Running Back to Linebacker U.?

When people think Penn State football, there is usually one position in particular that comes to mind - linebacker. This position, which has served as the central point of the Nittany Lion defense for so many years and has even given PSU its nickname of "Linebacker U.", has had some interesting trends over recent years. Perhaps the one that is most intriguing is the tendency of the Nittany Lion coaching staff to migrate former running back standouts to linebacker.

This apparent trend, intended or not, appears to have only really taken shape since the 2000 season, which coincidentally is the season Tom Bradley took over as defensive coordinator after Jerry Sandusky retired. Is this a conscious strategy of the defensive coordinator affectionately called "Scrap"?

Before we look at the recent history of this hypothesized shift in recruiting at this position, let's first take a look at the trend we mentioned.

The Current Corps

The current young herd of linebackers is a great example of this trend. Nearly every linebacker suited in blue and white this past season had extensive experience in the offensive backfield in high school. Among these linebackers, some have had shots at various offensive backfield positions early on in their PSU careers, but have ultimately ended up in the linebacker unit.

Let's take a look at the current PSU backers and their running back experience:

Paul Posluszny: A standout at both running back and linebacker, he led his Hopewell team to its first WPIAL Class AAA title as a running back. He rushed for 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2001 and improved upon that in 2002 with over 1,500 yards on the ground.

Posluszny was destined to be a linebacker at PSU. He started his career there and hasn't looked back since, seeing significant action as a freshman in 2003 and becoming the undisputed starter and one of the leaders of the unit last season.

It did take some transition time for him, though. He talked to us about that transition, saying, "I think the toughest thing about playing linebacker is the way we have to move. You can't just run around, you have to stay square to the line of scrimmage and work on your footwork. That is the most important part of playing linebacker, so it is definitely the toughest to master."

Tim Shaw: Shaw was an outstanding running back in high school. In fact, he set Michigan prep career records for both rushing yards (7,611) and touchdowns (131). During his senior year he rushed for more than 2,600 yards and scored 43 touchdowns. The Gatorade Player of the Year was honored as both an Associated Press first-team All-State selection and a Detroit Free Press All-West Michigan Team thanks to his skills running the ball.

Shaw talked about his transition from running back to linebacker, saying, "The move was admittedly tough at first. I am not going to lie, I wanted to play running back and I thought I could and I thought I had a chance. But when things happen, you have to take the opportunities handed to you and make the best of them."

Shaw began his career at Penn State on the offensive side of the ball, getting preseason looks as a freshman at running back. In 2003 he was on the scout team as tailback. In fact, his speed reportedly put him among the top players battling for the position. In the end, though, that speed was moved over to defense where Shaw landed at middle linebacker.

Shaw talked about his thoughts on playing linebacker now, saying, "Coach Van[derlinden] has helped me a lot with the transition. For the first time, I have felt this is why I came to Penn State and I am excited to play and contribute at linebacker. I think I will be suited well for the position."

BranDon Snow: Considered one of the best fullbacks on the East Coast when he wrapped up his high school career in Newark, Del., Snow (left, Delaware HS Sports) was described as a "devastating lead blocker" out of the backfield and praised for boasting outstanding blocking fundamentals.

Another Gatorade Player of the Year, BranDon also was named a USA Today and a Parade All-American thanks to his backfield performance. Although he did not have many opportunities to carry the ball over the course of his senior year, Snow still rushed for 450 yards and nine touchdowns on 44 carries.

Though Snow redshirted during his freshman year in 2002, as a redshirt freshman he backed up Sean McHugh at the fullback position, getting all of his reps in the offensive backfield. It was not until the spring of 2004 that he shifted over to the defensive side of the ball.

Posluszny talked about Snow's transition, saying, "I think he is doing really well. It is his first year playing defense and in the Big Ten it is definitely a drastic change for him."

After suffering a broken foot, Snow was sidelined this past season and reportedly could be heading back to his "natural" position as a fullback in 2005.

J.R. Zwierzynski: This is another great example of this trend. Zwierzynski was one of the best running backs out of the Midwest when he was recruited. He ran for 5,073 yards and 59 touchdowns in his career, breaking a school career rushing record held by NFL mainstay Mike Alstott. He rushed for over 2,200 yards and scored 39 touchdowns during his senior campaign.

Another Gatorade Player of the Year, he also had a myriad of honors for his ball-carrying skills, including a first-team USA Today All-American selection, a U.S. Army All-American selection and a PrepStar All-American selection.

Unlike his classmates Snow and Shaw, Zwierzynski began his PSU career at linebacker. Though there were indications he got some very early reps at the fullback spot as a true freshman, he has appeared to have solid footing at the linebacker spot.

J.R. continued to see his time with the linebackers in 2004 and is expected to provide depth to the unit this coming season.

Dan Connor: The freshman sensation, like Posluszny, was destined to play linebacker at Linebacker U., but also found some significant success in the ground game at Strath Haven High. The two-time first-team Associated Press All-State selection rushed for over 1,700 yards and 23 touchdowns as a running back, helping him to earn a Philadelphia Inquirer All-Area selection and the coveted Maxwell Club Award.

Connor has had a lot of pressure on him, seeing a heavy load of game day snaps as a true freshman. His teammates have talked to us about his transition. As Shaw told us, "I think he [Dan] has come in and learned and done a fine job. He has come in and been quiet and hasn't let all of the hype get to him. He has just come to work from the beginning and that is all you can do - just keep getting better."

Posluszny also talked about the adjustment Connor has made, saying, "He is going to be outstanding, he is really going to be a great linebacker for us. He is one of those guys who goes out and really works hard every day. God really blessed him with some great athletic ability and he is just a hard worker."

A Strategic Shift?

Now that we have illustrated that the majority of Penn State's current linebackers have significant running back experience, let's talk about the shift in the recruiting trend at linebacker. We looked at the linebacker talent between 1993 and 2004. This period was chosen because it is the time Penn State has been in the Big Ten.

During this period, Sandusky was responsible for the defense for seven of the 12 seasons, from 1993 to 1999. From 2000 to present, Bradley has been the defensive coordinator for the Lions.

Looking at Sandusky's linebackers over this "Big Ten" period, he basically had 14 who saw significant playing time. Of those starters, 10 played a vast majority of their reps strictly at the linebacker position. That is not to say any of the other linebackers under Sandusky from 1993 to 1999 never saw time elsewhere, but they got a vast majority of their practice and game reps at linebacker in both high school and college.

Of these 14 linebackers, four of them saw significant time elsewhere on the football field in high school. Rob Holmberg, who transferred from the Naval Academy, played wide receiver in high school and Annapolis. Brian Gelzheiser played quarterback in high school. Both LaVar Arrington and Aaron Gatten played running back in high school. So only about 14 percent of the linebacker talent that saw significant playing time over this period had running back experience.

Let's take a closer look at these last two players to see if the trend perhaps began toward the end of Sandusky's career.

Aaron Gatten: The Washington (Pa.) High standout actually did not play linebacker regularly in high school. A four-year starter at safety, he also was the school's leading rusher his junior and senior seasons, amassing 3,245 yards throughout his career.

At Penn State, Gatten was shifted from the secondary to the linebacker unit as a freshman due to the needs of the position. As a junior he started ahead of the young sensation, Arrington.

LaVar Arrington: One of the greatest "modern" legends at Linebacker U., it is not as widely known that he excelled as a running back at North Hills High outside of Pittsburgh, rushing for over 4,000 yards during his career. His 4,357 yards place him as the third-best running back in WPIAL Class AAAA history. What should not be surprising is that Arrington was also an outstanding linebacker in high school, directing many schools to recruit him for the position.

What may surprise folks even more is that when Arrington was a freshman at PSU, he played safety. However, Joe Paterno had other things in mind for the freshman. When Arrington arrived at Penn State, Paterno asked him how he felt about taking his WPIAL tailback skills to the Big Ten.

According to various reports, Paterno had seen him play in the offensive backfield in high school, in addition to linebacker, and saw him as another Franco Harris. Arrington said "No thanks," since he wanted to play defense. Later that year he found himself at safety. It wasn't until his sophomore year that he found his future All-Pro position.

So it would appear that despite Gatten and Arrington both having stellar high school careers at running back, that it was not an overarching strategic move to leverage their running back experience at linebacker.

The trend seems to clearly begin with the move of Tom Bradley to defensive coordinator prior to the 2000 season. During his 4.5 seasons, Bradley has had about 10 linebackers who have seen significant time. Of those, six players spent significant time at running back in high school. That is 60 percent of the players compared to 14 percent of linebackers under Sandusky.

We discussed the current players previously, but let's take a look at some of the other linebackers under Bradley's reign that have been running backs:

Deryck Toles: Toles was an outstanding running back at Warren Harding High in Warren, Ohio. In 1997, he rushed for 1,127 yards as a junior and was named to the Big 33 All-Star Team for Ohio. In fact, he was named MVP of the 1999 Big 33 Classic after rushing for 70 yards on eight carries and scoring a touchdown.

At Penn State, Deryck found himself at defensive back as a true freshman during his redshirt year. As a sophomore he shifted to linebacker where he remained for the remainder of his days in blue and white. However, prior to his senior season, Penn State was in search of a replacement for Larry Johnson and turned to the standout running back for a short time. Toles got some practice reps at tailback in the spring sessions, but in the end was too valuable to shift over to offense from linebacker.

LaMar Stewart: Stewart also saw significant time in the offensive backfield at Reading High, playing running back. He also played in the offensive backfield in the Big 33 game and was pursued by some programs to play the position in college.

When he got to PSU, though, Stewart was shifted to linebacker and stayed there prior to his departure from the team during this past off-season.

Gino Capone: The first-team All-State selection out of North Schuylkill High was also a Big 33 selection. He rushed for 1,207 yards and scored 14 touchdowns and had over 200 tackles during his high school career at linebacker.

The Benefits

The Nittany Lion staff has seemingly embraced the approach of migrating experienced tailbacks and fullback to the linebacker position. Or, it is simply an amazing coincidence that we have seen a 328.57 percent increase since 2000 in the number of linebackers with running back tenures in high school.

Regardless of whether it is intentional or not, what are the benefits of a move of this nature, and is it working?

Speed: Running backs typically have excellent speed and power, a combination that would seem to translate well to the linebacker position. Posluszny, Connor, Snow, Shaw and Zwierzynski all reportedly boast 4.5-second 40-yard speed (or faster). This explosiveness has been apparent recently, especially last season with the improved play of the linebacker unit as a whole.

Instincts: There is a feeling around various pockets of the college football world that linebackers benefit from having played running back since they understand how the opposition in the ground game thinks and how their instincts work. It did seem the young linebackers reacted better and provided the unit with a great set of overall instincts with stopping the run last season. It also seems to afford them a better understanding of the shifts and pulls of opposing offensive lines, and recognizing the opening of lanes. Aside from this, the younger LBs seemed to better understand the tendencies of running backs when hitting a lane.

Whether this approach to recruiting talent is intentional remains to be seen. However, the results during the 2004 season were clear. Penn State obviously has had trouble in recent history stopping the running game. Here is a comparison of how the Lions have fared against stopping the run under Bradley:

Rushing Defense Comparison Under Tom Bradley (2000 - 2004)

2000: 3.6 YPA, 155 YPG
2001: 4.4 YPA, 206 YPG
2002: 3.1 YPA, 114 YPG
2003: 4.3 YPA, 209 YPG
2004: 3.2 YPA, 129 YPG

In 2004, Penn State had one of its better efforts in terms of run defense this decade. The Nittany Lions also led the Big Ten in scoring defense and were the only team in the nation not to allow more than 21 points in a single game.

Of course, many factors contributed to the improvement, but the linebackers were clearly an important component.

We can only wait and see if this recruiting trend continues and if it pays enough dividends to bring the nickname of Linebacker U. back to Penn State.


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