“Linebacker U,” in some ways, has turned into “Linebacker Who?”
While Penn State navigated depth-sapping NCAA sanctions last season, a safety (Stephen Obeng-Agyapong) played linebacker more often than not as the thin Nittany Lions dealt with injuries to two of their projected starters. This spring, almost all of PSU’s practices featured just four scholarship linebackers.
Glenn Carson, a three-year starter at middle linebacker, graduated and signed with the Arizona Cardinals. To put Penn State’s lack of experience and depth at linebacker into perspective, Carson started 36 games during his career; the entirety of PSU’s 2014 linebacking corps enters the season with just 19 career starts.
The situation might not be as dire as that perhaps sounds – redshirt junior Ben Kline (shoulder and chest injuries) is hoping to be ready for the start of the season after sitting out most of spring practice, Mike Hull is poised for a star turn during his fifth-year senior season, and Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell each showed promise last fall while playing as freshmen.
Additionally, a pair of three-star recruits – Troy Reeder and Jason Cabinda – join the team as freshmen for preseason camp. And another recruit, four-star Koa Farmer, will begin his career as a strong safety in a spot that theoretically could support the outside linebackers. Reeder, whose father played briefly for the Steelers, is generally considered the freshman linebacker most likely to contribute immediately.
After that, Gary Wooten is the lone scholarship linebacker who remains – albeit an intriguing one. Wooten had a peculiar recruitment in that he signed with Penn State in August 2012 – about 21 months after playing his final high school game in Miami. He redshirted his initial season and appeared in 10 of the final 11 games last season. Half of his tackles were in the season finale against Wisconsin.
Hull, unsolicited, told me that Wooten was turning heads during spring practice. Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo did likewise to PennLive.
“He’s a really strong, physical, big linebacker,” Hull said of the 6-2, 238-pound Wooten. “And he doesn’t waste too much movement; he just goes downhill and makes plays. He’s been around the ball a lot this spring, and I think he will just keep getting better and better.”
Of the 10 walk-ons listed on the roster at linebacker, Matt Baney, a junior from State College, appears to have scaled the depth chart the highest. Converted running back Von Walker — fleet enough he was returning some punts last season — is another walk-on linebacker worth noting.
Baney was visible during the Blue-White Game (he had an interception and a pass break-up).
“Matt Baney had a really good spring; he’s gotten a lot better from so far from whenever he first got on the team,” Hull said. “He filled in for Nyeem whenever he was missing some practices during the spring due to injury and he did a great job and I think he’ll help because we need speed in there.”
No slight to Baney, but Penn State hopes he doesn’t have to get significant snaps on defense this season – only because that would probably mean that multiple linebackers are injured. The Lions dealt with that last season, with Hull at less than 100 percent until the latter stages of the season, and Kline limited to two starts.
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has fallen in love with Hull as a player and leader. If he can stay healthy, seemingly everyone involved with the program expects a super year from Hull at middle linebacker. Kline – again, if he can completely recover from injury and stay healthy – projects as the top backup at both middle and weakside outside linebacker.
That leaves Wartman – who showed flashes last season but was inconsistent – and Bell, who made an abundance of splash plays in a limited sample size, as sophomore starters. Bell was a true freshman in 2013; Wartman played his freshman season after redshirting in 2012. Of course, don’t count out Wooten.
“I don’t want to name anybody individually because everybody has just worked really hard this spring,” Kline said. “All these guys, from top to bottom.”