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Neil Rudel on PSU football: Linebackers top Nittany Lions questions for this season

TIM WEIGHT/Special to the Sun-Gazette Penn State coach James Franklin talks to media during media day this year at Beaver Stadium.

Shaking out the notebook (yes, I still use one) from Penn State football media day:

Linebacker U. needs MLB

James Franklin’s top priority is replacing punter-kickoff man Jordan Stout, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth round.

His second mentioned concern is linebacker, particularly in the middle, a position that handles the defensive calls.

The leading candidates are underclassmen Kobe King, a redshirt freshman who appeared in four games last year and made three tackles, and sophomore Tyler Elsdon, mainly a special teams player last year who did finish strong with five tackles against Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.

Franklin called it “a legitimate competition.”

New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said the uncertainty has fueled the unit’s motivation.

“These guys don’t like being labeled the question on our defense,” he said. “They weren’t recruited to be a question mark.”

Curtis Jacobs and converted safety Jonathan Southerland are the likely starters on the outside.

Unranked

The USA Today coaches poll was released Monday, and Penn State, to the surprise of no one, is unranked.

If the Associated Press (writers poll) follows suit, it will be the first time the Nittany Lions will open a season unranked since 2016.

That happened to be their best year under James Franklin, when they won the Big Ten and finished No. 7 in the country.

Which proves the preseason poll is meaningless.

Favorite topic

Just as quarterback Sean Clifford likes talking about NIL and his “Limitless” agency, Franklin doesn’t mind the topic because he sees it as vital to the Lions’ success.

Just in the past few weeks, Franklin met with potential donors in Avalon, N.J. and Wilkes-Barre.

“I think you have to be careful when you talk about fundraising, of going back to the same donors over and over again,” he said. “Those people are critical, and we’re super appreciative of them.

“But what this has done, it’s really opened some opportunities and avenues to maybe people that hadn’t been giving to Penn State for whatever reason, that now are … you can explain a topic that maybe is new to college football, new to college athletics and get people not only to understand but to buy into it.”

Like it or not — and I don’t, at least unregulated — NIL isn’t going away.

Big-name aide

Longtime NFL coach Ken Whisenhunt is serving as an offensive analyst at Penn State.

Whisenhunt was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator when they won the Super Bowl in 2006 and Arizona’s head coach in 2009 when Pittsburgh defeated the Cardinals Super Bowl on the incredible touchdown connection from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes.

He also spent two years (2014-15) as the Tennessee Titans’ head coach.

Whisenhunt arrived at PSU last year but kept a low profile. His picture wasn’t in the media guide, which is it this year as a member of the quality control and analytics staff.

Two of Frank Rocco’s sons, Danny (former head coach at Wake Forest) and David, are also serving in similar capacities, Danny on the defense and David on the offense.

Frank Rocco, a former Altoona Mountain Lions’ head coach and past PSU administrator, resides in State College.

Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached at 814-946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com. You can follow him on Twitter @neilrudel.

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