The Penn State football program returns to on-field action late Monday afternoon as spring practice gets underway. A group of Nittany Lions newcomers is headlined by linebacker Micah Parsons.
An acclaimed Harrisburg (Pa.) High School product, he arrived on campus in early January as one of six mid-year enrollees. No prospect received higher praise in a 2018 Penn State recruiting class that finished in the top 5 overall for the first time in 247Sports composite National Signing Day rankings.
Parsons, the highest-rated Nittany Lions signee since 2005 (Derrick Williams), warranted national attention for his talents at defensive end. However, within hours of his Dec. 20 signing, Penn State coach James Franklin made it clear his next chapter would begin at linebacker.
Franklin reinforced his staff’s reasoning Monday while speaking with media members.
“We all realize he can play defensive end. He’s established that on film, he’s established that at camps, he’s established that at some of the all-star games he went to,” Franklin said. “But we have a real pressing need at Mike [middle] linebacker. We also have a guy who not only played D-end, but played running back at a high level. A lot of times, those guys who are really good linebackers were really good running backs.”
Parsons totaled 1,239 rushing yards (11.4 yards per carry) and 29 touchdowns in 2017, leading Harrisburg to an unbeaten regular season. Cougars coach Calvin Everett utilized Parsons across the field en route to his All-American honors.
“Micah, from my point of view — he’s a once-in-a-generation type of athlete,” Everett said in a National Signing Day profile published by Penn State. “There are very few things he cannot do — and cannot do well —on a football field.”
Parsons again will have a chance to prove his unique skill set in spring camp. Penn State is tasked with replacing longtime starter and team captain Jason Cabinda at middle linebacker, so Franklin and Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Brent Pry will watch closely to see how quickly he can push program veterans for playing time.
“You talk about a guy who has the body type, the strength and quickness — I think he has a chance,” Franklin said. “Since he showed up on campus, he’s done a really good job.”
Dwight Galt, Penn State’s director of performance enhancement, praised Parsons near the conclusion of his first collegiate winter workout schedule.
“You would never know [about his recruiting prowess] by the way he acts,” Galt said. “He works just like everybody else; he’s fit in really well. Not a big talker, but he’s extremely motivated to be the best player he can be. I train the linebackers, and it’s really been a pleasure training him.”
The leap from offseason conditioning to spring practice represents another litmus test for the lauded freshman.
“He’s never played the position, so that’s going to be a challenge from a fundamental and technique standpoint, and from a [leadership] standpoint,” Franklin said. “And then also the playbook. At linebacker you have to take a little bit more command, a little bit more control.”
Penn State must identify two new starters in its linebacker unit, and few positions on the field are more pivotal than middle linebacker. Among positional competitions set to take place throughout spring practice, this spot might be the most compelling.
“We’ve got to find a two-deep at middle linebacker,” Franklin said. “I think that’s a critical question going into the spring. A two-deep we can win with. … There’s a number of guys who’ve been kind of waiting their turn with Jason Cabinda holding down that position for a long time. We’re just trying to create as much competition at that position as we can.”
Coaches, fans and teammates alike will be keeping a close eye on Parsons’ development. His journey to Happy Valley was a well-documented whirlwind.
He picked up a Penn State offer soon after his freshman season, verbally committed to the Nittany Lions in February 2016, backed off that verbal pledge in April 2017, then ultimately re-committed eight months later. Parsons was a lightning rod on the national recruiting landscape, rarely venturing out of the spotlight while visiting universities such Alabama, Georgia, Nebraska, Ohio State and Oklahoma.
Now, two months into his collegiate career, a recruitment that featured its ups and downs has steadily faded into the rear-view mirror.
“I remember during the recruiting process there got to be a point where some of the players were like, ‘Coach, why are we putting up with this?’ I don’t see anybody saying that now,” Franklin said. “Watching him work, now they see why. … I haven’t had one person question the roller coaster [recruitment] since he showed up on campus.”
Expectations are immense for this crop of Penn State freshmen, and no player carries a larger share on his shoulders — at least in terms of public perception — than Parsons.
“So far, so good,” Franklin said. “He’s really done a good job, from a maturity standpoint, from an accountability standpoint, and from a teammate standpoint, He’s very respectful of the older guys, he’s working and competing like crazy.”