Returning Starters: 2
Key Departures: MLB Glenn Carson, OLB/S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong
MLB: Mike Hull
Highlights from 2013
Linebacker U struggled to live up to its nickname last year, as injuries and depth issues left Penn State with barely enough players to run a competent 4-3 defense. The only Nittany Lion linebacker to play in all 12 games at the position was Glenn Carson--Nyeem Wartman, Mike Hull, and Ben Kline all missed time, and seemed to be hampered by lingering issues when they were on the field. That pressure forced John Butler to move safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong into a hybrid role, and while he was solid, the production was a far cry from the units Penn State's known for. Carson led the team with just 66.5 tackles; he and Hull were the only LBs with more than 50.That said, it's not like the Lions were particularly brutal last year--helped by a strong front, the Lions were firmly middle of the pack in rush defense in the Big Ten.
There's experience, here, and the reinforcements are coming--Penn State returns four players who started at linebacker in 2013, and welcomes three highly-touted freshmen to campus soon enough. If Penn State can stay healthy, 2014 should be a step up for the linebacking corps. Mike Hull slides into the middle, and brings a sideline-to-sideline speed that they haven't had at the inside linebacker position since perhaps Paul Posluszny--there's no question he'll be an improvement in coverage over the traditional Penn State middle linebackers like Carson and Josh Hull. And Brandon Bell came on strong down the stretch, earning a start in the last game of the season and playing like he belonged. Nyeem Wartman showed promise, too, as a redshirt freshman who was slotted into the starting lineup from the opener. The coaches have even started talking up back-up Gary Wooten, and the perennially-banged up Ben Kline rounds out a solid fivesome. And just wait until the summer, when Troy Reeder, Jason Cabinda, and Koa Farmer--for that hybrid safety position--make it to campus.
Let's be frank: Penn State's success at the position depends on guys who have not managed to stay healthy for a full season doing just that, while taking a step forward. Wartman missed most of his freshman season with a knee injury, and although he stayed mostly healthy last year, he lost playing time to Bell and Kline as the year wore on. Ben Kline had an opportunity to make an impact in 2013, but couldn't stay on the field. And it seems like we've been waiting for three years for Hull to truly break out--he was certainly solid when healthy last year, his first as a starter, but couldn't live up to the production of his predecessors, Gerald Hodges or Mike Mauti. He's now the leader of this unit, which has plenty to prove during the offseason. There's talent here, no doubt, but Bob Shoop is depending on everyone, especially a pair of sophomores, to take a big step forward in 2014, all while learning complex new schemes that mix and match throughout the defensive and especially at linebacker. Competition, James Franklin's mantra, ought to be front and center here--after Hull, there may be a true battle for playing time that shouldn't be settled until the freshmen get on campus.
What to look for in the Blue/White game
Speaking of Hull, the last thing Penn State can afford is for him to go down, so expect him to see little playing time beyond a few series. And Ben Kline's injury status is entirely still dubious after tearing his pectoral last fall--James Franklin has been tight-lipped, and his availability Saturday is very much in doubt. But the Blue/White Game will give us an opportunity to see how Wartman, Bell, and Wooten look, at the very least--and whether Bell's breakout at the end of last season was a fluke or a harbinger of things to come.