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Abdul Carter’s Physical Maturation, Versatility Paying Dividends For Penn State Football’s Defense

When highly coveted, four-star high school football prospects eventually sign on to compete at the next level, it’s often rare for freshmen to immediately burst through their initially pre-described ceilings by outsiders. 

Since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley over nine years ago, the head coach has inked 10 higher-ranked linebacker pledges than budding sophomore Abdul Carter, who garnered All-Big Ten second-team honors during his first campaign representing the blue and white. 

However, in only 12 months, none of Franklin’s previously secured products in the middle have made as dramatic of a splash as Carter did last campaign. Throughout 13 matchups, the Philadelphia native tallied 56 tackles, highlighted by 10.5 takedowns for a loss and 6.5 sacks. Moreover, Carter did it largely in substitution sets in relief of Curtis Jacobs, who is regarded as the Nittany Lions’ most talented commodity at the weak side slot. 

But, even through Carter’s rapid ascension, second-year defensive coordinator Manny Diaz expects to see the stout cornerstone expand into a true game-wrecker ahead of his sophomore go-around.

“Abdul wants to be great, so most great players know that they have to improve,” Diaz said Tuesday. “Most great players are obsessed with improvement more so than the fact that they flashed and made plays. Abdul will be the first to tell you he has a lot of room to grow.”

While Carter’s evolvement from an on-field perspective will likely speak for itself, his physical growth is more than evident across the early onset of spring practice periods. When Carter began to immerse himself into Diaz’s scheme last fall camp, the linebacker arrived on campus at 205 pounds. 

Months later, Chuck Losey’s strength and conditioning program helped morph Carter’s frame into a durable 235-pound stature. Now, after a full offseason of training under his belt, Carter now stands at 249 pounds — equating to a 21.5% weight increase while maintaining his rarified quickness. 

Although Carter adding nearly a quarter of his previous weight serves as a unique testament to his work ethic, Franklin has become accustomed to seeing wide-eyed first-year pieces carry new builds both well and poorly. But, in Carter’s case, his significant evolution has already proven beneficial to his personal skillset.

“He came in already a big guy, so that was something we were aware of from the beginning… He’s put on good weight, and he’s carrying it well right now,” Franklin said. “The reality is, as big as you can get and still keep your speed and quickness, it’s a weapon. Right now, he seems to be doing a good job with it.”

Last spring, the combination of Jonathan Sutherland, Tyler Elsdon, and Jacobs spanning from the strong to weak side rounded out Diaz’s projected starting core, which proved to hold true for the majority of the early-season slate. 

Before Carter’s summer arrival, Penn State was hardly two-deep at the position across the board, marked by former run-on Dom DeLuca backing up Sutherland on the outside as a redshirt freshman. 

From there, Carter’s immediate impact, defined by a breakout six-tackle performance at Auburn including a crucial, momentum-swinging forced fumble, showed Diaz that the newcomer’s capabilities were far too flashy to keep him on the sidelines, regardless of his position. 

As a result, Penn State reverted to a unique “big base” package to keep Carter and Jacobs on the field at once, rather than taking snaps away from one or the other. The Nittany Lions added extra secondary pieces in nickel and dime packages, resulting in a two-man linebacker set without a centerpiece in the middle. 

While Jacobs will likely swing back over to the strong side, the role he resided in throughout 2021, Carter could prove to hold down the fort on the weak end. But, no matter who’s manning the troops at the position, Diaz’s group’s versatility should make the Nittany Lions one of the most feared three-man lineups in the Big Ten at linebacker. 

“We’re always going to be trying to find a way to get our best 11 guys on the field,” Diaz said. “But, I just know from where we were a year ago, having guys that have done it and have the confidence that they can do it in the Big Ten is a lot different than we’re standing this time last year.”

With two and a half weeks until the spring cycle concludes with the unit’s Blue-White Game, Diaz knows that regardless of any amount of progress made, his positional group is in a much healthier and complete place than it was last time around. 

On a defense littered with four and five-star talent across the board, it’s uncommon for one, individual underclassman to enter a positional group and instantly reshape its outlook. However, Carter has worked tirelessly to do just that. 

“What it comes down to is we felt like last year, the linebacker room was a big weakness, right?” Diaz said. “Well, you know now, it’s funny how things change in 12 months time. So, we have to take our game to a different level of expectation, and that’s what’s been fun.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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