Throughout the off-season the expectation has been for the Nittany Lion defense to be one of the best in both the Big Ten and the FBS in 2020. A big reason for this was due to the Nittany Lions having arguably the best defensive player in college football, Micah Parsons.
Well, as you all know by now, due to the coronavirus pandemic, if there is a 2020 season Parsons has elected to opt out. While he will begin to train for the NFL Draft, to his credit, Micah will still finish off his degree in December.
Any time a team loses a player the caliber of Parsons, it will drastically change what they plan to do defensively. While, luckily, Penn State is as deep as any team in the country at linebacker, replacing a game wrecker the caliber of Parsons will not be easy.
First and foremost, defensive coordinator Brent Pry will need to replace Parsons in the starting line up. Signs point toward Jesse Luketa, who was Parsons roommate, replacing him as the starting WILL.
Penn State could also experiment with Brandon Smith at the WILL. Smith is slated to start at SAM, but this was with the idea of Parsons at WILL. Parsons and Smith both have elite athleticism and ability to cover ground laterally. As a result, we may have seen a lot of two linebacker packages with Parsons and Smith. Now with Parsons gone, you may see them experiment with Smith at WILL and another elite athlete such as Lance Dixon or Curtis Jacobs at SAM. This, however, seems unlikely.
More than likely the starting linebackers will be Luketa, Smith and Ellis Brooks at the MIKE. Charlie Katshir, Dixon and Jacobs would likely slide in as a the primary back ups. When Brooks is not in the game, Luketa may still slide to MIKE, which could create opportunity for Katshir at the WILL.
The loss of Parsons will also impact the pass rush. There is little doubt that Pry was going to look to unleash Parsons as a pass rushing terror this fall, especially on third and long. Now, it seems plausible that Dixon could see an expandable role as a blitzing pass rusher on third down.
Pry could also look to use Luketa is pass coverage on third down, while making Smith the pass rusher. Coming out of high school, Smith was viewed as a plus pass rusher. 2020 could be the season is which we see Smith put this ability to use.
Losing Parsons will also put an added emphasis on the defensive line. At times last year the defensive line disappeared in the pass rush. Shaka Toney, Jayson Oweh and Adisa Isaac will need to help bring the heat to opposing quarterbacks this season. The interior of the defensive line will also need to improve, with PJ Mustipher being a catalyst there.
Thankfully, Penn State has one of the deepest linebacker rooms in the country. The players we have talked about goes without mentioning incoming four-star linebacker Tyler Elsdon, who was an early enrollee turning heads before the coronavirus shutdown winter workouts.
Where Penn State will miss Parsons most is the impact he has on the players around him. Parsons is the type of player that opposing offenses must game plan around. He is the type of player you run away from and look to double team or chip block on third down. Completely replacing a player like that is not possible.
Maybe the biggest loss with Parsons is it takes away the ability of the defense to take that leap from great to elite. It also puts a spotlight on Penn State’s need to recruit just a tick better, because that team from Columbus would not drop from elite to great due to losing one player. And the fact of the matter is, no matter what anyone thinks, Penn State’s goal needs to be getting on the same level as that school in Columbus.
While Penn State should still have one of the best linebacker groups in the Big Ten, if not the entire FBS, if the 2020 season played, replacing Parsons still will not be easy. Few players in the country have the ability to impact a game the way Parsons does. Replacing that game changing ability of Parsons is what Coach Pry and his staff will struggle to do this fall.