Last year, though depth was a concern headed into the season, Penn State football fans felt pretty good about a starting trio of Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda, and Nyeem Wartman-White. At the end of September, though, those feelings turned to straight-up panic as Wartman-White was declared out for the season, and both Bell and Cabinda were questionable going forward with injuries of their own.
Enter Brandon Smith, Manny Bowen, Jake Cooper, Koa Farmer, and Cam Brown. The depth of the LBU unit was tested, and despite some early bumps in the road, the unit as a whole succeeded beyond any expectations fostered in Ann Arbor, when they were down to what felt like the 8th string players. This year, depth is a concern again – but not as much, as the presumed starters will all have had not insignificant playing time, as will the two-deep.
Just about the surest bet on defense is that Jason Cabinda will once again be the starting middle linebacker for Penn State. He was a solid and vocal leader in his true junior campaign, even when off the field due to injury, and he was named the defense’s captain of the 2017 headed into his final year in the blue and white.
Even though Cabinda lost five games due to injury, he still was named to All-Big Ten teams and finished third on the team in tackles with 81 – an average 9 tackles per game he played (the highest per-game average on the year). He only logged one sack on the season – but it was a doozy:
Look for Cabinda to pour it on in his senior season, now that he’s the entrenched leader, alongside outside linebacker Manny Bowen.
Bowen was expected by many to redshirt his freshman campaign in 2015, but injuries and need at the linebacker position forced him into the rotation early. This past year, he was poised to play the role of fourth man in – until Wartman-White’s season-ending injury, where he was thrust into the starting role for the remainder of the year. The defense missed Bowen when he missed time, especially the Rose Bowl game in which he didn’t play – but he should have a gigantic junior season after being second on the team in TFLs in 2016, and finishing fifth on the team in overall tackles.
Both Cabinda and Bowen will likely see little time on Saturday, especially Cabinda, whose injuries over the course of his career could see him on the bench from the beginning.
Who had heard of Brandon Smith before 2016? The former walk-on came out of nowhere to take Cabinda’s spot when the junior went down. Smith started just two games for the Lions last season, but played in all fourteen (one of only two linebackers to do so) and finished the season sixth on the team in tackles. He also leads all returning defensemen in interceptions – like this beauty:
Smith overcame his early bullshit ejection against Michigan to turn up his play later on in the year, and though he likely won’t start absent shuffling on the line (he’s most definitely a middle backer, which is Cabinda’s spot), the drop off between starter and backup at that position is likely the least on the team.
But who will be the third starter for the Lions?
Jake Cooper looked poised to take over that mantle after starting at OLB versus Temple in his sophomore season, where he logged five tackles – but a season ending injury had him only playing in six games on the year. If he’s back to 100%, it could be Cooper’s spot for the taking – but he’ll have to fend off a true sophomore thrust into the starting lineup last season, and a senior defensive back/linebacker hybrid who finally was able to utilize his skill set down the stretch.
Cam Brown was set to redshirt in 2016 (he didn’t see time against Kent State) before being inserted in special teams, where he felt at home almost right away:
But a special-teams-only season, with limited reps at LB, was not in the cards for Brown, and he ended up starting two games at linebacker and logging 33 tackles on the year. If he lets the game slow down for him, it could be a big opportunity to see him start—he’s got a lot of hype to live up to wearing number 31, and at 6’5”, 210, he’s still lanky with room to get stronger.
And then there’s senior Koa Farmer, a super-athletic player seemingly caught in between a defensive back and part of the front seven; Farmer, too, started two games, but was used more often in modified nickel packages rather than run support, but he did have some great blitzes off the edge, dialed up by Defensive Coordinator Brent Pry at the most opportune of times. Farmer turned it on at the end of the year, getting better as the season progressed – and he looks to be the first man in on passing downs when the defense doesn’t want to play with a fifth DB (more likely, now that John Reid looks to be missing time).
With Von Walker graduated and Johnathan Thomas returning to running back, filling out the three-deep are some wildcards – and an early-enrollee, all of whom should see significant time in the blue-white game.
Redshirt sophomore Jarvis Miller was touted when he signed with the Nittany Lions in 2015, but he’s been relegated mostly to special teams so far, notching multiple tackles in that role last season – that could change this year with more opportunity on defense.
Another young gun, early enrollee Brelin Faison-Walden, came into PSU in January a bit undersized for the OLB role at 6’1”, 200, but will likely see time in the spring game – and depending on depth concerns, could be inserted earlier than predicted in the fall.
And then there’s walk-ons senior Jason Vranic, this past week’s football Nittany Lion of the week who was injured last season, and former starting wrestling heavyweight and redshirt sophomore Jan Johnson, who left the Michigan game with a season-ending injury. Vranic was a transfer from Erie Community College, where he played with acclaim for two seasons; this will be his first and final season to see time for the Nittany Lions. Johnson was thrust into the spotlight when wrestler Nick Nevills went down with injury early in Cael Sanderson’s seventh season at Penn State, when the grappling coach had to ask James Franklin to borrow the freshman – and incidentally, he’s the only player on the PSU roster with an NCAA title.
If both are recovered, they could see time in the spring game alongside fellow walk-ons Frank Di Leo and Joe DuMond.