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Looking Back On Jesse Luketa’s Versatile Penn State Career

You would be hard-pressed to find a former coach or teammate with negative words to say about Penn State defensive hybrid Jesse Luketa.

From head coach James Franklin to best friend Micah Parsons, Luketa’s time as a Nittany Lion has been rife with glowing praise from his peers. When looking at his career stats, it’s easy to see why. But simple statistics don’t tell the whole story.

Luketa’s college career was defined by unparalleled leadership despite a grueling pandemic season and a position change. His unfailing work ethic and ability to overcome now place him in an excellent position for the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft.

Without further ado, here’s a look at Luketa’s four-year career donning the blue and white.

Committing to Penn State as a member of the Class of 2018, Luketa entered a crowded linebacker room. The Ontario native shared a locker room with future NFL players Jan Johnson, Cam Brown, and fellow Class of 2018 signee Micah Parsons.

As a result, he struggled to make a strong impact in his freshman season. Notably, the team opted to burn Luketa’s redshirt in favor of immediate game experience. “Ottawa’s Very Own” made appearances in all 13 of Penn State’s games, recording seven tackles, mostly in a special teams capacity.

Luketa’s development continued into his sophomore season, again appearing in every game of the season and breaking into the starting lineup twice. The linebacker’s 2019 totals included 24 tackles, four pass breakups, and a 10-yard kickoff return against Buffalo.

In 2020, Luketa experienced a massive increase in responsibility. With the departures of two captains and star Parsons, the Nittany Lions’ defense had a massive need for leadership. Prior to the season, Luketa was named a team captain as a junior.

Appearing in all nine games of Penn State’s truncated COVID-19 season, Luketa was one of the few glimmers of hope for the Nittany Lions. The linebacker recorded 59 tackles, second-most on the team (just one behind Ellis Brooks), three pass breakups, and a fumble recovery.

His season was quieted by the looming shadow of Penn State’s abysmal record. Against Ohio State, Luketa totaled eight tackles. Against Nebraska, he made nine tackles. A couple of weeks later, it was 10 tackles against Rutgers.

Although the Nittany Lions’ result was far from ideal, Luketa’s performances and the adversity involved would prepare the Canadian for future success.

In his senior season, Luketa returned as a captain, but not as a linebacker. For the first time in his career, Luketa was asked to convert into a defensive end. Considering he had no prior in-game experience at the position, the odds were stacked against him.

Unsurprisingly, Luketa adapted. A career-high 61 tackles, an interception returned for a touchdown, and a third-team All-Big Ten nod were among his season highlights.

Making his positional debut against Wisconsin, Luketa made five tackles and exerted palpable pressure on the quarterback.

The following week, Luketa offered more flash from the edge against Ball State, including more backfield pressure and a one-handed pick-six — Penn State’s first in over two years.

Luketa’s final White Out offered the Nittany Lions eight tackles, including one for a loss. He was a crucial element of Penn State’s ability to hold on and quash an Auburn comeback attempt.

In Penn State’s biggest games, Luketa showed up. Against Iowa, a top-five road matchup, Luketa totaled five tackles with two and a half coming behind the line of scrimmage. Despite the captain’s best efforts, the injury-riddled Nittany Lions lost 23-20.

Arguably though, Luketa’s most impressive moment came in the Nittany Lions’ unceremonious 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl.

Entering bowl season, Penn State was missing seven defensive starters. Five opted out for the NFL Draft, PJ Mustipher was nursing season-ending injuries, and Tariq Castro-Fields was unexpectedly out of uniform for warm-ups.

Rather than opting out of the postseason exhibition game and protecting his draft stock, No. 40 was out there with the rest of his teammates for the 46th time in his career. This time, he was forced to undergo yet another position change as a result of the depth issues. After spending the entire season on the defensive line, Luketa moved back to linebacker.

What followed was a career performance. Luketa was all over the field. His nine tackles felt like far more as he zipped sideline to sideline in pursuit of opposing Razorbacks.

Likely to be lost to history because of the unremarkable final score, Luketa’s presence on the field was game-changing. His leadership by example, returning for one final battle with his team, was an important factor in keeping the game from being a blowout — and one that may be a dying art in college football.

Minutes after the game, Luketa took one final lap around the field before declaring his departure for the NFL Draft.

Luketa’s presence will be missed next season as new coordinator Manny Diaz’s defense faces at least seven open starting positions, but the bittersweet feeling is mutual.

“My time at Penn State has been nothing but a blessing,” Luketa wrote in his declaration for the draft. “You guys welcomed a kid from South Ottawa with open arms and supported me throughout my journey here both academically and athletically. For that, I will forever be indebted!”

After his impressive senior season and an impactful two-sack performance in the annual Senior Bowl, Luketa has rocketed up NFL analysts’ draft boards. Originally thought to be a borderline undrafted free agent, Luketa seems in a firm position to hear his name called in Las Vegas. One pundit even projected him to be a first-round selection.

The 2022 NFL Draft is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. on April 28, with ESPN and NFL Network offering television coverage over the three-day event.

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About the Author

Sam Fremin

Sam is a senior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in journalism and political science & minoring in German and creative writing. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan who relishes the misery of Eagles fans. All hate messages can be sent to [email protected] or @SamFremin on Twitter.

He may or may not read every single comment he gets.

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