During preseason camp, there was plenty of talk about Penn State reloading along the defensive line. The Nittany Lions lost three starting D-linemen who were taken in the NFL Draft and a key backup who signed with an NFL team as a free agent.
But an important part of the plan was for an extremely experienced starting linebacker corps to provide some margin of error for the largely inexperienced defensive linemen. Indeed, PSU began the season with two seniors (Nyeem Wartman-White and Brandon Bell) and a junior (Jason Cabinda) manning the three starting LB spots.
The wrench came when all three of the veterans were lost to undisclosed injuries — Cabinda after one game, and Bell and Wartman-White (who is out for the season) after two games. Injuries to key reserves have now made the starting linebacker group even younger and less experienced than the D-line.
Against Maryland this week, the Lions will likely start sophomore Manny Bowen at Mike, true freshman Cameron Brown at Will and sophomore Koa Farmer at Sam. Brown began the season in a redshirt and Farmer was a safety for the first month of the season.
The trickle-down effect has forced the defensive line to grow up quickly. But, heading into this week’s homecoming game vs. 4-0 Maryland at Beaver Stadium, D-line coach Sean Spencer is not looking for any sympathy.
“We were losing the four NFL guys — three guys drafted and one a free agent — but you look up and you see the linebacker corps that’s really experienced,” Spencer said on a conference call with beat writers Thursday. “All of a sudden the injuries occur and you say, ‘Oh boy, we’ve got to get ready.’
“But the thing I tell those guys and I preach to them is that no one really cares about our injury situation,” he added. “…The expectation is for us to go out there as if this team is completely intact, and that can’t be our Achilles’ heel at all.”
Spencer is rotating as many as 10 different defensive linemen this season. There have been some growing pains, as PSU currently ranks 105th in the nation in rushing defense (allowing 216.6 yards per game). But the unit showed progress late in last week’s overtime win over Minnesota, actually forcing the Gophers to lose yards in the extra session.
As far as Spencer is concerned, playing sound fundamental ball is the key for his unit now.
“It’s not about making plays,” he said. “It’s about being gap accountable. You want them to be explosive to make plays and things like that. But if we’re shoring up our gaps and doing a great job of reading our keys, it’s gonna make it a lot easier for the younger linebackers.
“In the past, if you got out of a gap, Nyeem might make up for it — or Cabinda or Bell,” he added. “But now, we’ve got to be even more gap accountable. It’s good. It made those guys grow up fast.”
Maryland rolls into Happy Valley ranked sixth in the nation in rushing offense, averaging an even 300 yards per game. And Spencer knows the Terps are looking to run wild at Beaver Stadium.
“Like I said, no one cares that we’ve had those injuries,” he said. “We’ve just got to go with the hand we’re dealt.”
You can hear Spencer’s entire media conference call in our podcast above.
Other FOS podcasts are available for download from the iTunes store below.