The football program dubbed “Linebacker U” came into this season looking to be just that. A core of three talented and experienced linebackers would be the heart and soul of a rather young and inexperienced defensive unit. But since the start of the season, this heart of Penn State’s defense has been torn out and stepped on as all three starters have been injured leaving an extreme void in the middle of that defense.
Starters Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda, and Nyeem Wartman-White have all missed significant time so far with Wartman-White’s injury forcing him to miss his second consecutive season. Adding to the injuries was two sport athlete Jan Johnson, a member of the wrestling team, will also miss the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury at Michigan.
So who are the young men Penn State will roll out to play linebacker on Saturday against Minnesota? Head coach James Franklin released the depth chart during his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
At middle linebacker, Brandon Smith will return after being ejected in the second quarter in the Michigan game for a targeting penalty. Smith, a junior, is a former walk on and will be backed up by sophomore Jake Cooper.
The Will linebacker position will feature freshman Cam Brown who was one of the few bright spots from the loss at Michigan. Brown recorded 10 tackles and continues to gain experience and knowledge at the position.
Sophomore Manny Bowen will make the start at the Sam linebacker. As of now, he has the most games started out of the active linebackers with three. Backups at the position include converted safety Koa Farmer and consistent special teams player Von Walker.
The linebacking rotation will also include Jake Cooper as he, Brown, Smith and Bowen will all see time at the middle and Will linebacker positions on Saturday.
Franklin is staying optimistic about the situation saying, “You get Jason Cabinda back, you get Brandon Bell back, and now you have depth and you have experience.”
As of now, both Bell and Cabinda will return, but that may not be until November. It is up to Franklin and his staff to continue to get creative when it comes to depth at linebacker as well as the players to continue to perform, such as Brown.
Do not expect a huge improvement from last week at the linebacker position. This improvement will be minor each week as this core continues to develop. What you should expect, is by the time they are back to full strength, they will be a very difficult unit for offenses to deal with. An opportunity has presented itself for the Penn State defense to defend the title of Linebacker U and prove that Penn State truly is a linebacker producing factory.
As for Saturday, kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. at Beaver Stadium as the Nittany Lions host the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Coverage will begin at 1:30 on PSU ComRadio.
Erik Oakley is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.