STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The Penn State linebacking corps is in the midst of some growing pains.
The Nittany Lions knew it was coming after they ushered out starting middle linebacker Jason Cabinda and veteran Brandon Smith. Penn State also parted ways with dismissed linebacker Manny Bowen ahead of the Fiesta Bowl, making this offseason an overly important one for the place known as Linebacker-U.
There’s excitement about the depth and the potential of the position, as James Franklin put it this week. But when it comes to experience and figuring out who will lead these guys both on the field and in the meeting room that’s where Koa Farmer’s spring has presented the senior linebacker with a new set of challenges.
“Be more of a leader,” Farmer said of his goals. “We had Jason, we had Marcus [Allen], we had Grant [Haley]. They were probably the leaders of our defense last year, and those guys are gone, and now it’s my turn. … I can’t keep to myself at practice. I’ve got to get everyone involved. … Anything I can do vocally, rather than leading by example, I think that’s one thing I need to do.”
The linebackers that used to look up to Cabinda and Smith now come to Farmer with their questions. And while there’s not much clarity at the middle linebacker spot, it’s Farmer’s job to help the young linebackers sort through their growing pains. Some of these linebackers were sitting in high school classrooms just a few months ago.
The coaching staff made it clear to Farmer what they need from him most — production and leadership. That’s especially true this spring where the SAM linebacker has worked to learn all three spots while bringing along those behind him.
“The biggest thing with Koa is this is his year,” Franklin said after practice Wednesday night. “We really think he has a chance. He’s another guy who was new to the position — he was a high school running back and safety, and we transitioned him to linebacker — so he’s still learning, but growing. Excited about what he’s going to be able to do.”
Farmer’s versatility was his best asset when he transitioned to college football. There were some early frustrations as he bounced between safety and linebacker and back to safety until the staff settled on him working in the hybrid linebacker position that showcases his speed, but there’s no guarantee where anyone in this group lines up this fall. Seemingly everyone will get a crack at middle linebacker, while Penn State knows it has to continue building depth at all three spots because injuries haven’t been kind to this position group, especially the last few years.
Cam Brown and Farmer are the likely starters at the outside spots while a mix of Micah Parsons, Ellis Brooks, Jan Johnson and Jake Cooper are all vying for the starting job in the middle. Early enrollees Jesse Luketa and Nick Tarburton are getting looks this spring, as well, giving the group much-needed depth. But they still have a void in terms of game experience.
There’s no quick fix for that, but Farmer stepping up both on and off the field could help ease that transition.
“It’s definitely weird being the older guy on the team, especially because I lived with Saquon [Barkley], Grant and Trap [Troy Apke],” Farmer said. “They all came back and they’re watching practice now. It’s kind of weird, but it’s fun. The coaches trust me to where I can kind of coach the younger guys so we can get this thing going.”