Penn State’s nickname of Linebacker-U will be put to the test in the Outback Bowl after its top two linebackers have opted out of the bowl season to begin preparing for the 2022 NFL draft cycle. Days after Brandon Smith announced his decision to pass on the bowl game and declare for the NFL draft, Ellis Brooks has joined him in making the transition to the pros. And with both players choosing to not play in the Outback Bowl, Penn State is now in need of plugging two starting linebacker holes without a ton of experience or roster flexibility to work with.
Penn State has fielded its defense with three linebackers with Smith playing the WILL, Brooks lining up in the middle and Curtis Jacobs manning the SAM linebacker position. Finding a replacement for Smith appeared to be pretty straightforward before the news of Brooks opting out broke because Charlie Katshir could just be moved up a spot on the depth chart to fill the gap for the bowl game. And that may end up still being the solution Penn State goes with.
But what happens in the middle? This is where things can get a little dicey. Jesse Luketa has been moved around the defense this season and could be the best option to fill in at the vacant linebacker spot, although he has been having success at defensive end this season, and James Franklin and defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter may want to keep Luketa on the edge if they can. But if Luketa is playing on the line of scrimmage, then Penn State doesn’t have a lot of experienced options remaining at its disposal.
Kobe King would be making a huge leap up the depth chart to be a starter in the bowl game against Arkansas, as would Tyler Elsdon or Jamari Buddin. Jonathan Sutherland could be used to fill in at the position, or he could move to the SAM position and Jacobs slide over to cover the middle of the defense.
Or Luketa could be used primarily as a linebacker and Nick Tarburton could be used more on the edge against the Razorbacks. Of course, this could all change if we learn that anyone on Penn State’s defensive line will follow Smith and Brooks in their decisions to opt out to focus on the NFL. The name to watch here would be Arnold Ebiketie, who is coming off an incredible season after transferring from Temple that has seen him continue to improve his own draft stock along the way.
No matter how Penn State shakes it, replacing its top two tacklers for the bowl game with 181 combined tackles between Brooks and Smith is not easy to do. If Luketa is not an option, Penn State is looking to fill the two spots with players that may have a combined total of 23 tackles this season between the four possibilities mentioned (Katshir, Elsdon, Buddin, and King).
On the other side of the football, Penn State head coach James Franklin has not commented on the status of wide receiver Jahan Dotson, Penn State’s top pro prospect on the board for the 2022 NFL draft if he declares now. Penn State also has some other players to keep an eye on with the defense in safety Jaquan Brisker and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields. Both are heading off to the next level after returning to Penn State in 2021, but whether or not they play in the final game of their college careers remains to be confirmed.
Penn State faces Arkansas in the Outback Bowl on Saturday, January 1, 2022 at 12:00 p.m. We’ll see who is left to take the field for either team.
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