Reports indicate that rising junior linebacker Micah Parsons, projected to be a high first round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, is planning to opt out of the 2020 college football season. With the season in jeopardy, and significant risks to health in play, Parsons' decision makes a lot of sense. Still, this is a Penn State blog, and from the perspective of Nittany Lions fans, it's a big blow to the 2020 team. Parsons was considered by some to be the best returning defensive player in all of college football, and there is no replacing that type of game changing talent.
The departure of Parsons means that the Nittany Lions have lost their entire starting linebacker corps from the 2019 season. Parsons manned the WILL linebacker position alongside middle linebacker Jan Johnson and SAM linebacker Cam Brown, who were both seniors. That said, linebacker recruiting has been a strength in the last couple of years for James Franklin and his staff, so the cupboard is far from bare.
The starting MIKE linebacker should be redshirt junior Ellis Brooks. He backed up Johnson in 2019, but played quite a bit in the middle. Brooks is a strong tackler, and helpful in run defense. He has been at middle linebacker since he arrived, and has the experience to step in for Johnson with a higher ceiling to boot.
At SAM linebacker, true sophomore Brandon Smith should have the inside track on the starting position. Smith played special teams throughout 2019 and saw some action as Brown's reserve in 2020, but should be primed to develop into a big time player when he next takes the field. Smith was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school in 2019, and showed flashes of his hitting ability when he was in the game.
Replacing Parsons at WILL linebacker should be Jesse Luketa, who was his reserve last season. Luketa has the ability to play both middle and WILL linebacker, and with limited experience behind Brooks may end up playing some MIKE when Brooks is off the field. Luketa was a highly-rated recruit in his own right and has played special teams consistently since his arrival.
It is a little hazier after that, but Lance Dixon is likely the first linebacker off the bench. He will be a redshirt freshman after an early-season decision by Franklin to hang on to an extra year of eligibility for the young 'backer. Dixon initially flashed so well in camp that Franklin had him on "green light" status, but consistent play from the linebackers ahead of him gave the program incentive to hold Dixon back. He is a talented player who should contribute in a role similar to the one Luketa held for the last two seasons.
Redshirt sophomore Charlie Katshir is the only other experienced, scholarship player at linebacker, and he will be asked to play a larger role for that reason. Katshir has played on special teams, and has seen a limited amount of time on the defensive side of the ball. Smith's ascension to the second linebacking unit boxed him out a bit last season. He will have the opportunity to show in 2020 why the staff brought him in.
There are two true freshmen at linebacker: early enrollee Tyler Elsdon, who profiles as a MIKE, and outside linebacker Curtis Jacobs. Elsdon seems like a redshirt candidate, though the limited depth at MIKE is a factor. Jacobs, on the other hand, may be in the Parsons/Luketa/Smith category of a player simply too talented to keep off of the field. The staff may have been tempted to burn his redshirt anyway; with Parsons out of the picture, it may be bordering on a lock.
The staff has been pretty particular when offering linebackers over the last few years, but the guys they have brought in have been extremely talented players with game breaking potential. Parsons is one of the most talented players in program history, which makes it unfair to compare the remaining players to him.
Both of these things can be true: there is no replacing Micah Parsons, but this is still a linebacker group worth getting excited about. We may have been robbed of a year of a generational talent in his prime, but there are opportunities for guys who remain to step up. And they have the talent to make this transition one worth tuning in to witness.