Rough 2016 makes Nittany Lion LBs veteran and tested
STATE COLLEGE — First, starters Jason Cabinda, Nyeem Wartman-White, and Brandon Bell were all out with injuries.
Then, reserve Brandon Smith was ejected for targeting in the second quarter before reserve Jan Johnson went down with a season-ending knee injury.
It couldn’t get much worse for Penn State last Sept. 24 in that 49-10 loss at Michigan, and no position looked more exposed than linebacker. But, the Nittany Lions recovered to beat Minnesota the next week and start a nine-game win streak that ended in the Rose Bowl.
Penn State’s linebackers healed along the way, finding some breakout performers in Manny Bowen and Cam Brown, and now the group finds itself a more confident and veteran bunch thanks to that adversity.
“I think you saw it last year, it really is next man up,” said Cabinda, who returns at middle linebacker for his senior season. “It’s the way we approach practice, 1-2-3 deep. I went down, Brandon Smith went down, Jan Johnson went down, guys are in the game who are fourth-string guys.
“Regardless of where you are on the depth chart you’re in there, because god forbid, anything can happen,” said Cabinda.
Should “anything” happen this year, Penn State can at least count on seven linebackers who started at least one game last season. Cabinda started nine games last year, and has 23 in his career. Smith, a fifth-year former walk-on, started two and played regularly the rest of the way. Bowen started 12 games, replacing Wartman-White in Week 2 at weak side, before a team suspension cost him the Rose Bowl. Head coach James Franklin called himself a “huge fan” of Bowen during preseason media day.
Brown started twice at strong side, vs. Minnesota and Maryland, after Jake Cooper started two in place of Bell before going down with a season-ending injury of his own. Koa Farmer also started twice after moving from safety during the season and making the position switch for good to strong side in the offseason.
“Unlike the previous three years, we have the most depth right now because of the situation last year,” said defensive coordinator Brent Pry. “We’ve got some proven guys who’ve played in big games and have a year or two of development. They’ve played together, and we’re in a pretty good place.”
Cabinda is Penn State’s second-leading returning tackler behind safety Marcus Allen, with a season-high 13 coming against Ohio State after a five-game absence. Bowen is the third-leading returning tackler, with his career high of 12 also coming last season against Ohio State.
Farmer, with three sacks last season, is tied for the second-most from last year among returnees after returning kicks as a freshman in 2015. Pry called him the type of player “a lot of folks are looking for” because of his defensive back qualities
“I think his roots are there for sure, but he’s growing as a linebacker. He’s getting tougher,” said Pry. “He’s shedding blocks better. His tackling is getting better. He understands the play in the box, blocking schemes, things like that. He’s really come a long way.
He might need to hold off Brown, who at 6-foot-5 and 223 pounds presents a different look than the rest of the linebackers. Pry added that, like Farmer, he’s growing into the position as Penn State perhaps may bring a faster overall look to the front seven in 2017.
Brown recorded 10 tackles against Michigan as the depth situation brought him significant action as a true freshman.
“His range, and how he goes about the field, he’s a really instinctive player,” said Cabinda. “He’s what you want, he’s busting ass out there.”
It’s a lot more competition for a guy like Smith, who’s seen the roster talent expand with nearly each passing year as reduced scholarship numbers fade further into memory.
“I think they experience guys got last year will only help our team going forward,” said Smith. “All the competition we’ve brought in, you see them doing good things so far, I’m excited for where Penn State’s headed.”
Cabinda, who thought the increased internal competition is keeping the top of the depth chart sharper than it had been when he was younger, also said the Rose Bowl loss was motivating people.
“That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I think about it every day,” said Cabinda. “That’s what I remember about last season, the Rose Bowl loss and playing with that chip. It’s going to help us play well.”