Headed into the 2015 season, linebacker depth for Penn State wasn't as big of a concern as in 2014. Despite the graduation of do-it-all MLB Mike Hull, we had a trio of returning linebackers in Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell, and Jason Cabinda who had all seen starting time the previous season, and an influx of younger talent was fleshing out the the lower ranks.
Then, near the end of the first half in the first game of the season, the virtually unthinkable happened in the first game of the year: Wartman-White, who had shifted to the middle, went down with a season ending injury, shifting all thoughts of the formation and depth of the linebacker corps.
Cabinda slid over to play middle, and Bell, with all his roving athleticism, stayed on the outside. True freshman Troy Reeder took most of the starts on the other outside position, and the lineup for 2015 was set. A few injuries here and there, and more backups (Manny Bowen, Von Walker) saw key time; for the most part, though, the starters remained unchanged through the bowl game.
It looked to be a four-man fight for the three-man lineup headed into 2016 until Reeder announced his departure to play back home with his brother, at Delaware, and now we're back to the same three-headed lineup we expected at this point last year.
Senior Brandon Bell brings perhaps the most passion and fire of any defender on the Penn State sideline. The difference in the defense's demeanor and nastiness is palpable when Bell is on the field; he missed two games in 2015 due to injury, but still logged 65 tackles (36 solo) and is the teams returning tackle for loss leader, with 12.5 last year (including 5.5 sacks), as one of the most popular blitzing options for then-defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Bell's nose for the ball and eye for the big hit sometimes made him miss the sure tackles, which can be turned around on the practice field.
Junior Jason Cabinda led the team with 100 tackles (39 solo) last year, and was the only linebacker to start all 13 games of the season. He filled in admirably in the middle starting in the second game of the season, learning that position on the fly and adapting to be the quarterback of the defense despite his relatively young (true sophomore) status on the team. He flew all over the field and was used in the passing game, with 1 interception and 6 passes defended (5 passes broken up) but was sometimes fooled and overpursued the ball. He, like many other young defenders, sometimes found himself out of position to make the sure play; that can come with time and coaching.
Cabinda likely won't be the starter at middle linebacker this year, as redshirt senior Nyeem Wartman-White returns to the field after his injury in the Temple game. Wartman-White was second on the team in 2014 in total tackles (to Hull, naturally) with 75 tackles (32 solo) and 3.5 tackles for loss. He showed great promise in his very limited time in the middle, and brings senior leadership to the middle position; Wartman-White already graduated in December with a telecommunications degree.
Sophomore Jake Cooper may have been on his way to redshirting last season before Wartman-White's injury, but he proved too important to the team's depth, playing in twelve games and starting one (the bowl game) at linebacker, marking 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss (including 1 sack) and 1 pass defended in that time. Cooper projected to the middle but is versatile, and really came on at the end of the season with his best football played in the bowl game.
Sophomore Manny Bowen played 13 games as a true freshman in 2015 in Bell's absence, and showed real promise, logging the most tackles of any reserve linebacker with 18 and picking up a fumble recovery. The bulk of Bowen's time was seen on special teams, but that can quickly transition into key time on defense for special LBU greats (*cough* Mauti *cough*). Bowen was a consensus four-star recruit that should be a key part of the two-deep, and will fight with Cooper to be the first man in the four-man rotation now that Reeder is gone.
Last season, senior Von Walker earned a scholarship. He ended up an integral part of the special teams unit and starting two games at linebacker, notching 10 tackles (6 solo). He'll look to fill a similar type of role this year, his last in the program.
Also look out for juniors Brandon Smith and Jason Vranic, and everyone's favorite wrestling heavyweight--that's right, freshman Jan Johnson is back, listed on the football roster at linebacker. I'll be rooting for you, Jan.