After Penn State finished brushing off the confetti from its Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis, the task for head coach James Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry was to identify who could step in at two of the linebacker positions that starters Cam Brown and Jan Johnson were moving on from.
The work got much harder, however, in the spring while coaches and players were in quarantine after Micah Parsons, a consensus All-America linebacker from last season, opted out to train for the 2021 NFL draft, where he is expected to be a top-10 pick.
So a new trio of starting linebackers had to be found for the Nittany Lions, but there was no panic. Six candidates — four who saw significant playing time last season, plus two talented freshmen — are ready to take the next step.
Pry, who also is the Lions' linebackers coach, said there was no need to rethink the positions after the departure of Parsons, who led the team in tackles last season playing the Will (weakside) spot.
“He obviously was a very important piece,” Pry said. “We’ve got a lot of flexibility in the room. We have several guys playing multiple positions. I’m excited about the guys in the room. We still have a ton of competition. With Micah’s departure, it actually created a little more competition with that spot opening up.”
Junior Jesse Luketa, a Canadian who worked out at times during quarantine with Flyers captain Claude Giroux in Ottawa, is ticketed to take over Parsons' position. He has excelled on special teams the last two seasons and played a key backup linebacker role in 2019.
“What I’ve learned from Micah is just being out there having fun and being instinctive,” the 6-foot-3, 244-pound Luketa said. “You’re going to make your best plays when you’re making plays on the football. So it’s being able to stay alive and do what you’ve got to do to make the spectacular plays. That’s huge.”
Pry likes what he has seen from Luketa.
“He’s an animal right now,” he said. “He’s big. He’s strong. He’s taken ownership of the defense.”
The Nittany Lions lost two other valuable pieces in Brown on the strong side and Johnson, a former walk-on, in the middle. In addition to being steady two-year starters, they passed on their experience and knowledge to the younger players.
“I learned from Jan, especially his preparation for the game,” said redshirt junior Ellis Brooks, who appears ready to replace Johnson. “I thought I watched film before I saw how Jan watched film, the amount of film study. Once you have that mentality, you don’t know what you don’t know. You’re just always ready to learn.”
Sophomore Brandon Smith, a highly touted recruit in last year’s freshman class, is likely to start on the strong side. He said while his body type (6-3, 244) and his game are similar to that of Brown with an ability to get into the passing lanes, all the linebackers bring something different to the table.
“We don’t have really the same type of game,” Smith said. “We all have the same value, but we just bring a different type of flavor to the game. I’m not really concerned about us and our abilities. I have full confidence in us as a unit.”
Redshirt sophomore Charlie Katshir played in 12 games last season, mostly on special teams. Redshirt freshman Lance Dixon, considered the fastest in the linebacker room, appeared in three games and saved his redshirt. Curtis Jacobs, who was considered the third-best high school linebacker in the nation by 247Sports as a senior, could see some playing time.
Penn State has had a rich tradition of linebackers over the years, with 14 first-team All-Americans in the last half-century, the most recent being Parsons. That doesn’t include Sean Lee, Jason Cabinda, NaVorro Bowman, and Mike Hull, current or former NFL players.
Luketa said that while Penn State lost significant experience at the position, the next group is ready to step in with “the opportunity to make their names a household one.”
“We see the rich history of linebackers that have come here and left their mark,” he said. “The standard is the standard. When I’m watching film and I’m able to pull up old clips of Mike Hull and all those guys, I see how they played, the style of football, the swagger, just how aggressive they played. That’s what we want to compete for.”
Starting time for opener
The Big Ten announced that Penn State’s season-opening game at Indiana on Oct. 24 will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and be televised on FS1.