It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am predisposed to love linebackers. I have a widespread reputation; not just on this corner of the interwebs, but in my real life, where I've made my predilections well known. It's that love, therefore, that has caused many a college football fan, Penn Stater and non-Penn Stater alike, to come up to me this offseason and ask me just who I think, in 2015, will replace the tackling machine that was Mike Hull last season.
My answer is, and will continue to be, that one does not simply replace Mike Hull. I expect the borderline insane number of tackles that Hull logged last year to be distributed amongst multiple players on Bob Shoop's defense, which I project to be top ten yet again; but the biggest beneficiary of this, and the defender that should show the biggest bump, will be linebacker Brandon Bell.
Bell was a versatile athlete in high school that was forced into the linebacker rotation early on. *Just* a three-star recruit in the class of 2013 from Mays Landing, NJ, he chose the Nittany Lions over a ton of other power five programs like West Virginia, Syracuse, Purdue, Maryland, and BTPR. He saw time in 10 games as a true freshman at PSU due to the extreme lack of depth his first year on campus. All he did was come on strong at the end of the year, breaking out near the end of the season and showing glimpses of what was to come--even being named to BTN.com's all-Freshman team.
Building on that in 2014, Bell started in all eleven games in which he played, at weakside linebacker. He finished the season with 47 tackles (23 solo), seven tackles for loss, 2 sacks and one of Gary "Champagne Super" Nova's five interceptions in last year's game against Rutgers.
What's more telling, though, is how the defense played when Bell wasn't on the field due to his undisclosed injury (likely to his shoulder) to finish out the Nittany Lions' regular season--both losses, and both hideous for very different reasons. The Michigan State game, especially, was one of the roughest for a PSU defense that held Ohio State's vaunted offense to only 17 points in regulation--but let the Spartan offense score 27. And though he was back after some time off for the Pinstripe Bowl, he logged only four tackles in an overall lackluster defensive performance by Penn State--and depth at the linebacker position could have played a part in his return.
This year there is a true two-deep at every position on the field for the Nittany Lions, and the talent is undoubtedly there. Some (including yours truly) expected Bell to switch to the middle linebacker position, a location he spent years at in high school; but his athleticism and Nyeem Wartman-White's additional year in the program had the latter make the switch.
Regardless, in defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's exciting and varied defense, Bell will have a chance to show off and shine--and with the talent both around and in front of him, he'll put up some gaudy numbers coming in off the edge. He'll be a factor both in the run game--Bell's shown a nose for the ball since his high school days--and an easy ability to drop back into coverage in passing situations. He'll most likely be the other linebacker, with Wartman-White, to stay on the field in obvious passing (nickel) situations.
There's no pressure, of course, for Bell to be great--not since he changed his number to eleven in this offseason: