Due to the circumstances brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn State will now be replacing all three starters at the linebacker position in 2020. Despite that, there is very little to worry about when it comes to this unit. Part of that is due to the fact that Brent Pry has worked hard to get his backups significant game-time to prepare for this, and part of that is due to the fact that James Franklin has recruited linebackers arguably better than any other position since arriving in Happy Valley. This will be a relatively green unit, but a high-powered one.
The 2019 Penn State linebacking corps. had a great mix of everything. Between the experience and leadership of Cam Brown and Jan Johnson, and the flashy, All-American playmaking of Micah Parsons, this unit was one of the strongest on the team. While Brown and Johnson were never considered stars, they were reliable starters who not only filled their own roles but helped to keep the rest of the defense aligned. Still, while they will be missed, there is a ton of talent ready to step up in their places. It may take time to break them in as full-time starters, but they'll get there.
Replacing Parsons is a different story. Penn State isn't short on blue-chip linebackers but assuming that any of them will have as much success as Parsons did would be foolish. The sophomore broke out in 2019 to the tune of 109 total tackles, 14.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 5 passes defended, a fumble recovery, and 4 forced fumbles. Not to mention the impact he had in the opposing game-planning as they tried to find ways to avoid No. 11. He will end his Penn State career with just two seasons under his belt, making it hard for him to stack up to other Nittany Lion greats statistically. But make no mistake, he's one of the best to ever don the blue and white.
- SAM - No. 12 Brandon Smith (So./So., 6'3, 237 lbs)
- MIKE - No. 13 Ellis Brooks (Sr./Jr., 6'1, 241 lbs)
- WILL - No. 40 Jesse Luketa (Jr./Jr., 6'3, 241 lbs)
Welcome to the Brandon Smith era. The former five-star quickly made a name for himself as a true freshman, delivering multiple bone-shattering hits like this one.
The moment of the game might have been Brandon Smith busting out the truck stick and C.J. Thorpe reacting like he was moved by the Holy Spirit. pic.twitter.com/xgwMuorWha— Roar Lions Roar (@RLRblog) August 31, 2019
Smith will now step into a full-time role, replacing Cam Brown. The two mirror each other in some ways, as both are tall, lanky, athletic freaks. The difference, though, is that Smith comes in more polished and with a more distinguished pedigree. If he can show that he understands the defense well enough to let his athleticism take over, the Lions will have another first-round linebacker joining Parsons very soon.
Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa are the more known quantities in this lineup, as both have spent a good amount of time on the field over the past few seasons. Brooks acted as Johnson's backup and showed a knack for putting himself in the position to make big plays, and Luketa bounced all around the field, showing an ability to fill all three linebacker spots. In fact, Luketa will likely take more than a few snaps at MIKE in relief of Brooks this fall, meaning that at least one name from the backups list below will be a pseudo-fourth starter at times.
- LB - No. 10 Lance Dixon (So./Fr., 6'2, 210 lbs)
- LB - No. 45 Charlie Katshir (Jr./So., 6'3, 230 lbs)
- LB - No. 23 Curtis Jacobs (Fr./Fr., 6'1, 221 lbs)
The talent doesn't stop with the presumed starters. Lance Dixon and Curtis Jacobs join Smith as the other five-star linebackers on the roster, and both are likely to find the field early and often (though for Jacobs it may be mostly on special teams early on). Dixon, with a year of experience under his belt, is surely chomping at the bit to show that he's ready to make an impact and begin to challenge for a starting job.
Katshir is the wild card here because while he was the only three-star recruit we've mentioned, he's the guy that Pry has made it a point to rave about him every chance he's gotten this offseason.
- LB - No. 36 Zuriah Fisher (Fr./Fr., 6'3, 230 lbs)
- LB - No. 39 Robbie Dwyer (So./Fr., 6'1, 243)
- LB - No. 43 Tyler Elsdon (Fr./Fr., 6'2, 230 lbs)
- LB - No. 47 Alex Furmanek (So./Fr., 6'2, 249 lbs)
- LB - No. 50 Max Chizmar (Sr./Jr., 6'2, 233 lbs)
Fisher and Elsdon are the scholarship players among this group, and while Fisher is probably a reserve to begin, he has the look of a player ready to contribute early. Elsdon is probably on a different timeline, but he's also the only true MIKE linebacker on the roster outside of Brooks at the moment, so he'll have an excellent opportunity this year to learn the scheme and set himself up for a major role in 2021.