Veteran Leadership Can Alleviate Depth Issues At ‘Linebacker U’ This Fall
Though rather thin on proven depth, Linebacker U is going to be just fine this fall. But what about the fact that only six of Brent Pry’s bunch have logged significant snaps during their career?
The top unit — comprised of upperclassmen Brandon Bell, Nyeem Wartman-White, and last season’s team leader in tackles (100) Jason Cabinda — has experience in spades with 22, 21, and 14 career starts, respectively.
Bell and Wartman-White have each dealt with their fair share of ailments over the past few seasons, with the latter missing two full years (2012 and 2014) due to a pair of serious knee injuries. However, when they have been on the field together, Bell and Wartman-White showed an impressive rapport with one another while relaying the calls to the rest of the defense — not to mention providing a dynamic run-stopping threat.
Bell, a senior from Mays Landing, N.J., made his debut as a true freshman in 2013, logging 10 appearances over the course of Bill O’Brien’s second and final campaign in Happy Valley. The 6-foot-1. 231-pounder finished the year with 24 tackles and an interception en route to being named to BTN.com’s Big Ten All-Freshman Team. Bell notched 112 more tackles over the next two seasons, solidifying himself as one of the conference’s most versatile linebackers.
Wartman-White went down awkwardly on a special teams play early in the season opener at Temple, thus spending 2015 encouraging his teammates and helping them make adjustments from the sideline rather than the huddle. Wartman-White missed spring ball in order to ensure his knee was fully healed before returning to claim one of his starting spots back, either at the Will or Mike. The Philly native could supplant Cabinda in the middle, where he was slated to play last fall, or slide back out and give the Nittany Lions another veteran voice alongside his junior counterpart.
Cabinda was, coincidentally, pushed into action as a true freshman in 2014 after Wartman-White was held out of the Northwestern Homecoming game due to a minor wrist injury. The second half of the Garden State gang, Cabinda, a product of Flemington, N.J., notched 17 tackles the rest of the season on his way to BTN.com Big Ten All-Freshman Team honorable mention honors. The hard-hitting 6-foot-1, 237-pounder came into his own last fall, showing maturity beyond his years as the “quarterback of the defense” in year two.
There’s a good chance he’ll stay in the middle and mentor another young gun in Jake Cooper — a player who has Penn State’s staff excited beyond measure. Cooper became another beneficiary of the vacancy left by Wartman-White, and joined fellow true freshman Manny Bowen in the rotation after the elder statesman was lost for the season. No. 5 is expected to be full-go for one last chase at greatness and an improved showing in the Big Ten’s loaded East Division.
Both Bowen and Cooper are sure to see heavy doses of playing time from week one on, as the true sophomores will anchor the two-deep alongside senior Von Walker, a local swiss army knife from Mill Hall, Pa. Walker, who can certainly be counted among Bill O’Brien’s most sterling “run-on” success stories, made a splash in 2013 returning kicks and punts while also toting the scout team rock on offense. Walker then jumped to the other side of the ball, switching to safety and eventually linebacker.
Sure, missing out on eventual four-star West Virginia signee Brendan Ferns hurt, but the Nittany Lions landed a pair of high upside combo athletes in incoming freshmen Cameron Brown and Shaka Toney, who will start their careers in Brent Pry’s position room but could eventually migrate toward Sean Spencer’s “Wild Dogs.” The loss of rising star Troy Reeder to transfer (Delaware) with the projected future at middle linebacker Dylan Rivers already committed in the Class of 2017 and potentially two more spots up for grabs, James Franklin has all the tools in place to continue stocking the cupboard with talent at Linebacker U.
The trio of Bell, Cabinda, and Wartman-White is as seasoned as any in the country, and fans should keep a close eye on Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper, a terrific duo with plenty of opportunity to showcase their progress and maturation into major contributors. No matter the numbers, there’s plenty to be excited about at the most iconic position around these parts.