Penn State is in Trouble at Middle Linebacker

By Craig Fritz on August 2, 2018 at 1:30 pm
Penn State Linebacker Jake Cooper
© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Brent Pry is not a miracle worker.

But he's going to have to put together a defensive plan unlike any seen in recent memory in State College if he's going to find a solution to Penn State's tenuous middle linebacker situation. Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith are gone. The current depth chart at the Mike includes a walk-on, a little-used senior, a redshirt freshman, and a true freshman.

It's no one's fault, really. A string of bad luck with recruiting misses, transfers, and disciplinary casualties have created the current state of affairs. But at the end of the day, no one cares about any of that. They care that the middle of your defense got torched by a Big Ten rushing attack for 220 yards and three TDs.

lack of experience

Jake Cooper has 40 career tackles over three seasons. Jan Johnson has 14 career tackles over the same time. Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa have never played in a college game. Yet one, or all of them, are going to have to carry water at middle linebacker. They're all basically the same size (6-1 to 6-3, 231 to 237 lbs). The playing-time breakdown will be decided on who can be the most reliable reading keys and being in position. Can former blue-chippers Brooks and Luketa learn enough to overtake Johnson and Cooper, who have each been with the program since 2015? It's likely some of the pressure for making defensive calls will be shifted to more experienced players on the outside, such as Koa Farmer and Cam Brown, so at least that can ease the burden a bit.

run for it

The schedule does no favors for a team trying to cover a deficiency in the middle of its defense. If Penn State played in the Big 12 and faced 10 spread offenses, it could get by almost exclusively with nickel defenses employing five defensive backs and just two linebackers. The Lions are ridiculously deep at corner and safety. But this is not the case. 

Many teams in the Big Ten still favor traditional pro-style offenses, whose coaches prefer an old-school approach of ramming the ball down your throat. The Nittany Lions will face five teams that favor the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust mentality (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pitt, Iowa, Michigan State), AND the second-best rushing team in all of college football in 2017 per S&P+ (Ohio State). Make no mistake, these teams will test Penn State's tender underbelly until the Lions stop them.

the shallow end

Even if Pry finds an answer at the Mike, he's one hard knock from being back to square-one. If he has to borrow from the outside with a guy like Farmer or Brown, how much will that malign the depth at Sam and Will? To be honest, the entirety of the linebacking corps is in flux. As we've seen over the last few years, injuries seem to find Nittany Lion backers at the worst time. No, Brent Pry isn't a miracle worker, but here's hoping he has a couple tricks up his sleeve.

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