Linebacker U In Good Hands Entering 2019 Season Thanks To Deep, Experienced Group

Penn State football’s traditional strength at linebacker has been well-documented over the course of its long, storied history.

Legends like Jack Ham, LaVar Arrington, Paul Posluszny, and NaVorro Bowman spent their collegiate careers terrorizing opposing offenses. During the James Franklin era, Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda are a couple examples of the linebackers who carried on the team’s great legacy at the position.

In 2019, a deep group made up of familiar faces and newcomers will carry on the Linebacker U torch.

Cam Brown and Jan Johnson will anchor the group alongside fast-rising sophomore Micah Parsons, who’s likely set to assume a starting role after appearing in all but one of Penn State’s games last year off the bench.

Johnson spent all of last season starting at middle linebacker, while Brown featured in all but one of the Nittany Lions’ games in 2018. Both were among the team’s leaders in tackles last season — Johnson finished second with 72, and Brown was fifth with 63 — so they’ll bring tons of experience back to Penn State’s defense.

Jan Johnson bounced back from a season-ending injury in 2016 to become a stalwart for Penn State’s defense.

“They both have a lot of maturity. They’ve been through a lot, they have different paths, but those guys reach a lot of our players,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Wednesday. “They work very well together. They’re good examples of productive guys and models of consistency, and they both have big voices — particularly Cam. He will speak his mind, and that’s important in a leadership role.”

Brown embraced his newfound leadership role on the team’s defense shortly after the clock hit triple-zeroes following Penn State’s Citrus Bowl defeat to Kentucky. Pry said the linebacker addressed the team about what needed to change following the loss.

Cam Brown made four stops, including a sack, in his first game as Penn State’s full-time starter against Appalachian State.

According to his defensive coordinator, Brown took the first step towards becoming a key leader for Penn State’s defense that day. Pry said the then-junior talked about accountability and “making sure we don’t have another season that ends with shoulda-coulda-woulda.”

“A big piece of being a quality leader is wanting to do it, because it takes a lot of responsibility,” Pry said. “To be honest, it started in the locker room after the Citrus Bowl. From that day on, he took a bunch of ownership in leading this team.”

Last season, Koa Farmer regularly filled the starting outside linebacker job along with Cam Brown. Rising sophomore Micah Parsons, however, is all but confirmed to fill in for Farmer after he ran out of eligibility.

Although his recruitment was, to put it lightly, a whirlwind, Parsons has proven time and again that all the drama was worth it. Despite only starting once, he led the Nittany Lions in tackles with 82 thanks to his insane athleticism as a big guy (6’3″, 243 pounds).

Brent Pry said Parsons thought he was a “200-level” linebacker during the season, but quickly realized he was closer to a “100-level” player at the position once he sat down and evaluated film at the end of the year. The former five-star recruit said coming off the bench was “definitely a benefit” to his game, and his position coach saw tons of improvement from him throughout the 2018 season.

Micah Parsons and the linebackers led a swarming Nittany Lion defense during the team’s 51-6 blowout of Pitt in week 2 of the 2018 season.

“He’s grown tremendously as a linebacker. That happened about midway through the season — things started to click a little better for him,” Pry said. “He was able to play fast, but he’s slowly but surely learning the position, understanding the position better. We’re able to ask a little bit more of him now.”

Although Parsons may not have the leadership skills of a Cam Brown or Jan Johnson quite yet, Pry said he leads with his “determination, eagerness, and competitiveness” along with his work ethic.

Penn State has plenty of options beyond its three starting linebackers, and Brent Pry expressed lots of confidence in two of his more experienced reserve options.

Ellis Brooks will be a redshirt sophomore next year, and he played a lot of ball in 2018. He appeared in all 13 games, finished the season with 30 tackles, and even added an interception against Illinois to boot. Pry said he’s earned the right to “significant” snaps in 2019.

Ellis Brooks made three tackles in the 2019 Citrus Bowl.

Meanwhile, rising sophomore Jesse Luketa saw the field quite a bit on special teams in 2018. Pry said he’s also earned the right to see the field quite a bit on defense this upcoming season, and he was particularly impressed by the Canadian’s athleticism and work ethic.

“Jesse is a guy that’s 6’3″ and teeters right there around 250 [pounds]. He’s very athletic,” Pry said. “He’s got great feet and agility, incredible maturity, he’s a really hard worker. Across the team, he’s the one young man who’s shown improvements in every single area of testing. All the different criteria — broad jump, triple broad, 40[-yard dash], body mass, body fat percentage — he’s shown improvement in every area.”

Jesse Luketa’s good size and physicality helped him on both defense and special teams throughout the 2018 season.

Additionally, Brandon Smith and Lance Dixon will be ones to watch in their true freshman seasons. Both players were blue-chip prospects coming out of high school, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if both players passed the four-appearance threshold and avoid burning their redshirts this year.

With a nice blend of youth and experience, Penn State’s group of linebackers has a chance to be one of the Big Ten’s best in 2019.

Cam Brown and Jan Johnson are stalwarts, and they’ll be complimented by a nice group of younger reserves and a star in the making in Micah Parsons.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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