Twelve Days — Linebacker

Our 12 Days of Christmas breakdown of the Penn State football program continues with a position that finally worked its way out of the doldrums.

SEVENTH DAY — LINEBACKER

MAKING A LIST, CHECKING IT TWICE: You have to hand it to Tom Bradley. After all, who else but the Nittany Lion defensive coordinator with a slightly unique view of the world would have thought to go after running backs to restore Penn State’s reputation as a linebacker factory?

But that’s exactly what Bradley did. After watching the PSU ’backers struggle for four years, he looked to the school’s “Linebacker U.” past and realized that many of the program’s best defenders had been high school running backs.

All-Americans Shane Conlan, Andre Collins and LaVar Arrington were just a few of the names that fit the bill.

Bradley’s rationale: Great running backs and linebackers essentially do the same thing — look for an open hole and attack. Speed, quickness and instinct are the keys.

So, prior to the season, he built his defense around a group of young linebackers — Paul Posluszny, Tim Shaw, BranDon Snow, J.R. Zwierzynski and Dan Connor — who were all stud running backs in high school. Shaw and Snow both played the position earlier in their PSU careers, too.

The results were smashing, in the literal and figurative senses of the word. Though Snow broke his right foot in August and never really contributed, everyone else delivered. Posluszny, a sophomore, and Connor, a true freshman, finished first and second on the team in tackles (104 and 85 respectively), the first time two ’backers topped the chart since Brandon Short and Arrington did so in 1999.

The only veteran in the mix was fifth-year senior Derek Wake, who finished fourth on the team in tackles with 58. But by the third game, it was clear he was more of a role player than a featured attraction.

The lone issue here was a lack of depth. When a string of injuries hit late in the season, the staff was forced to use walk-on safety Nolan McCready as a stopgap linebacker to protect the redshirts of several talented true freshmen.

WHO WAS NAUGHTY: The voters for the All-Big Ten teams. The media and the coaches both put Posluszny on the second team. Perhaps it’s time for Penn State to start shamelessly padding tackle stats, the way certain other schools (did someone say Northwestern?) do.

WHO WAS NICE: We just can’t figure Wake. One of the most gifted athletes in school history — and intelligent, too — he never quite pulled it all together on the field. Here’s hoping some NFL team can tap all the ability.

To his credit, he continued to serve as a team leader even at those times when his role was diminished.

UNDER THE TREE: Depth should not be a problem next fall, as thickly built middle linebacker Dontey Brown and and speed-rushing OLB Tyrell Sales both come off redshirts.

Another redshirt frosh, Spencer Ridenhour, was a high school safety who played DB and linebacker on the foreign team last fall. The 6-foot, 215-pounder will give Bradley flexibility with nickel packages.

Barring injury to the players already on campus, incoming freshmen Sean Lee and Steve Quinn are both likely to redshirt. In the meantime, PSU is still pursuing a couple of linebackers for the class that will sign in February, New Jersey star Jerome Hayes the most notable among them.

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: Three players return with all kinds of experience — Posluszny, Connor and Shaw. Building depth is now the key.

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