Harvey Levine/FOS

FOS BREAKDOWN: Penn State Linebackers

We take a detailed look at one of the key areas of the Nittany Lion defense as spring practice continues.

Like all college football programs, Penn State has had its share of injury issues down through the years. But it is difficult to remember any single position being crushed by injuries any more than the Nittany Lions’ starting linebacker corps was early last season. http://www.scout.com/college/penn-state/story/1767806-linebacker-u-had-a...

Within the first three games, all three veteran starters were lost for extended periods of time. Senior Nyeem Wartman-White saw his college career end due to a second ACL tear in as many years.

It got to the point where first- and second-year players — and even former walk-ons and walk-ons — were featured at all three spots.

Which pretty much stunk for the program then. But if there was a silver lining, it was that all the kids who were thrown into the proverbial fire had a chance to learn from the experience. And that is coming in handy this spring as the Lions are faced with the task of replacing 2016 standout Brandon Bell and Wartman-White.

“I've made the argument … that sometimes injuries are a blessing in disguise because it forces you to create more depth,” PSU coach James Franklin said. “Nyeem had the injury bug the last two years and even Brandon had some injuries. So the fact that we were able to get some other guys some reps — some legitimate reps and legitimate games — I think helps.”

Here is how things are shaping up at the three linebacker positions this spring:

Box Linebacker (Middle)

Harvey Levine/FOS

STARTER: Despite missing five games with a hand injury last season, Jason Cabinda (shown above) finished third on the team with 81 tackles. He was the vocal leader of the defense from the play-calling position. Now a senior, he has formally been named a captain. The staff is not going crazy repping him this spring as Cabinda is already a proven commodity.

BACKUP: Former walk-on Brandon Smith turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Nittany Lions last season. Even when Cabinda returned from injury, the staff had no issues getting Smith early reps to keep the starter fresh. While neither the biggest nor most athletic LB on the roster, Smith is a heady player with a nose for the ball. He finished sixth on the team in tackles with 54, and also had four tackles for loss, two interceptions and two pass break-ups. 

OVERVIEW: Barring injury, Penn State will have a nice one-two punch here. Junior Jake Cooper, who is recovering from surgery to repair an unspecified injury, can also play either of the two “box” linebacker positions —middle or outside. Incoming freshman Ellis Brooks projects as a box linebacker, but Penn State (knock on wood) should have the luxury of redshirting him.

Box Linebacker (Outside)

Mark Brennan/FOS

STARTER: The domino effect of injuries and shifting personnel caused Manny Bowen to emerge as the starting field linebacker last season. He got the nod there for 11 games, but was also forced to make a spot start at Mike. Now a junior, Bowen has moved back to one of the box spots this spring, as the starting outside box ‘backer. After being suspended for the Rose Bowl for unspecified reasons, Bowen has received nothing but positive reviews this spring. Though still a bit undersized at 220 pounds, he is not afraid to mix it up in run support. He had 8.5 tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and two sacks last season. Consider him a proven commodity.

BACKUP: If not for all of the injuries last season, Cam Brown (shown above) likely would be a redshirt freshman poised to burst onto the scene this spring. Instead, we got a feel for what he was about last fall. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he looked like a receiver playing linebacker before the ball was snapped. But once the action started, it was easy to see why teammates had raved about him in the preseason. At times, he played with the sort of leverage you seldom see from defensive players of his size — like when he combined for 19 tackles in back-to-back games with Michigan and Minnesota. Of course, there were other times he looked like a skinny freshman trying to stop grown men. Brown is now up to 225 pounds — with plenty of room to add more weight. As he continues to mature, he will keep the pressure on Bowen when it comes to the starting position.

OVERVIEW: Bowen and Brown will both play a lot of football next season. It will be interesting to see how Bowen, with his smaller frame, holds up over the long haul seeing more action inside. The sky seems to be the limit for Brown, whether he stays at LB (which is likely) or eventually grows into a DE. Remember, Cooper can play here, as well, having started a pair of games last season. 

Field Linebacker

Harvey Levine/FOS

STARTER: For a good portion of last season, Penn State used Koa Farmer (shown above) as a pass-rushing specialist from the outside linebacker positions. With a sub-4.45 40 to his credit, the converted safety was just too quick for many would-be blockers. He finished with 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. But when he had to replace the suspended Bowen vs. USC in the Rose Bowl, Farmer had his hands full being an every-down ’backer. This spring is big for the redshirt junior when it comes to (hopefully, for his sake) finding a comfort zone at the position. He has good size (6-1, 230) and is one of the best athletes on the team.

BACKUP: A lot has been made of Penn State recruiting linebacker/safety hybrid types, and this is where the staff plans to play them. PSU began working safety Jarvis Miller at LB last season and now the move is permanent. Miller is not as thick nor as athletic as Farmer. But he does have a more natural feel for the game. He was known as a physical safety so that aspect of things will be no trouble for him. 

OVERVIEW: This is the one linebacker spot where Penn State has to be a bit nervous, even if the coaching staff won’t admit it. Bowen matured into an effective player here last season, and not having him for the Rose Bowl hurt. Farmer and Miller were both said to be playing well through the early part of spring drills. But we may not have a great feel for how this is going to play out until the preseason. Early enrollee freshman Brelin Faison-Walden has been limited this spring as he recovers from an unspecified injury. Another hybrid type — Brailyn Franklin — enrolls this summer.


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Like all college football programs, Penn State has had its share of injury issues down through the years. But it is difficult to remember any single position being crushed by injuries any more than the Nittany Lions’ starting linebacker corps was early last season. http://www.scout.com/college/penn-state/story/1767806-linebacker-u-had-a...

Within the first three games, all three veteran starters were lost for extended periods of time. Senior Nyeem Wartman-White saw his college career end due to a second ACL tear in as many years.

It got to the point where first- and second-year players — and even former walk-ons and walk-ons — were featured at all three spots.

Which pretty much stunk for the program then. But if there was a silver lining, it was that all the kids who were thrown into the proverbial fire had a chance to learn from the experience. And that is coming in handy this spring as the Lions are faced with the task of replacing 2016 standout Brandon Bell and Wartman-White.

“I've made the argument … that sometimes injuries are a blessing in disguise because it forces you to create more depth,” PSU coach James Franklin said. “Nyeem had the injury bug the last two years and even Brandon had some injuries. So the fact that we were able to get some other guys some reps — some legitimate reps and legitimate games — I think helps.”

Here is how things are shaping up at the three linebacker positions this spring:

Box Linebacker (Middle)

\"\"Harvey Levine/FOS

STARTER: Despite missing five games with a hand injury last season, Jason Cabinda (shown above) finished third on the team with 81 tackles. He was the vocal leader of the defense from the play-calling position. Now a senior, he has formally been named a captain. The staff is not going crazy repping him this spring as Cabinda is already a proven commodity.

BACKUP: Former walk-on Brandon Smith turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Nittany Lions last season. Even when Cabinda returned from injury, the staff had no issues getting Smith early reps to keep the starter fresh. While neither the biggest nor most athletic LB on the roster, Smith is a heady player with a nose for the ball. He finished sixth on the team in tackles with 54, and also had four tackles for loss, two interceptions and two pass break-ups.

OVERVIEW: Barring injury, Penn State will have a nice one-two punch here. Junior Jake Cooper, who is recovering from surgery to repair an unspecified injury, can also play either of the two “box” linebacker positions —middle or outside. Incoming freshman Ellis Brooks projects as a box linebacker, but Penn State (knock on wood) should have the luxury of redshirting him.

Box Linebacker (Outside)

\"\"Mark Brennan/FOS

STARTER: The domino effect of injuries and shifting personnel caused Manny Bowen to emerge as the starting field linebacker last season. He got the nod there for 11 games, but was also forced to make a spot start at Mike. Now a junior, Bowen has moved back to one of the box spots this spring, as the starting outside box ‘backer. After being suspended for the Rose Bowl for unspecified reasons, Bowen has received nothing but positive reviews this spring. Though still a bit undersized at 220 pounds, he is not afraid to mix it up in run support. He had 8.5 tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and two sacks last season. Consider him a proven commodity.

BACKUP: If not for all of the injuries last season, Cam Brown (shown above) likely would be a redshirt freshman poised to burst onto the scene this spring. Instead, we got a feel for what he was about last fall. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he looked like a receiver playing linebacker before the ball was snapped. But once the action started, it was easy to see why teammates had raved about him in the preseason. At times, he played with the sort of leverage you seldom see from defensive players of his size — like when he combined for 19 tackles in back-to-back games with Michigan and Minnesota. Of course, there were other times he looked like a skinny freshman trying to stop grown men. Brown is now up to 225 pounds — with plenty of room to add more weight. As he continues to mature, he will keep the pressure on Bowen when it comes to the starting position.

OVERVIEW: Bowen and Brown will both play a lot of football next season. It will be interesting to see how Bowen, with his smaller frame, holds up over the long haul seeing more action inside. The sky seems to be the limit for Brown, whether he stays at LB (which is likely) or eventually grows into a DE. Remember, Cooper can play here, as well, having started a pair of games last season.

Field Linebacker

\"\"Harvey Levine/FOS

STARTER: For a good portion of last season, Penn State used Koa Farmer (shown above) as a pass-rushing specialist from the outside linebacker positions. With a sub-4.45 40 to his credit, the converted safety was just too quick for many would-be blockers. He finished with 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. But when he had to replace the suspended Bowen vs. USC in the Rose Bowl, Farmer had his hands full being an every-down ’backer. This spring is big for the redshirt junior when it comes to (hopefully, for his sake) finding a comfort zone at the position. He has good size (6-1, 230) and is one of the best athletes on the team.

BACKUP: A lot has been made of Penn State recruiting linebacker/safety hybrid types, and this is where the staff plans to play them. PSU began working safety Jarvis Miller at LB last season and now the move is permanent. Miller is not as thick nor as athletic as Farmer. But he does have a more natural feel for the game. He was known as a physical safety so that aspect of things will be no trouble for him.

OVERVIEW: This is the one linebacker spot where Penn State has to be a bit nervous, even if the coaching staff won’t admit it. Bowen matured into an effective player here last season, and not having him for the Rose Bowl hurt. Farmer and Miller were both said to be playing well through the early part of spring drills. But we may not have a great feel for how this is going to play out until the preseason. Early enrollee freshman Brelin Faison-Walden has been limited this spring as he recovers from an unspecified injury. Another hybrid type — Brailyn Franklin — enrolls this summer.

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