The Penn State football program prides itself on a lauded legacy at linebacker. Nittany Lions who became All-Americans, such as LaVar Arrington, Shane Conlan, Dan Connor, Paul Posluszny, Jack Ham and Dennis Onkotz, are included on a “Linebacker U” list too long to fit into this paragraph.
That history is special. The future should be, too.
“The linebacker group we’re putting together will have a chance to dominate for several years,” Jesse Luketa, a freshman, said a few weeks before his January enrollment at the university.
Luketa is one of two blue-chip newcomers at linebacker who participated in spring practice. Micah Parsons, considered an all-time impressive Pennsylvania prospect, is the other.
They combined for 12 tackles, 1 sack and 1 fumble recovery April 21 during the Blue-White Game, further exciting a fan base that already had established LBU-caliber expectations for both. This enthusiasm especially applies to Parsons, the No. 5 overall recruit in the 247Sports 2018 composite rankings and a player who received his Penn State scholarship offer in November 2014.
LaVar Arrington, a former in-state high school star himself, also arrived in Happy Valley surrounded by intrigue. He delivered on the hype, twice earning first-team All-America honors before becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft.
In February, when Arrington learned Parsons would be wearing his No. 11 jersey, he welcomed the newcomer into rare company via a video post:
No freshman started a game for the Nittany Lions in 2017 and Arrington cautions against anyone — including Parsons himself — setting the bar too high, too soon.
“I’m excited to see his progression, but I hope people don’t get overly anxious about him because a lot of times when you come in and you have that much fanfare and that much coverage everybody wants you to be the best thing Day 1,” Arrington said. “The most important thing that he has to make sure that he understands and knows is that this is truly a learning experience, especially the early days.”
Coach James Franklin described Parsons’ earliest days as an eye-opening experience.
“When he makes a decision, he can flat-out run and run by people,” Franklin said. “There are times where he’ll backdoor the play and go two gaps back, and you really shouldn’t do that. You’re saying, ‘No, no, no.’ Then he makes a tackle for loss in the backfield, so it’s like, ‘No, no, no, yes, yes, yes.’“
Nittany Lions defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry explained the importance of avoiding information overload.
“You can’t go from zero to 60, especially with a guy who hasn’t played the position,” Pry said. “You can’t go and expect him to play like Brandon Bell or like Jason Cabinda did at Will. It’s a work in progress. For him to be successful you tell him what he needs to know right now to be successful in the framework of the defense and kind of ground level.”
Penn State approaches the summer in search of two new starters at linebacker, with junior Cam Brown perceived to be in excellent position to secure a spot. Senior Koa Farmer returns to his Sam role, and he produced the highest tackles total (48) in 2017 among players who remain on the roster.
“The coaches trust me to where I can kind of coach the younger guys so we can get this thing going,” Farmer said.
Plenty of fans are already anticipating Parsons will fill a role — he shifted from the Mike to Will linebacker spot during spring camp — but it’s important to remember he competed at defensive end during a dominant prep career. You also can’t overlook competition across the position from Penn State veterans such as juniors Jan Johnson and Jarvis Miller, and redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks.
Brooks, a 4-star prospect in the 2017 recruiting cycle, carries four years of eligibility into this season. He drew positive reviews from Cabinda, a 2017 team captain and multi-year Nittany Lions starter, on March 20 during Penn State’s pro day.
“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.”
Penn State has won 20 of its last 23 games and, despite the presence of key returnees headlined by quarterback Trace McSorley, plenty of people across the college football landscape will view 2018 as a “prove it” year regarding the ability to reload the roster.
The Nittany Lions’ 2018 recruiting class — the program’s first to finish in the top 5 in National Signing Day rankings —supplies an extra dose of optimism for sustained success. Luketa and Parsons are two of 12 freshmen who were considered top-10 talents at their respective position.
Along with his prowess as a two-time all-state selection at Mercyhurst Prep (Erie, Pa.), Luketa served as a pivotal peer recruiter throughout the 2018 cycle. He was a linchpin, especially when things grew shaky last spring following de-commitments from Parsons and 5-star quarterback Justin Fields.
“You’ve got to have a stable guy to lead the point in recruiting all the guys and holding them together,” Penn State defensive recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said Dec. 20 during the early signing period. “We, as coaches, we’re kind of like parents. The recruits will hear us to a point, and then they’ll want to hear from their peers. That’s where Jesse really played a major factor and held this class together. [He] kept them optimistic and upbeat.”
Innate leadership qualities and a formidable physical frame make Luketa another candidate to compete for early collegiate reps. The spring game — his first Beaver Stadium appearance in a Nittany Lions uniform — represented a dream achieved.
Mercyhurst Prep coach Jeff Root recalled the outlook Luketa adopted in 2016 while transitioning from safety.
“The first thing he said was, ‘I’m going to watch film on Penn State linebackers because they’re the best in the country.’ Boom, that was his plan,” Root said.
The following winter, Penn State became one of more than 30 programs to extend an offer to the Ottawa, Ontario, native.
“He’s going to be a monster,” Franklin said Feb. 7 upon his first public assessment of Luketa since the linebacker’s early enrollment.
Luketa’s arrival presented the next chapter in a unique football journey.
“When I crossed the border [into the United States] a few years ago, I left all my family and friends back home and just dedicated myself to pursue my dreams and take a big step,” he said. “I’ll be living out my dreams in Happy Valley.”
That’s also now the plan for 5-star 2019 linebacker recruit Brandon Smith, who verbally pledged to Penn State on May 21 after considering schools such as Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.
Standing 6-foot-5 and in the 220-pound range, he secured 192 tackles — 35 for loss — and 16 sacks the last two seasons.
“I love playing sideline to sideline, creating big hits and just wreaking havoc,” Smith said while assessing his abilities.
Mike Fletcher, a former all-conference defensive back at Oregon who coaches linebackers throughout The Opening’s national camp circuit, described a compelling athlete after working Smith through drills in April 2017.
“Obviously the first thing you notice is his size, especially with those long arms,” Fletcher said. “He’s got a really great frame so young, which brings up the question when you watch his film. He’s like a Swiss Army knife, so which position will he play at the next level?”
Smith’s high school staff considered moving him to defensive end last offseason but he ultimately remained at middle linebacker and helped lead Louisa County (Mineral, Va.) to a state championship game appearance.
“Brandon has a bright future ahead of him,” Fletcher said. “He’s a smart kid, he listens, he has very violent hands and keeps his feet moving through contact. He finishes well, and that’s one thing that really stands out on film. … His love for the game and demeanor on defense will be infectious and spread to other guys. Those are players a coach needs to have on the field and in the classroom. The guy is juiced up about the opportunity to play this game, and that’s someone you want in your program.”
Plenty of programs, including eventual Big Ten opponents, pursued Smith. The same can be said about Ellis, Luketa and Parsons.
Penn State prevailed in each recruitment and, as a result, the future of Linebacker U appears as promising as ever.