If Linebacker U is not back yet, it is close. Few positions were hit harder during the sanction years than linebacker, but the position that Penn State football is known for is quickly becoming a position of strength once again. In 2019, the Nittany Lions return two starters at linebacker, and the non-starter might have been their best linebacker in 2018, and a legitimate All-American candidate this season.
Micah Parsons (So.): Technically 2019 will be Micah’s first year as a starting linebacker for Penn State, but he is not your normal first year starter. As a true freshman in 2018, he showed why he was arguably the best prospect in the 2018 recruiting cycle and was Penn State’s best linebacker, finishing the season with a team best 82 tackles to go along with 4.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles.
Penn State’s defense has not had a playmaker like Parsons in a long time, and he’s ready to burst on to the scene nationally in 2019. Expect Parsons to be all over the field for Brent Pry’s defense in 2019 and for Big Ten quarterbacks to suffer because of it.
Jan Johnson (RS Sr.): This may change before the end of the 2019 season, but for now, Johnson remains the starter at MIKE. Johnson recorded 72 sacks and his first career interception in 2018 while starting at MIKE for the Nittany Lions.
While he is a sure tackler, Johnson leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to athleticism. The former wrestling state champion will have to fight off competition to remain the starter for the entirety of the 2019 season, but Johnson has proven he should never be counted out. Most players with the injury history of Johnson would no longer even be playing, let alone starting for one of the 10-15 best teams in the country.
Cam Brown (Sr.): In the second half of the 2018 season, Brown appeared to be turning a corner as the team’s starting SAM linebacker. While he still needs to learn to tackle opponents and not just attempt to decapitate them, Brown’s game has grown leaps and bounds in his three years on campus.
James Franklin has said multiple times this offseason that Brown will likely be a defensive captain this fall and that he is emerging as a team leader. Combine this with his 63 tackle, 6.5 TFL, 2.0 sack, and three forced fumble performance in 2018, and there will be a lot of expectations and pressure on the true senior this fall.
Ellis Brooks (RS So.): Coming off a solid redshirt freshman campaign, Brooks will look to unseat Johnson as the starter at MIKE. Last season, Brook racked up 30 tackles and his first career interception for the Nittany Lions. He also showed great instincts at the linebacker position and a nose for the ball.
By the end of the 2018 season, Brooks was playing at a different level than he was at the start of the season. He plays like a more athletic Jason Cabinda, and is also a film room warrior just like Cabinda, which should excite Penn State fans. Following a strong offseason, Brooks appears ready to take the next step in 2019.
Jesse Luketa (So.): Luketa did not redshirt in 2018 despite largely playing just special teams. The Canadian import appears ready for a much larger role in 2019, though. Luketa can play the WILL or MIKE, and is a player that both coaches and teammates have raved about. Look for Luketa’s role to grow substantially in 2019, with a future as a starter and possibly even a team captain very much in the cards.
Brandon Smith (Fr.): As an early enrollee, Smith has been on campus since January. A five-star recruit, Smith was rated as the top ranked inside linebacker prospect in the 2019 cycle according to 247Sports.
Smith has the length, football IQ, and athleticism needed to be among the best MIKE linebackers in the Big Ten one day. While that time is not here yet, fans should still expect to see Smith on the field in the fall even if it is just on special teams.
Lance Dixon (Fr.): Like Smith, Dixon was an early enrollee and a five-star recruit according to 247Sports. While Smith was the top rated inside linebacker, Dixon took the top spot for the outside linebacker rankings.
Dixon’s game is different than Smith’s, though. What made Dixon a five-star recruit is his potential to be an elite pass rusher off the edge, while having the athleticism to drop back in coverage seamlessly. When he arrived on campus, Dixon was not as polished as Smith, and needed more time in Dwight Galt’s S&C program. He is not a slam dunk to play in the fall, but he should get his four-game test and be given an opportunity to become a green light.