Heading into the 2022 season, linebacker was a bit of a concern for Penn State. The Nittany Lions had to replace Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith, two multi-year starters for Penn State. Meanwhile, Curtis Jacobs was making a move from the Sam to the Will, meaning that all three linebacker spots would have new starters. Toss in the fact that for the first time during the James Franklin tenure there was a new linebackers coach, and linebacker was perhaps the biggest question mark for the Nittany Lions.
Now a couple months later, and the linebacker spot looks like it’s in a much better place. Sure, there were some very bumpy moments — hello Michigan — but Penn State is projected to return five of their top six linebackers, very well may have the best linebacker in the Big Ten, and are bringing in three four-stars from the 2023 recruiting class. Funny how a couple months can completely change the outlook of the room, right?
Will: Abdul Carter (SO) — Keon Wylie (RS FR) — Tony Rojas (FR)
Mike: Kobe King (RS SO) — Tyler Elsdon (RS JR) — Ta’Mere Robinson (FR)
Sam: Curtis Jacobs (SR) — Dom DeLuca (RS SO) — Tyrece Mills (RS SO)
Let’s start with that “very well may have the best linebacker in the Big Ten.” Of course, we are talking about Abdul Carter. The rising sophomore didn’t just live up to expectations; he blew the roof off of it. I think most people thought that Carter would need a year of seasoning before being truly capable of playing linebacker at the Big Ten level, but instead it took him about 1.05 games (targeting!) to show that he was going to be doing a lot more than just working on the scout team.
Penn State football’s communications team put out this tweet to highlight just how special Carter’s season was not just for a freshman, but for any Penn State linebacker.
Abdul Carter in 2022 ⤵️— Penn State FB Communications (@PennStFBComms) January 17, 2023
Joined Deion Barnes as the only PSU freshmen to record 10+ TFLs and 6+ sacks in a season.
1 of 8 LBs (10 instances) to put up 10+ TFLs and 6+ sacks in a season at PSU.
1st PSU LB since Dan Connor to reach the 10+ TFL, 6+ sack milestone. pic.twitter.com/bC8j4SX3Gy
The “first Penn State linebacker to put up at least 6.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs in a season since Dan Connor” note is particularly impressive when you consider all the linebackers that came after Connor. Sean Lee. Navorro Bowman. Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges. Mike Hull. Brandon Bell. Micah Parsons. I mean, holy heck, I really loved Carter as a recruit (I have no shame in patting myself on the back thank you very much, and yes his best position is still defensive end thank you for asking) but I never thought we’d be looking at him as a potential All-American heading into his true sophomore season. But hey, here we are.
Position-wise for Carter, I think you keep him at the Will. I know there was some talk when he signed that he might eventually end up at the Mike, but honestly, he looked so good at the Will that I wouldn’t mess with it. My only hope is that Carter does get comfortable enough with the calls that we see more Carter-Jacobs combos when Penn State goes to the nickel, rather than having to keep in one of Elsdon/King. Want as much speed as possible in the 4-2-5 package.
Speaking of, let’s stick with the situation in the middle, where I expect another round of Tyler Elsdon versus Kobe King this spring and summer. Elsdon got the starting nod in 2022 and saw a bit more of the snaps, but the two were extremely close as far as their stats go:
- Elsdon: 44 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1 sack
- King: 41 tackles, 4 TFLs, 0 sacks
While I think we’ll basically see these two split the snaps again, I’m going to give King the ever-so-small edge here for 2023. Elsdon was better than angry internet people want you to believe, but King just offers you a bit more size (247 pounds vs. 236 pounds) and overall upside. Not that TFLs are the end-all be-all for linebackers, but the fact that King had 1 more TFL despite seeing about 100 less snaps is worth something. But again, I think it’s likely we see these two about equally so who “starts” doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things.
Looking at the Sam linebacker spot, I would expect Curtis Jacobs to make the move back over there for next season. By and large, it’s because Carter is just an absolute freak at the Will, but Jacobs also looked much more comfortable at the Sam both as a full-timer in 2021 and a part-timer in 2022. Jacobs’ best game this season came against Minnesota when he put up 14 tackles and 2 TFLs, and I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that that was the first game he saw an increase in snap reps at the Sam. He’s just better suited for playing in space.
As far as filling out the rest of the three-deep, I think you’ll continue to see walk-on turned scholarship player Dom DeLuca man the backup Sam linebacker position. Only a redshirt freshman last year, DeLuca still has a lot of room to grow — both physically (he’s just 209 pounds) and as a player. I don’t know if he ever starts for Penn State, but it’s clear the Nittany Lions found a legitimate Power 5 scholarship player in DeLuca. He’ll be pushed by Tyrece Mills this spring though, another Lackawanna C.C. product for Penn State. Mills was injured for most of the 2022 season, but came to Happy Valley last summer was a safety-linebacker hybrid prospect.
At the Will, Keon Wylie should get some run. He played Mike linebacker this past season too — getting snaps during the last drive of the Rose Bowl — so he’s someone who can play both in-the-box linebacker spots. He’ll be an intriguing name to follow this spring just given that he came to Penn State around the 200-pound mark, and should be more in the 220-pound area come spring practice. Interested to see how he looks and plays with added size.
Lastly, there’s the true freshman linebackers — most notably, Tony Rojas and Ta’Mere Robinson, who both enrolled early and are on campus as we speak. Both certainly have the ability to play early, even if it’s largely a special teams role, but there are factors that could push them into a redshirt season even beyond the depth chart. For Rojas, he’s just 195 pounds so he’ll need to really take to the strength and conditioning program in the upcoming weeks and months. Meanwhile for Robinson, he hasn’t played a competitive down of football since October 2021, when he tore his ACL so it might be an elongated acclimation process for him.