Last year, linebackers weren't much of an uncertainty; we knew who the starting three (Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, and Brandon Bell) would be, just not who would be in the middle, taking over for graduating senior Glenn Carson. The bigger question headed into Blue/White 2014 was how much playing time the starting LBs would see in the spring game, due to the depth concerns at this position--we couldn't afford any catastrophic injuries at the talent-rich but not-so-deep position group.
This year, with Hull leaving for the NFL, there will be more reshuffling in the linebacker position group than last--as we're not exactly sure who will lock down that third starting spot. As with most past years, there's not a lack of talent (we are Linebacker U, after all), but how the pieces fit together will be the big question that Brent Pry and Bob Shoop will need to answer between April and August.
Key Departure: Mike Hull
No big deal, right? Just the conference's linebacker of the year, one of the nation's leading tackler's, and a near-universally recognized inexplicable snub from the finalist list from the Bednarik and Butkis awards. It's not like we'll miss Hull and his 140 tackles--after all, his 75 solo stops just happened to be the same number that the number two tackler on the team had total. No, that's not difficult to replace at all.
Couple that with his 10.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception, and the intangibles he brought to the field on every down--in addition to his athleticism and nose for the ball were his football smarts and leadership, the unquantifiable qualities in a senior "quarterback of the defense" that just can't be taught--and, simply, Hull will be difficult to replace. In all likelihood, all of the things that made him such a great player for Penn State last season will have to be found in multiple players on the defensive side. But, as many have stated before, at PSU we've had to replace star linebackers in the past--and James Franklin, Shoop and company will do so again.
Likely Starters: Nyeem Wartman, Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda
Last year, Gary Wooten was Hull's primary backup in the middle--but all early indicators out of spring are that returning starter Wartman will slide over to the middle, with Bell, the other returning starter, flanking him--and with Wartman in the middle, Cabinda is your likely second outside linebacker, having logged the fourth most tackles amongst linebackers last year despite not seeing time until late September as a true freshman.
If for whatever reason the coaching staff isn't satisfied with Wartman in the middle, the lineup change could mean a starting trio of Wartman-Wooten-Bell later on, but whatever we see in the spring scrimmage probably won't mean much come the fall.
Primary Backups: Gary Wooten, Ben Kline, Troy Reeder
The good news? Last year's depth concerns, which showed themselves most when both Wartman and Bell missed games due to injury, should be lessened this year. In addition to the presumed starting trio and Wooten, who will likely be the first man in, Kline returns from a torn achilles tendon this year--and all reports are that he's looking good after missing all of 2014. This isn't his first chunk of time missed due to injury, and his senior year could be one in which he makes a big impact as a part of the linebacker rotation.
Reeder came in as arguably the most ready player in the 2014 recruiting class--but the staff decided to redshirt him, and he bulked up and learned the playbook back and front. His athleticism and football smarts, raved about before he even got to campus, could make him difficult to keep off field, even if he's just a part of special teams.
The Wild Card: Koa Farmer
Though listed on the official roster as a linebacker, reportedly Farmer's getting more reps in the defensive backfield. Long rumored to be slotted in more of a hybrid role, if Penn State decides to stay in more of a nickel format more often, Farmer could be the fifth body--the "Star" position that Shoop has been rumored to favor, similar to that which Stephen Obeng-Agyapong played for much of the 2012 season.