Spring Ball Emphasizes Early Position Battles For Penn State Football
After sending eight players to the NFL Scouting Combine in early March, Penn State football is in the thick of a spring practice period marked by transition across the board.
In several position groups, specifically the linebacker and safety units, the departures of program staples like Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, and Jaquan Brisker on the backend have paved the way for newcomers to crack into a more central role on defense.
On the other side of the ball, James Franklin mentioned in his first press conference since his squad’s Outback Bowl loss on New Year’s Day that the offensive line currently consists of a myriad of moving parts following its latest campaign shadowed by inconsistencies.
Without three starters from a year ago in the trenches, the Nittany Lions’ recent recruiting haul of blue-chip offensive linemen will likely emerge into cornerstones up front under Phil Trautwein’s guidance.
With the annual Blue-White spring game looming, here are some pivotal position battles to keep an eye on throughout the Nittany Lions’ remaining spring practices.
For the first time since 2012, the Nittany Lions returned all three starting linebackers for a second-straight season into last fall’s high-flying unit. To fill the gap left by Adisa Issac’s offseason injury at defensive end, however, Jesse Luketa endured a smooth transition from his previous weakside linebacker spot into a full-time hybrid-labeled edge rusher.
Now, with the looming loss of three veteran presences in Luketa, Ellis Brooks, and Brandon Smith, Linebacker U is tasked with retooling in an unforeseen way under first-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
Last season, the combination of Brooks and Smith manning the middle helped the Nittany Lions finish with the No. 6 scoring defense nationally, as each concluded the regular season boasting 100 and 81 total tackles, respectively. The tandem’s 181 combined hits ranked sixth among Big Ten linebacker duos and accounted for nearly 22% of the Nittany Lions’ tackling production in 2021.
Aside from the two Virginia natives, Curtis Jacobs emerged as a reliable force at the strongside slot during his first full regular season as a Nittany Lion. A year ago, the sophomore saw action in 12 matchups, and electrified the front seven with 61 total tackles, including seven for a loss, while also contributing three sacks and an interception to Brent Pry’s former unit.
Currently, Jacobs stands as the only proven linebacker on Penn State’s roster that is set to undergo a mass shuffling at the discretion of Franklin and Diaz. As the former head coach of Miami, Diaz led the Hurricanes’ defense with a non-traditional, three-safety look that mirrors the exact playstyle Franklin adopted at Vanderbilt before heading to Happy Valley.
With the services of Johnathan Sutherland still in the fold for a sixth season, Franklin is considering bumping the Canadian up into the box on a full-time basis in order to mesh his best 11 players on the defensive at once, regardless of traditional positioning.
“When we kind of looked at Sutherland, and kind of looked at his career, he has played his best football when he’s been closest to the ball,” Franklin said in March. “I think right now, Sutherland gives us the best ability to get our best 11 guys on the field. But, it also allows us to play with what I think in 2022, more times than not, what you want to be playing with, which is more of a defensive back with linebacker traits than the opposite, if that makes sense.”
By adding Sutherland to the full-time linebacker rotation, Franklin believes the move will consequently benefit Jacobs in return. With the Maryland native’s growth and experience over his first 21 games in the blue and white, the head coach thinks he’s ready to transition over to the weakside spot in the boundary, which, in Franklin’s opinion, is a far more demanding task.
“But at the end of the day, that’s where [Sutherland] started at that field [linebacker] position, which allows us to bump Curtis [Jacobs] over, very similar to how we’ve done it here for eight years,” Franklin said. “A lot of the young guys come in and gain experiences at that field linebacker position, which both mentally and physically is a little bit less on your plate. As you gain that experience, then you move over to the boundary linebacker.”
In addition to Sutherland, Kobe King is expected to compete for in-game reps with the former safety during his second spring with the program. King, who played in only four games a season ago to hold onto his redshirt status, recorded just three tackles as a freshman but has shown promise based on his growth since arriving in Happy Valley as an early enrollee last cycle.
The biggest question mark within Penn State’s linebacker core rests in the middle, with Brooks’ tenure coming to a close as a former three-year starter. Between Jacobs and likely Sutherland, Tyler Elsdon is currently projected to leap into the starting position at middle linebacker after appearing in 12 of 13 contests in his second campaign a year ago.
During the previous offseason, Franklin praised Elsdon for “making as many strides as anyone” within the program last April. Despite tallying just 12 tackles as a redshirt freshman, the former three-star recruit performed serviceably against Auburn in wake of in-game injuries. Elsdon recorded a career-high six tackles, including five solo hits, against the Tigers’ stout offensive front in place of Jacobs, who only played 55 of 84 snaps.
Aside from Elsdon, the rest of the depth in the middle rests in the hands of Charlie Katshir and Jamari Buddin, who both are prepped to see increases in action throughout 2022. While Katshir is more likely to be shuffled to the outside to fill depth, Buddin’s natural position rests at middle linebacker. Similar to King, who is also a Class of 2021 signee, the established four-star high school product only recorded three tackles in four games during his initial campaign.
With the departure of Rasheed Walker, Eric Wilson, and Mike Miranda on the offensive line, only Juice Scruggs and Caeden Wallace are set to return as starters in the trenches.
Last season, Phil Trautwein’s unit struggled mightly by allowing 34 sacks in 13 games, equating to the 95th worst mark nationally. Additionally, the offensive line failed to provide the Nittany Lions’ rushing attack with any substance, which ranked No. 118 out of 130 programs in yards per carry at the season’s conclusion.
For the first time in Franklin’s eight-year stint in Happy Valley, the head coach is prepped to orchestrate an offensive line with five projected starters who all entered the program as at least four-star or better recruits. However, during last year’s subpar 7-6 run, two projected starters ahead of the upcoming fall played sparingly in Landon Tengwall and Olu Fashanu. The third, Sal Wormley, missed the entire campaign with a season-ending injury.
But in the limited action seen by both Tengwall and Fashanu, the two former blue-chip prospects held their own during their first meaning sequences of action last fall. For Tengwall, the true freshman stepped in serviceably amid the Nittany Lions’ flu outbreak in November against Rutgers, where he excelled in place of Harvard transfer Eric Wilson. Moreover, in the Outback Bowl, Tengwall showed off his versatility by moving from guard to tackle on a snap-for-snap basis.
On the other hand, Fashanu earned the first start of his young Penn State career after Rasheed Walker elected to skip out on the Outback Bowl in preparation for the NFL Draft. In return, Fashanu impressed by not allowing a single pressure or sack in 43 pass-blocking snaps, all without committing a penalty in the process.
“I thought Olu and Landon Tengwall both, in not a lot of work, but in the work that they did get [last season], both did some really good things,” Franklin said. “Right now, the way we have this thing penciled out, you guys will see when you come out to practice, is Landon will be the starter at left guard, left tackle will be Olu Fashanu.”
Additionally, Franklin also mentioned that he expects Wormley to fill the gap at right guard left by the void of Mike Miranda, who’s leaving Happy Valley after a lengthy five-year career. Wormley, who has been with the team since 2019, has appeared in just four games over his three years at Penn State, but at 6’3″, 309 pounds, the redshirt junior doesn’t lack the stature needed to compete in the Big Ten.
Behind the three projected newcomers in the starting rotation, Franklin expects Jimmy Christ, Nick Dawkins, and former walk-on Alex Furmanek to push the first five for meaningful roles. Specifically, Franklin has been pleased with Furmanek’s progression with Trautwein’s scheme since moving over from the defensive line in the face of depth concerns.
“And then Furmanek, I’m super proud of that kid,” Franklin said. “We’ve asked him to come over to the offensive side of the ball, for spring ball, to allow us to practice with the team first, and he’s going to do that. He’s a guy that will rotate in at both guard and center to create some depth for us.”
Following an All-American showing throughout his senior slate, Jaquan Brisker is now less than a month away from hearing his name called as a likely early-round NFL draftee. Last year, the Nittany Lions’ backend heavily benefited from his output, which garnered a career-high 63 tackles, two interceptions, and a team-high five passes defended aside from former junior college teammate, Ji’Ayir Brown.
Now, with Brisker’s exit, Brown will be forced to head the secondary without the same level of established chemistry felt with the previous Lackawanna College tandem. Presently, the safety spot opposite of Brown is the most open of any position competition within Diaz’s newly inherited defense, as Keaton Ellis, Jaylen Reed, and Zakee Wheatley are all set to compete for a starting spot.
As far as experience goes, Ellis proves to have a stronghold on the early stages of the competition with his seniority over the other candidates, who are both entering their second season with the Nittany Lions. For the majority of Ellis’ tenure, the former State College High School prospect played strictly cornerback for Franklin’s squad before transitioning to safety last season.
In three years with Penn State, Ellis has recorded 44 tackles, three forced fumbles, and one interception in 21 contests. However, the versatile defensive back has historically been an injury-prone liability, defined by 14 missed matchups over the course of his career.
The most likely candidate to dethrone Ellis out of the remaining safety spot up for grabs in Jaylen Reed, who appeared in eight games during his most recent true freshman season. Despite only notching six tackles and a sole quarterback hurry, Reed played meaningful minutes in some of the Nittany Lions’ most pivotal games, including the Ohio State and Michigan State matchups.
According to 247Sports, Reed came to Happy Valley as a consensus four-star recruit, ranking as the ninth-best prospect in the state of Michigan. At 6’0″, 209 pounds, the prototypical box safety is just one inch shorter, but nearly 10 pounds larger than Brisker’s pro-ready frame.
Conversely, if the Nittany Lions are looking for more range in the secondary, Wheatley might just be the best plug-and-play option for Diaz’s scheme. At 6’2″, the former three-year letterman at Archbishop Spalding High School in Maryland stands as the tallest defensive back on Penn State’s roster.
However, Franklin and Co. elected to keep Wheatley’s redshirt status as a true freshman during his initial campaign, in which he didn’t record any defensive statistical output. Between the former Maryland high school standout and Reed, the Class of 2021 tandem is prepped to add much-needed depth to the Nittany Lions’ safety room in addition to Brown and Ellis’ mature leadership.
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