TYM: Linebacker Look

With spring practice right around the corner, we continue our Take Your Marks series, where FOS staffers Mark Harrington and Mark Brennan discuss and debate various topics related to the Penn State football program. In this installment, they tackle the linebackers.

Biggest Hole

Harrington: Since Paul Posluszny is the only starting linebacker the Lions lose from the 2006 season, he is the obvious choice here. However, I think the loss of his leadership will create a greater void for the unit and the entire defense than the loss of his abilities as a player.

I am not trying to take anything away from Posluszny's talent; he had a tremendous, record-setting career. However, with veterans like Dan Connor and Sean Lee still on the roster, and promising players like Jerome Hayes, Tyrell Sales and Dontey Brown waiting in the wings, the unit's depth of talent is in good shape. But Posluszny's leadership will be a tall order to emulate. He was the kind of player who was respected program-wide and led by example. He showed players what to do just by doing it himself. That is an asset the unit will have a challenge replicating. That is not to say Connor or Lee can't do it, but getting their leadership to the level of Posluszny's is a tall order indeed.

Brennan: Good point. This is a big year for Connor, who has proved to be a great player. But with Posluszny and three-fourths of the starting defensive line gone, Connor must now emerge as a leader -- perhaps THE leader -- on defense. The key, from this vantage point, is not trying to emulate Posluszny, but to continue to develop his own style.

It will be a tricky balancing act because the very thing that makes Connor such a force -- he is a wild man on the field -- may not always jibe with keeping the entire defense focused during the most stressful moments. Outside of one minor off-the-field misstep, Connor has deftly dealt with every challenge thrown at him during his Penn State career. I'm anxious to see how he handles this one. It is the only thing preventing him from making the step from great player to Nittany Lion legend.

Brightest Spot

Harrington: The brightest spot has to be the top-to-bottom depth of this unit. Lee and Connor boast an incredible amount of experience. Behind them you have some athletic, strong prospects in Hayes, Brown, Sales and Navorro Bowman -- guys who received solid reports out of practice last season. Add in the incoming freshman -- Chris Colasanti, Andrew Dailey and Nate Stupar -- and the depth starts to look almost ludicrous. The unit is definitely getting to that "reload" point that fans often talk about.

Brennan: This is another area where I've been impressed by the coaching the past few seasons. I have to admit, in spite of his strong resume, I was skeptical of position coach Ron Vanderlinden after his first couple of years at Penn State. From 2001-03, the PSU linebackers were -- by the school's lofty standards -- poor.

But Posluszny began to change that as a true freshman in 2003. Then Connor and Tim Shaw started pitching in 2004. And since then, the Lions have added more talent to the point where the "Linebacker U" tradition is once again building upon itself. When Vanderlinden has the right tools, he is clearly among the leading linebacker coaches in the country.

Unexpected Impact

Harrington: Most fans expect big things from redshirt sophomore Jerome Hayes. Whether it happens will depend on how Vanderlinden and defensive coordinator Tom Bradley structure the linebacker corps.

If Connor stays at outside linebacker, I think we could see a significant impact from Sales stepping into the middle, with Brown likely seeing some backup reps. If Connor shifts inside, then I would expect Hayes to get the nod outside and to make an impact there.

It will be most interesting to see how the starting lineup is constructed. Connor has made it no secret that he would like to move inside, telling FOS, "I wanted to play middle as soon as I got here. I played there a little my freshman year when Tim [Shaw] was hurt, and I was about 210 pounds and I did all right. So another chance at that would be great in my opinion."

Brennan: I thought you were on the verge of breaking into an Abbott & Costello bit there. Though nothing is written in stone, I can see Connor moving inside, which, as you mentioned, would make Hayes the logical choice to move into the vacated outside position. Hayes does not test particularly well in the 40, but to me that is not an issue. I've seen him in game action, and he does not look slow on the field.

I'm also anxious see what redshirt freshman Navorro Bowman brings to the table. Some key people in the program believe he has the athletic ability and mind-set to be a great one if he can stay healthy.

It's Now or Never

Harrington: Unless you count walk-ons Chris Mauriello and Nick Yocum, there are no fifth-year seniors facing their final seasons here.

Connor is a true senior who came back to make his own mark on the team without having Posluszny's shadow cast on him. So this is his opportunity to lead and to grab the career tackles record Posluszny set last year. Connor needs 99 tackles this season to claim the mark.

Brennan: Brown and Sales are both redshirt juniors now. With the linebacker talent Penn State has brought into the program the last couple of years, each is faced with the prospect of hammering down a starting job this spring or facing the specter of being a career backup.

Not that there is anything wrong with being a career backup at a program of Penn State's stature, especially considering the All-Americans who have been in front of them until now. I just doubt it is what either player envisioned when they signed with the Lions.

As such, this is a crucial spring for Brown and Sales.

Stay tuned to Fight On State as Brennan and Harrington continue to review each PSU football unit as the Nittany Lions prepare for spring practice.


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