The holes in the Penn State secondary are noticeable. Safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke are preparing for the NFL draft while cornerbacks Christian Campbell and Grant Haley are doing the same.
Moving one level ahead of them, Penn State has a gaping hole at middle linebacker, where Jason Cabinda is gone and in his place the Nittany Lions’ prized 5-star signee, Micah Parsons, is working this spring.
“We’ll see how he does and test it out in the spring,” Cabinda said. “I think the thing is wherever we put him, he’s going to make a difference.”
There’s no denying Penn State’s defense lost difference-makers like all teams do. Who replaces the well-known faces of the program, those who helped lead the team to back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl games, will continue to be sorted out this spring and summer. Winners of position battles are never named in April. But what players do well is often easily recognizable by the teammates who are in the meeting rooms with them regularly and who are on the practice field sizing up their teammates, too. It’s safe to say the NFL hopefuls are keeping an eye on who could fill their positions this season.
“Nick Scott, Jonathan Sutherland, you got JP [John Petrishen], and you got Lamont [Wade], they all doing they thing,” Allen said of players vying for the starting safety spots. “I heard nothing but good words, but I’m just excited for all of them.”
The Nittany Lions’ deep crop of cornerbacks is why the staff moved Wade to safety this winter, a position switch that made sense to Allen, who watched last season as Wade got acclimated to college football. Working close on a regular basis with Wade is also why Allen wasn’t surprised when he heard coach James Franklin and his staff moved Wade to safety. After all, Wade said last season he’s willing to play anywhere. Given his high-profile high school career, Penn State has to play to its strengths and try to get its four best defensive backs on the field.
“He’s very athletic, so he’s going to bring a different type of style back there,” Allen said of Wade. “Although Nick Scott is athletic and everything, [too]. Lamont played corner, so he has a little bit more athleticism in him. He’s going to do his thing out there.”
Franklin said at the start of spring practice that Scott, a former running back, posted testing numbers that arguably would make him the best athlete on the team. That certainly could make him tough to supplant. Sutherland, whose hard hits during developmental scrimmages last season turned heads, will be one to keep an eye on this spring as well.
Like Parsons, Jake Cooper, Jan Johnson and Ellis Brooks will all have a chance to claim the starting middle linebacker spot. That position battle will have huge ramifications as the quarterback of the defense comes down to: Parsons, who hasn’t played linebacker before; Cooper and Johnson, who have some experience but have dealt with injuries; and Brooks, who took a redshirt last season.
“I like Ellis Brooks. I like his determination,” Cabinda said. “I think he’s a fine player and I think he finds the ball. As a linebacker, there’s so many things where you have to train your eyes, you’ve got to see pulls and there’s a lot of stuff going on. To be able to be instinctual and just play and play fast is something Ellis does. When his mental catches up in terms of playbook and getting everything down, I think he’s going to be a really good player. And then there’s Jan Johnson. He’s a guy who really stepped up for us multiple times over the past year and a half or so, and I think he’s a guy who could really step in here and make a difference as well.”
Parsons will need to lean on those he’s competing with as he learns the defense and figures out the ins and outs of playing middle linebacker. Learning from his peers is what Cabinda said helped him understand the position best. Should Parsons not stick at middle linebacker, the staff already expressed no concerns about using him at defensive end.
“I was always asking questions,” Cabinda said. “Asking Nyeem [Wartman-White], asking [defensive coordinator and linebackers] coach [Brent] Pry, asking Mike Hull question after question after question because I wanted to know. You gotta be smart, you gotta be willing to learn and you gotta be willing to make mistakes. You can’t get too hard on yourself. It’s a position he never played and it’s going to take time and he’s not going to get it Day 1, Day 2 or even Day 7. It’s going to take time and people got to be patient.”