Keep in mind that few units make more shifts and rotations in the spring than the linebackers. "They are always working different combinations to leverage the various skills they have," as one observer explained.
Let's take a closer look at how the unit is breaking down:
In the Middle: With Hull gone, the Lions are looking to fill a void at inside linebacker. Currently, Chris Colasanti, the 6-foot-2, 238-pound senior, is seeing the bulk of first-team reps. "Chris came in [to Penn State] with a lot of excitement, but he just hasn't been able to break through with all the talent this unit has had. He's has a big opportunity to show his stuff this spring."
Chasing Colasanti and making a strong impression thus far is Mike Yancich, the 6-2, 225-pound redshirt sophomore. "Mike's an aggressive, heady player. He's wrestling with the head part of the game - all the communications and shifts, but he's settling in pretty well. He still needs to gets consistent on the reads, but seems to have solid instincts."
Fans paying close attention to the PSU sideline last season may have noticed that in certain games, Yancich was wearing a headset on the sideline. That was a sure sign the staff was grooming him to be a play-caller on the defense.
Grayshirt Glenn Carson is seeing third-team reps at MLB.
On the Outside: At the outside positions, position coach Ron Vanderlinden and the defensive staff are getting first- and second-team reps primarily to Nate Stupar, Bani Gbadyu, Gerald Hodges, Khairi Fortt and Jamie Van Fleet. "Every one of these guys are strong, have a good set of wheels. They want fast, physical play on the wings and guys who are not scared to punish a ball-carrier."
Stupar and Gbadyu are both expected to hold the starting positions through the spring, however, "Hodges and Fortt are monsters — they fly around. They are so similar to each other and they are built like Navorro Bowman. I think they intimidate a lot of guys on the field."
Van Fleet is a walk-on who impressed the staff with his special teams play last season. Though not the biggest 'backer (6-0, 216), he has a great nose for the football.
Like Fortt, Dakota Royer is an early enrollee. But he is transitioning from the defensive end position he played in high school and as such is adjusting to his new role as an OLB. "There is a big change in the level of speed he is facing on an every-down basis now," an observer said.
The X Factor: Redshirt sophomore Michael Mauti is taking part in light drills but not seeing contact this spring for precautionary reasons as he continues to rehab from an ACL injury. He is said to be "way ahead of schedule" on that front but the staff is reluctant to risk bringing him back to full contact too soon.
When he does get back into the mix, he will "definitely shift things." Despite the talk of Mauti playing in the middle — where he was last fall before blowing out his knee in the preseason — some observers are predicting a move to the outside in order to help "protect his knee better."
Regardless of where he ends up, there is little doubt Mauti will be a starter if he is completely healthy. And that means this spring is "critical for the [healthy] linebackers to improve their play and make an impression."
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