seasons he had been working alongside co-coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry.

Wartman finished the season with 75 tackles, second on the team to Hull's conference-leading total of 140. He was an integral part of a defense that finished second in the nation in yardage allowed (278.7 per game) and pass efficiency (101.14 rating), third against the rush (100.5), seventh in points allowed (18.6) and ninth in passing yardage allowed (178.2).

He liked playing the weak side -- it was always nice, he said, to be lurking in the quarterback's blind spot -- but sees the merits of playing in the middle as well.

“You can just control the defense, how you're the guy setting everybody up,” he said. “I just like the liberty of that.”

There are caveats, to be sure. The first is Wartman's health at present. Coach James Franklin told reporters last Saturday that he has been slowed by an unspecified injury, which leaves his status for Saturday's Blue-White Game “to be announced,” according to Wartman.

Then there are the finer points of his new position, like communication.

“There's a certain way I call the defense,” he said. “Some of the D-linemen like me calling it a certain way, the way Mike Hull called it. When I was calling it, they understood me, but they didn't really like it. It was unnatural to them.”

Working in Wartman's favor are his size -- at 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds, the rising redshirt junior is slightly bigger than Hull -- and the fact that he and his teammates have far greater familiarity with Franklin and Co. than they did last spring.

“You can feel the team chemistry is a lot higher than it was last year,” Wartman said. “Now we're out here just to play ball. We don't have to worry about breaking down the wall barrier, to get to know the coaches. We can just play football and get better as a team.”

This spring, he added, “There's a lot more energy in practice, and there's a lot less confusion. Practices are lot smoother and more efficient.”

There are plenty of good pieces around Wartman, too. Bell, for instance, had 47 stops last season, and the rising junior said Tuesday he is now “focusing on being a bigger part of the defense -- still playing my role and doing what I can do, but just trying to make a bigger impact on the game and as far as the defense itself.”

For what it's worth, he has also switched from No. 26 to No. 11. Said he always wanted that jersey number, and that he is well aware it was once worn by All-American LaVar Arrington

No biggie to Bell, though.

“I wouldn't say any (added) pressure,” he said. “I still have the same amount of pressure I put on myself to be a player, but that's no added pressure. I do recognize the player that wore the number before me, but I think it's just a number at the end of the day.”

Wartman, who called Bell his “brother,” marvels at his instincts -- “He can do an assignment wrong but still make a great play,” he said -- and appreciates the bond they've formed.

“We've been here for three years together -- at one point competing with each other, at the next point playing alongside each other,” Wartman said. “Me and him have been through thick and thin, and I love it.”

Manning the weak side will likely be Jason Cabinda, who as a freshman last season backed up Wartman.

“It's like the warrior going to battle,” he said. “His second is right next to him.”

Behind Wartman are Ben Kline (“a team-first guy,” he said) and Gary Wooten. In front of him are two excellent tackles, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson.

“Those guys get off blocks so easy,” Wartman said, “so sometimes … you want to make a play in practice, and you get a little jealous. I guess the word is 'jealous,' because they get off blocks so fast and make all the plays, right in front of you. You're looking like, 'Man, I wanted to make that play.' ”

It adds up to a pretty potent potion, in Wartman's estimation.

“Coach Shoop holds us to a high standard, and we hold ourselves to a high standard,” he said. “Coach Shoop is a phenomenal coordinator, and if we just execute the way he wants us, I feel like we can do the same thing as last year, even better, because there's areas where we can improve from last year. We were a good defense, but we definitely have weaknesses that weren't exposed as often as they could have been.”

The goal, then, is not to become one himself -- to be the best he can be.

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