With linebacker questions, all eyes on Micah Parsons as Penn State begins spring practices

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)

Suggestions and questions flew at James Franklin as quickly as Micah Parsons’ verbal commitment turned meaningless in August.

Micah Parsons

The consensus top-10 prospect had just reopened his recruitment, and with Ohio State, Georgia, Nebraska and other top programs beating down the Harrisburg product’s door, Franklin was staring down a recruiting roller coaster ride in order to earn Parsons’ commitment back.

“There got to be a point where some of the players were like, ‘Coach, you know, why are we putting up with this?’” Franklin said Monday. “There were some players and coaches questioning if we wanted to go on this roller coaster.

“I haven’t had one person question the roller coaster since he showed up on campus.”

Thrown into the fire: Late Monday afternoon, Penn State opened its spring practices with a prospect the likes of whom the program hasn’t seen in decades, if ever, thrown feet-first into the fire.

During his annual pre-spring press conference from the Beaver Stadium media room, Franklin confirmed the obvious simply by scanning Penn State’s spring roster: Middle linebacker poses the biggest question mark for a Penn State team with hopes of contending for a championship. And he didn’t exactly temper the hopes that a true freshman who has never played the position before could ultimately step in for Jason Cabinda and provide consistency and a new dynamic for the defense.

“We all realize, he can play D-end,” Franklin conceded. “But, we had a pressing need at Mike linebacker, and we have a guy that not only played D-end, but he also played running back (at Harrisburg High School) at a very high level. A lot of times, those guys that are really good linebackers were really good high school running backs as well.

“You’re talking about a guy who has the body type, the speed, the strength, the quickness, the play-making ability. We think he’s got a chance.”

Facing competition: He also has competition, albeit in the form of players who haven’t played much more college ball than Parsons.

Senior Jake Cooper and junior Jan Johnson, longtime third- and fourth-stringers, will be in the mix to replace Cabinda and serviceable backup Brandon Smith, who exhausted their eligibility last fall. Redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks will also compete for time, as will another true freshman, Nick Tarburton.

None of those players, though, have Parsons’ athleticism. Or his hype.

Challenges await: As good an athlete as he is — he had 10.5 sacks and rushed for 1,239 yards and scored 29 touchdowns last season — challenges await Parsons, Franklin noted.

For starters, Cabinda went on to become a three-year starter after serving as Mike Hull’s understudy in 2014. Parsons doesn’t have an established, veteran linebacker from whom to learn the ins and outs.

“That,” Franklin said, “is not ideal.”

Parsons also can’t just rely on his athleticism. He needs to develop a working understanding of the playbook and the principles of coordinator Brent Pry’s defense. He has to pick up the fundamentals and techniques, must make proper pre-snap reads, as the guy making those calls before a snap. And he has to be able to take command of the defense while making those calls and reads.

Concerns alleviated: Those early concerns that arose last year after Parsons decommited to test the market are alleviated because of how hard Parsons has worked in the weight room the last two months, Franklin said.

“He’s really done a good job from a maturity standpoint and an accountability standpoint and from a teammate standpoint,” Franklin said. “He has been very respectful to the older guys. He is working like crazy and competing like crazy.”

And now, he gets to do what he does best, and show that his inexperience can be trumped by all of it.