UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State still has one game to play before closing the book on its 2018 campaign but, as always in college football, there is a persistent fixation on the future.
Unlike last year, when the Nittany Lions lost a large volume of senior starters on defense, Penn State is set to bring back the bulk of its defensive nucleus next season.
“It’s exciting; and it makes me want crank it up even more on them,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said Friday during PSU’s Citrus Bowl media day.
The Nittany Lions will say goodbye to veterans such as linebacker Koa Farmer, cornerback Amani Oruwariye and safety Nick Scott, and draft eligible underclassmen may consider departing early for the 2019 NFL Draft. Even so, familiar faces should include emerging stalwarts like cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, and linebacker Micah Parsons.
Parsons led the team with 69 regular-season tackles as a freshman after transitioning from defensive end upon enrollment. He saw action in all 12 games, gaining experience and opportunities as autumn advanced.
“The fact that Micah led our team in tackles and started only one game tells the tale a little bit,” Pry said. “He’s got some growing to do still, some maturing. My hat’s off to him for the season he had. A young man that had never played linebacker, and worked hard to learn it. (He) played hard; didn’t allow things to slow him down when he wasn’t sure. He had a very nice year but he’s got a big offseason in front of him. … He’s obviously got great potential, so it’s gonna be exciting moving forward.”
Penn State coach James Franklin consistently pointed to Johnson as a standout during preseason camp when asked about unclear circumstances at linebacker. Still, the perception sustained that he was destined to be a positional placeholder and more of a nice walk-on story than a key defensive cog.
Instead, Johnson — placed on scholarship this season — brought the same approach to his role each Saturday and proved to be durable. He finished second on the team in tackles (66), brought down ball-carriers with authority, and won’t be overlooked next year.
“He probably played a little better than I expected,” Pry said.
Still, there are on-the-rise options at middle linebacker who warrant attention.
Brooks, a redshirt freshman, served as second-team middle linebacker. He tallied 27 tackles and one interception.
Luketa has impressed since his campus arrival, earning “green light” status from Franklin this summer and totaling seven tackles while primarily participating on special teams.
Both players appeared in every matchup, and Pry expects them to push Johnson for starting reps in 2019.
“As the season rolled on, I think Jan surprised me a little bit with the things he did,” Pry said. “He’s still got some work to do, and those guys will be hot after his job the entire offseason. … I look for him to be in a battle; I really do.”
Brandon Smith, a five-star recruit and finalist for national high school linebacker of the year, is slated to sign with Penn State on Wednesday. Set for early enrollment next month, he has the athleticism and mental aptitude to compete for early reps, resulting in an increasingly intriguing situation.