Penn State Football Early Position Preview 2017: Linebackers

Oct 22, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Jason Cabinda (40) reacts to a play with teammate defensive tackle Curtis Cothran (52) against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the first quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 22, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Jason Cabinda (40) reacts to a play with teammate defensive tackle Curtis Cothran (52) against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the first quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports /

Penn State has long been known as “Linebacker U”, and in 2017, the Nittany Lions return key personnel that should continue the longstanding tradition.

The 2016 season was not the Nittany Lions linebackers best statistically, but it may have been one of their better seasons from a total team perspective.  The Lions linebacking corps faced adversity virtually all season.

To start 2016, Penn State coaches and fans expected to see a starting linebacker trio of seniors Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White and junior Jason Cabinda.  All three were returning starters, with Wartman-White coming off ACL surgery following a special teams injury in 2015.

What did Robert Burns say about good-intentioned plans in “To A Mouse?” He said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”  Well, Head coach James Franklin and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Brent Pry can empathize.  Injuries beleaguered the Lions nearly from the outset.

Only the 2016 season-opener against Kent State would see the expected starters of Bell, Cabinda, and Wartman-White on the field together.  An injury to Cabinda would force him to miss the Nittany Lions next five contests, while another ACL injury would curtail Wartman-White’s season.  Even Bell was not immune to the injury bug. He would succumb to an injury in the Lions’ second game against Pittsburgh causing him to miss the next four contests.

In fact, injuries ravaged the Penn State linebackers so much that in their fourth game of the season against powerhouse Michigan, the Lions were forced to use their fourth and fifth string linebackers.

With all the injuries, Franklin and Pry had to rely on sophomore Manny Bowen at weak side linebacker, redshirt sophomore Koa Farmer at strong side backer, and unheralded redshirt junior Brandon Smith at middle linebacker.  All three were major contributors, and with Bowen, he would become a regular starter with Wartman-White’s season ending injury.

Both Bell and Cabinda were able to return against national power Ohio State, and combined with Bowen, had arguably their best games of the year.  Bowen made 12 tackles while Cabinda made 13 stops and Bell lead the linebackers with an astounding 18 tackles.  Their efforts directly lead to the Nittany Lions pulling off the stunning upset of the previously unbeaten Buckeyes.

2017 Early Season Outlook

The 2016 season was a double-edged sword for the Penn State linebackers.  On one hand, they lost 29 games from starters or key contributors to either injury or suspension.  However, the injuries or suspensions allowed players like Brandon Smith to show what they could do.

This bodes well for the 2017 season.

While the Nittany Lions must replace two thirds of their projected 2016 starting linebackers, it has allowed for increased depth, not to mention the incoming freshmen that could potentially contribute early on.

WILL (Weak side) Linebacker:

While the WILL position could be in flux to start the year, expect junior Manny Bowen to get the first look.  Last season Bowen was the Nittany Lions 5th leading tackler recording 68 tackles including 8.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks.

After Bowen, look for sophomore Cam Brown to get a solid look.  The coaching staff was high on Brown  coming into 2016 and the true freshman did not disappoint.  He recorded 33 tackles on the season, with the Burtonsville, MD product registering 1.5 tackles-for-loss and 0.5 sacks in sparse playing time.  With the departures of Wartman-White and Bell, look for Cam Brown to play a more prominent role in 2017.  Brown could also see extended time at the strong side or SAM LB position as well.

MIKE (Middle) Linebacker:

Perhaps the only linebacker position set would be the one manned by Penn State’s most versatile and athletic player, Jason Cabinda.  The Flemington, NJ senior was Penn State’s defensive “glue” last season.  He missed four games in 2016 due to an injured hand, but upon his return against Ohio State, he had one of his most impressive games.  In fact, his 13 tackles that night were a season-high for him.

Behind Cabinda is last season’s diamond in the rough, Brandon Smith.  The Lewisburg, PA native was just another name on the depth chart when 2016 began.  By the time the season ended, Smith was the Nittany Lions sixth leading tackler, and he was perhaps the Lions best linebacker for a stretch of games that included a hard-fought win over Minnesota and against Maryland. Smith should provide solid and capable depth when spelling Cabinda.

SAM (Strong side) Linebacker:

The SAM position may have the most wide open competition of the linebacker positions.  Jake Cooper may get the first crack.  Cooper missed most of the season with an injury.  This season Cooper looks to be healthy enough to compete for the starting outside linebacker spot.  Cooper’s versatility of playing either outside linebacker position gives the coaching staff plenty of options with which to deploy him.

Former safety Koa Farmer, who was thrust into a linebacking position due to injuries, could also push Cooper for a starting spot.  Famer, now settled in as a linebacker, was quick and shifty off the edge.  The redshirt junior recorded 29 tackles and three sacks last season.

Incoming Freshmen:

The Nittany Lions welcomed two linebackers into their family on National Signing Day 2017, and one early enrollee, Brelin Faison-Walden.  After a last minute decommitment, Penn State was able to snare 4-star backer Ellis Brooks to go along with fellow backer Brailyn Franklin.

Next: Penn State Football Season Rewind: Nittany Lions Fall to USC in Unforgettable Rose Bowl

Of the three incoming freshmen, Faison-Walden would likely have the inside track at early playing time by virtue of his early enrollment.  While red shirting  in 2017 is a strong liklihood, its also possible that they could see playing time, especially if depth becomes and an issue again.