It’s no secret we’re in the midst of a new era, one that finds us all on the edge of our seats trying to hold on to the past we all grew up with. Every year that passes is another year removed from the stability that came with being a fan of Penn State football for so many years. Much like the departure of D-Line coach Larry Johnson, it was fair to question the vitality of a linebacker unit that perennially ranked among the best. Perhaps that’s why those outsiders felt the prime opportunity to seize a title that Penn State has always been known for. The problem with that is, the man in charge of maintaining our tradition of linebackers is not only a native of Pennsylvania, but a native of nearby Altoona as well. Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Brent Pry, is a coach’s son and grew up understanding exactly what it means to be a Nittany Lion linebacker. He understands the legacy of the position he guides as well as anyone without having played inside Beaver Stadium himself, and this year’s edition of linebackers is no exception to the rule. Pry has them motivated, hungry, and ready to pounce.
Led by seniors Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell, and junior Jason Cabinda, this unit is battle tested and the most experienced on not just the defense, but the entire team. The buzz in camp so far has been pointed in their direction as a crew to watch out for. Wartman-White, coming off his ACL injury suffered in last year’s opener at Temple, appears to be at full strength and ready to rumble. He and Cabinda are in a battle of their own as to who mans the middle position. Both have garnered preseason watch-list honors and are expected to be major play-makers. If I were to guess, I see Cabinda staying put inside where he took over so well once Nyeem went down. Bell has battled minor nagging injuries throughout the offseason and has been limited as a precaution. The fact is, Bell has been a force for three years running and has the wear and tear to prove it. When fully healthy and rested, as he’s expected to be, he has drawn rave reviews even from the likes of Lavar Arrington who made it a point to single Bell out on twitter several times last season as reminding Arrington of himself when he wore #11.
The backup unit is no less game tested than the first, albeit much younger. Both Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper were thrown into the fire headfirst as true freshmen after Wartman-White went down, and both more than held their own as the season progressed. Former walk-on, Von Walker, is the most experienced of the three and adds a steady hand in the rotation. Jonathan Thomas was moved out of a crowded backfield to add depth and the sophomore seems to have made the transition with ease. True freshman, Cam Brown, has passed the “eye test” early on with Coach Franklin and could find himself in the mix if injuries play a factor. Beyond them, depth seems to be a small concern, but with a solid first and second team on hand, only a worse-case scenario could present a stumbling block.
As the dust settled on a somewhat underwhelming 2015, James Franklin made the best move of the offseason by retaining and elevating Brent Pry to defensive coordinator. Losing Pry would have had a far worse long-term effect than the loss of former DC, Bob Shoop. Not only did it stabilize an already solid defense, but the move gives a sense of continuity for at least a few years down the road as well. Pry’s top three LB’s have all been to war on Big Ten battlegrounds since the time they were freshmen. I remember Wartman-White busting through that line to block a punt in the loss to Ohio in 2012. I reminisce fondly over then little-known Brandon Bell mixing it up with the Badgers during the season-ending victory over Wisconsin in 2013, and can still visualize wide-eyed Cabinda trying his best to stabilize an overwhelmed defense during that homecoming loss to Northwestern in 2014. Those “freshmen moments” have all culminated into a trio of seasoned vets with a chip on their shoulders. Their legacy at Linebacker U rests in the balance, and folks, they won’t give that title up without a fight no matter who tries to seize it!