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Penn State Has Decisions To Make At Linebacker Ahead Of Ohio State

Ahead of the 2022 season, Penn State football’s linebackers were labeled a “question mark.” Six games into the season, the question mark still exists, but in a much different way.

Now, the Nittany Lions have an abundance of talent at linebacker and are struggling to get their most talented players on the field simultaneously. This problem, a good one to have, is thanks to the emergence of true freshman Abdul Carter.

Carter, who has impressed thus far with 31 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble, has seen time at will linebacker. The only issue is, at will, Carter is taking snaps away from Curtis Jacobs, who is easily Penn State’s best pure linebacker. Getting them both on the field quickly becomes a challenge.

“The answer is to move Curt to the field backer, but the problem is we’re in nickel so much and that guy’s coming off the field on third down,” James Franklin said before the Minnesota game. “The way to get both of those guys on the field is with the two inside backer positions. That’s easier said than done because Curt’s not a mike linebacker.”

Franklin said it, and that’s exactly what the Nittany Lions did against the Golden Gophers. Carter got the start and Tyler Elsdon, who has started at mike linebacker all season, came off the field when Penn State added extra defensive backs in nickel and dime packages. The head coach called the package with both Jacobs and Carter on the field a “big base.”

By all accounts, this worked. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim put up his worst performance of the season, and both Jacobs and Carter logged season-high tackle marks. Getting Carter meaningful snaps this early in his career will be invaluable.

Not to mention how effective he’s been.

“He’s a guy you can’t keep off the field,” Jacobs said. “That’s one of the first things I told him when he got on campus: ‘Be undeniable.’ Make it clear why you need to be playing.”

Going “big base” was an easy decision to make for Franklin (he said it made “a ton of sense”) given the run-first nature of Minnesota’s offense. The Gophers run the ball on nearly 63% of plays and its quarterback was making his first start. It seemed Penn State learned its lesson after being torched on the ground against Michigan.

Against Ohio State, things won’t be so straightforward. The Buckeyes present a much more balanced — and more effective — offensive attack, running the ball on about 55% of plays. Heisman candidate C.J. Stroud isn’t someone you can just write off at quarterback.

So, Franklin has a decision to make ahead of what’s shaping up to be the biggest game of the year.

Penn State could stick with what its done basically all year, which is to start Jacobs and Elsdon alongside Jonathan Sutherland at linebacker. Sutherland, a converted safety, provides a big boost to pass coverage. But, at just 5’11”, you could expect him to struggle against the likes of Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson.

This traditional scheme would see Carter come in off the bench to tap Jacobs out. If the offense can’t stay on the field, as seen against Michigan, it could be valuable to keep both of these guys fresh.

Franklin’s other option is to roll out the aforementioned “big base” and put trust in his secondary against Stroud. Keeping Carter and Jacobs on the field at the same time provides a boost to the pass rush, too.

“You could make the argument the strength of our defense is in the secondary,” Franklin said Tuesday. “That’s a strength of ours for sure. We have a lot of confidence in those guys, and we are going to need it.”

Putting trust in the secondary is one thing, but Carter, a true freshman, going toe-to-toe with any one of Ohio State’s elite slot receivers is another.

Another factor to keep in mind is that the Buckeyes are coming off their worst ground performance all season, mustering just 66 yards against Iowa. But, the offense as a whole was unfazed and picked apart the Hawkeyes for 54 points.

Going “big base” with Jacobs and Carter would be putting Penn State’s best pure players on the field. But, the Nittany Lions are going to have to out X and O Ohio State as much as it out Jimmy and Joes it Saturday to pull off the upset.

“It’s all based on what we need to do, to not only get our best players on the field but also our best players on the field based on the matchup and the scheme and the personnel that we are playing,” the head coach said.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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