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Penn State football: Nittany Lions freshman Micah Parsons closing in on first career start

Eleven months ago, Micah Parsons stood on-stage at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, wearing a white Penn State hat and a smile. Minutes after announcing his commitment to the Nittany Lions, Parsons — a five-star prospect who had more Power 5 offers than Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley combined — looked to the hometown crowd and offered seven words: “We’re about to make noise up there.”

Well, through 10 weeks, Parsons is making good on that promise. Penn State’s highest-ranked recruit since 2005 is no longer just pushing for playing time. He’s angling for a starting nod.

Parsons, a defensive end in high school, leads the Nittany Lions in tackles with 58 as a first-year linebacker. He is the only true freshman in college football to lead their team in takedowns, and only two true freshmen have more tackles in Year One: Arizona State’s Merlin Robertson (68) and Rutgers’ Avery Young (59).

Of course, Robertson and Avery have combined to make 19 starts in 2018. Parsons? Zero. Redshirt senior Koa Farmer — a vocal leader of the defense for some time now — has held down that No. 1 role at WILL linebacker. But he has ceded significant playing time to Parsons in recent weeks, a shift that shows how much trust Penn State’s staff has in the promising playmaker.

“He’s not just relying on his athletic ability and his natural instincts, which is what he was doing early in the season,” James Franklin said Tuesday. “He’s now using the techniques and fundamentals and keys, and things like that are allowing him really to take his game to the next level. It builds that trust that his role continues to grow. I think you’ve seen that all season and specifically last week. And we’ll just continue headed in that direction.”

Franklin stopped short of naming Parsons the starter for Saturday’s game at Rutgers, saying the choice between him and Farmer is based on “more than just the stats” and that the decision will be made Thursday night or Friday morning. Farmer showed up ahead of Parsons on the depth chart for the 11th week in a row, and the veteran was seen taking first-team reps in practice Wednesday night.

With Penn State entering as 27-point favorites over the Scarlet Knights, it shouldn’t really matter who gets the first series. But even if Farmer does start again, expect to see plenty of Parsons.

Last weekend against Wisconsin, Farmer was out there alongside Jan Johnson and Cam Brown for the Badgers’ opening series. The 25-game starter, right after recording a tackle, picked the wrong gap to fill, allowing Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor the space to get going on a 71-yard touchdown run. Parsons entered the game and never looked back, leading the team in tackles for the first time with seven stops and out-snapping Farmer.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who was paying attention. Penn State’s changing of the guard at WILL wasn’t a sudden decision.

In losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, Farmer out-snapped Parsons 110-56, per Penn State blog Roar Lions Roar. Since then, the progression toward Parsons has been obvious. The two linebackers essentially split time against Iowa, but the freshman was on the field for the Hawkeyes’ final drive, making two tackles and registering a hurry. At Michigan, Farmer saw 36 snaps, while Parsons got 26 at WILL and 14 at SAM linebacker. And last week, Parsons out-snapped Farmer, 46-12.

Parsons — who has 42 tackles in seven Big Ten games to Farmer’s 34 — has grown up in conference play. And his teammates have seen that, too.

“If we get a play call and somebody doesn’t get the call, we ask Micah what the call is,” defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said. “You can just sense that he’s a lot more comfortable back there just from playing in games and gaining experience through more film study or getting with the older guys in the linebacker room. Just following the example really.”

Added veteran pass-rusher Shareef Miller: “He’s taken great strides learning the defense, knowing what everyone else is doing, not just himself. That’s the biggest area he’s grown. Just knowing everything.”

Now make no mistake, Parsons has room for improvement. The former No. 5 overall prospect who racked up 17.5 tackles for loss as a senior has four hurries and just a half-sack and one TFL in his inaugural campaign.

But for a kid who was prepping for a PIAA playoff game this time last year, a team-leading 58 tackles isn’t shabby.

“He just keeps getting better,” Franklin said after the Wisconsin game, when asked Parsons’ increased snap count. “Micah just keeps earning that every single day.”

And expect that to continue in Piscataway this weekend.

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