STATE COLLEGE - Linebacker who?
Penn State's position of tradition is a position of opportunity in coach James Franklin's first year, as competition for starting spots and reserve playing time appears as open as any in recent memory.
Fifth-year senior Mike Hull is moving over to middle linebacker after playing outside last season, where he finished second on the team in tackles once fully healthy. That leaves the two outside spots open, with Nyeem Wartman and Brandon Bell having some good 2013 moments to build on. That experience should make those two the favorites to earn starting spots across from each other this fall, but that's far from final.
"Those guys have to quickly reach their potential and get close," said linebacker coach Brent Pry on Monday at Penn State's media day. "They both have tremendous maturity for young guys, and a little experience to build on, but they, to me, need to have a great camp. You say it for all, but in particular those guys."
Pry also described Wartman as having good agility and knee bend, as well as a good feel for the game. He sees Bell as a physical player with good maturity who doesn't get rattled, but needs to realize his own potential to make the most improvement.
Should Wartman or Bell stumble or get hurt, there's not much experience behind them. A reported Achilles injury has already sidelined senior Ben Kline for most of, if not all, the season, meaning true freshmen, walk-ons and others with extremely limited work would be counted on even more.
Wartman and Bell each had their moments last season. Wartman started 8 games after a 2012 medical redshirt from a knee injury. His best game was 8 tackles in a quadruple overtime, 43-40 win over Michigan, but he missed the Illinois and Minnesota games and had 5 total tackles in the final three games.
Bell broke into the regular lineup as a freshman, with 10 appearances and a start in the season finale at Wisconsin. He had a season-best 6 tackles against Nebraska and his forced fumble helped force the Huskers into a field goal to force overtime, a game Penn State eventually lost.
"Obviously everybody has talked about Mike Hull and the leadership he provides from the linebacker position. I'm looking forward to seeing Bell and Mortman in training camp," said defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who said Penn State will likely need to play some freshmen to bolster their depth. Also, using a nickel, or "star" package as discussed at media day in a 4-2-5 formation would be another way to work around a thin position.
"I think like I said about the spring, the spring we had the opportunity to go out 15 times with the upper class guys, said Shoop. "We have a pretty good idea what some of those guys can do. I think coach Franklin does an incredible job of formatting practice so we are able to maximize our time with our freshmen, because we really need to get an evaluation on them and figure out who's going to factor into the two-deep and who is going to be in a position to help us in 2014.
Franklin's two linebacker recruits for 2014 were Troy Reeder and Jason Cabinda. They're both built more like traditional inside linebackers, with both listed at 6-foot-1 and 244 and 248 pounds, respectively.
Pry thought the two were more physically ready to play as freshmen than others, while Franklin noted Reeder's football background in his development. Reeder's father, Dan, was a running back drafted by the Raiders and played for the Steelers from 1986-87.
"Troy's a little different, he comes from a football family and his dad was a good football player, and I think he's had him in football-specific movements since he was 11 months old," said Franklin. "Both our linebackers, they don't look like typical freshmen linebackers. ... They have the size."
Other candidates for playing time, according to the depth chart would include Adam Cole, Mike Wiand, Drew Boyce, T.J. Rhattigan, Von Walker, Hunter Crafford, Matthew Baney, Ryan Ammerman and Carter Henderson.
There's also Gary Wooten, who played mostly special teams last season as a redshirt freshman and is listed second at middle linebacker behind Hull, the unquestioned leader of the group.
"Do what he does, follow what he's done and you'll be doing the right thing," said Bell. "We learn from him, we learn from past tape, even NaVorro Bowman, and those older type guys. I've been watching tape of Derrick Brooks this summer."
Wartman said he liked playing with the freshmen, in that they will ask questions when they see something they don't understand instead of sitting back and saying nothing
"We're Linebacker U., and we want that to continue," Wartman said.