Penn State, just like every other team in the country, went in to 2016 with a plan in place for its depth chart. Of course the coaching staff expected things would change throughout the season, but few could’ve expected to work with what has happened to the Nittany Lions linebackers.
Simply put, the linebacker group has been decimated by injury. On Tuesday things got a bit worse, as it was revealed that star senior linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White was lost for the rest of the season with a knee injury in Penn State’s win over Temple this past weekend.
Not only was Wartman-White an integral part of the plans for the Nittany Lions because of his athletic ability, it was his leadership that meant so much to a group going through plenty of transition.
That news hasn’t been lost on head coach James Franklin, who admitted to a bit of concern with the depth of his linebacking group at his press conference on Tuesday.
“Losing Nyeem, there’s a little bit of concern there,” said Franklin. “His leadership and seniority was instrumental.”
Injuries have already hit this group hard, with expected starters Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda nursing injuries before Wartman-White went down. Both aren’t likely to return this week as Penn State opens up Big Ten play against Michigan at 3:30p.m. ET on Saturday.
For Wartman-White it is back to the drawing board, after he missed the majority of the 2015 season due to injury as well.
For Penn State, it is a loss of player who has been key on the field as well as off of it. Wartman-White has put up 14 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 of a sack and two pass breakups through just in to three games this season.
In his place will be Brandon Smith, a redshirt junior who is known in Pennsylvania athletics more as a wrestler than a football player. The good news there is that Smith answered the bell last week, putting up eight tackles in the win over Temple.
He also might have made the defensive play of the day, stopping Temple wide receiver Keith Kirkwood just shy of the first down marker on on a 4th and 11 play.
That’s good news because Cabinda isn’t ready to return for the Michigan game this weekend.
What will be interesting to see is how this group of rag-tag, unexpected starters takes to playing in a game against Jim Harbaugh’s offense. Can they team up to bottle up De’Veon Smith and create issues for quarterback Wilton Speight?
Considering Penn State has struggled against the run already this season, giving up 176.3 yards per game (12th in the Big Ten), Smith and Co. are going to have to step up no matter the circumstances on Saturday.
If not, it appears that safety Koa Farmer will get a look at linebacker given the lack of depth at the position right now.
That has to be a scary proposition, and with the unknown future for a player with a second major knee injury in as many years…Penn State is in a state of flux at the position that has defined the program more than any other throughout the years.
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