There’s been a lull at Linebacker U.
Penn State has not had a linebacker selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2010. Michael Mauti is the only first-team All-American in the last 11 years. And from 2011 to 2014, zero four-star or better linebackers chose Happy Valley.
But it seems the tide is turning. At least, it felt that way Wednesday.
Five-star inside linebacker Brandon Smith and four-star outside linebacker Lance Dixon put pen to paper, locking in as Nittany Lions on the first day of the early signing period. By doing so, Penn State joined Georgia, Florida and Oregon as the only teams to ink a top-15 inside and outside linebacker so far in the 2019 class. Smith and Dixon boast an average 247 Sports rating of .9547, the second-highest rated inside-outside tandem in the country behind Georgia’s Nakobe Dean and Rian Davis.
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This, of course, comes a year after Micah Parsons — the No. 5 player in the 2018 class — picked Penn State, along with four-star Jesse Luketa.
“We’re kind of getting into a rhythm,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said when asked about recruiting the linebacker position. “That room has gotten competitive real quick. I mean, like really competitive. I’m talking about a whole other level.”
Added defensive recruiting coordinator Terry Smith: “We think these two guys are pretty special. We think they’ll add and contribute to LBU.”
How quickly? Well, Smith and Dixon are enrolling early, and assistant coach Terry Smith said both “have a shot to make an immediate impact.” Smith — the No. 2 middle linebacker in the class — will begin his career at MIKE, while Dixon — the No. 11 outside linebacker — will slot in at SAM.
Smith, the No. 25 prospect in the country, was a significant get for Franklin, Pry and company. The Virginia native is technically Penn State’s first five-star linebacker since Dan Connor in 2004. Parsons led the Nittany Lions in tackles while playing starter snaps at outside linebacker in 2018, but he was listed as a defensive end coming out of Harrisburg.
Barton Simmons, 247 Sports’ director of scouting, compared Smith to Zach Cunningham, a former first-team All-American at Vanderbilt. Simmons also noted that Smith has first-round potential already. That may seem like a lot to put on a 17-year-old kid, but the 2018 Gatorade Player of the Year in Virginia recorded 300 tackles, 45 TFLs, 17 sacks and 14 forced fumbles as a senior and junior.
Smith had offers from eight of the 10 programs that have ever reached the College Football Playoff. He was one of the most sought-after linebackers in college football, and Linebacker U snagged him.
“He’s got a five-star rating, but he’s a five-star kid with a five-star family,” Terry Smith said. “We’re looking forward to him coming in and learning the system and learning our way and being able to make calls and checks and get guys lined up. That’s the challenge for young guys.”
Smith and Dixon will have plenty of time to adjust mentally and physically when they enroll in three weeks. The linebackers will go through winter workouts with heralded strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt before spring camp.
It will be interesting to see what Dixon looks like after a winter or two with Galt. The former safety is listed at 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. Dixon — a Michigan native who turned down the Wolverines and Spartans — fits the Koa Farmer mold, ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at a Penn State camp and has experience covering slot receivers in high school. “The key for us is that we make sure he stays fast,” Terry Smith added.
Dixon’s sideline-to-sideline speed could help him see the field as early as Penn State’s Aug. 31 opener against Idaho. Same with Smith, who is expected to vie for time at MIKE with Luketa, Jan Johnson and Ellis Brooks.
“I tell guys all the time, I’m going to go out and recruit a linebacker next year to beat you out, and you’re going to be crazy enough to help us recruit him. That’s kind of what we want to create, that type of mentality,” Franklin said. “If you start here, you’ve earned it. It’s a battle. That wasn’t always the case when we first got here.”
But that’s what it takes to have linebackers go in the first and second round. That’s what it takes to get All-Americans. And that’s what it’s going to take for Penn State to build on its Linebacker U legacy.
“The upcoming linebacker classes are really good, as well,” said Andy Frank, Penn State’s director of player personnel. “Hopefully we’ll continue the success.”