EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the eighth of our annual position preview series. Be sure to check back over the next couple of weeks as we preview the rest of the positions in the lead-up to the 2020 season.
The Starters: Micah Parsons, Ellis Brooks/Jesse Luketa, Brandon Smith
Folks, this group is going to be gooooooood.
Micah Parsons is arguably the best player in college football. Last season he racked up 109 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 5 sacks, 5 pass break ups, and 4 forced fumbles. This marked the second time in as many years on campus that he led the Nittany Lions in tackles.
This fall, Parsons will likely be used even more to rush the passer and could see his sack total skyrocket. As he spends one last season suiting up for the Nittany Lions, it would not be a surprise to see him work his way into Heisman Trophy contention on his way to becoming a top 5-10 pick in next spring’s NFL Draft.
Penn State will have a first year starter at MIKE. This competition will be between Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa. Right now, the edge appears to belong to Brooks.
Both players bring some thing different to the table and both are talented linebackers. Luketa is the slightly better athlete, but Brooks is probably the better linebacker of the two. Regardless of who takes the first defensive snap against Kent State on September 5, fans will likely see plenty of both this fall.
Finally, there is true sophomore Brandon Smith. Coming out of high school Smith was a five-star recruit for a reason. He flashed his limitless potential at times last season, and will look to take a big step forward this season. It would not be a surprise to see Smith become one of the best linebackers in the country by the end of the season.
The Key Reserves: Lance Dixon, Charlie Katshir
Lance Dixon spent the 2019 season redshirting while he learned to play linebacker. A rush specialist, Dixon was a five-star recruit coming out of West Bloomfield High School in Michigan. While it may be solely in pass rush situations, Dixon should see the field this fall and could be a terror for opposing offensive tackles on third-and-long. Good luck to any offensive line trying to figure out how to handle Penn State’s defensive ends, while also accounting for a blitzing Parsons and/or Dixon.
One of the more unheralded members of Penn State’s loaded 2018 recruiting class was Cumberland Valley product Charlie Katshir. An underrated athlete and just a flat out good football player, Katshir saw his reps as a back up increase as the 2019 season went on. He could see reps as a back up at both WILL and SAM this season. If not for Penn State being as deep and talented as they are at linebacker, Katshir is a player that would get talked about a lot more.
The Departure: Jan Johnson
Former starting MIKE Jan Johnson became one of the best stories in the country in recent seasons. After beginning his Penn State career as a walk on and tearing his ACL in 2016, Johnson became a two-year starter at MIKE. He was also a team captain in 2019.
While Johnson was never the most athletic player on the field, he was a sure tackler and the quarterback of the defensive the last two seasons. The Nittany Lions will miss his pre-snap ability and IQ, as well as his locker room presence and leadership this fall.
The Additions: Curtis Jacobs, Tyler Elsdon
Death, taxes, Penn State signing a five-star linebacker. in 2018 it was Parsons, 2019 was Smith and Dixon. Now, Curtis Jaocbs becomes the latest five-star linebacker to sign with the Nittany Lions. It would be a major surprise if Jacobs does not make an impact on special teams this fall, while also earning reps on defense.
Jacobs was not the only high level linebacker in their 2020 recruiting class, though. Elsdon, a four-star out of North Schuylkill High School, was an early enrollee who turned heads during winter workouts. There was even some chatter that Elsdon could be ready to see the field this fall, with his biggest road block being the amount of talent ahead of him on the depth chart.
This fall there will be few position groups in the entire country as strong as linebacker will be for the Nittany Lions. Parsons is arguably the best player in college football, Smith has unlimited potential, Brooks and Luketa have both flashed in the past, and former five-star recruits Dixon and Jacobs will look to make an impact as well. Katshir is also a sneaky good athlete and just a flat out good football player.
Penn State has at least six, maybe even as many as seven linebackers on their roster that are capable of starting for most FBS programs this fall. That is an insanely talented room. Brent Pry has to be salivating over the thought of his linebacker unit this fall.