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LG&T: Penn State Takes Offense to Shots at 2018 Defense

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As Penn State’s first test of the 2018 season inches closer, it seems there are more questions than answers regarding the Nittany Lion defense.

While the cornerback group is talented and experienced, the defensive backfield will include two safeties starting together for the first time, no matter which pairing coordinator Brent Pry elects to put on the field.

Even beyond that, in the past week Penn State has lost a pair of defensive linemen poised to make an impact this season in Ryan Buchholz and Torrence Brown, both of whom were forced into early retirement due to injury.

With both the defensive line and secondary in limbo, attention has been taken off the position group with the most glaring uncertainty prior to the preseason: linebacker.

At this point, none of the three linebacking spots are filled. With a front seven as depleted as Penn State’s, there’s plenty cause for concern for head coach James Franklin’s group.

A few weeks ago, it seemed as though Penn State’s defense was given a huge boost when it was announced senior linebacker Manny Bowen had been reinstated to the team following his dismissal from the program in November of last season.

However, it was made clear by both Franklin and Pry that Bowen was not taken back to fill a need as starter — or even to play at all.

Rather, Bowen was brought back because he fulfilled a list of criteria the coaching staff presented him with so that he could graduate in December.

But even with Franklin announcing this week that Bowen would not be the starter against Appalachian State in the season opener, given the added concern with the front seven, Bowen — from a pure football standpoint — is the best option to fill the void left by Jason Cabinda at middle linebacker.

For one, Bowen is by far the most experienced linebacker on the roster, having started every game he’s played in since week two of his sophomore season in 2016.

In 2017, Bowen was fifth on the team in tackles with 51, and that’s with having played four less games than the four Nittany Lions ahead of him on that list. He’s smart, athletic and provides an immediate solution to Penn State’s most obvious defensive hole, and at a position which can ease the burden of the new players both in front of and behind him.

Beyond Bowen solving the MIKE linebacking puzzle, naming him as starter would also lighten the load of his fellow linebackers. Players with less experience who may be relied upon in high leverage situations this season — like redshirt junior Jan Johnson and redshirt freshman Ellis Brooks — will be able to get their feet wet in lower pressure situations rather than being thrown into the fire right away.

In fact, Bowen is used to playing on the outside, so there could be situations where it’s appropriate to shift the linebackers around and still give younger players chances in the middle, without sacrificing ability in the group as a whole.

It would also allow edge players like Koa Farmer, Jarvis Miller and Cam Brown to perform worry-free, and young players like true freshmen Micah Parsons and Jesse Luketa to adapt to the college game.

On the other hand, perhaps making Bowen the anchor of the defense doesn’t help Penn State in the long term.

It could reasonably benefit the defense if Johnson starts from week one, so as to get comfortable during the nonconference schedule and thus be prepared to perform in important games for the next two years. In other words, getting the wheels turning on giving Johnson as much starting experience as possible, as quickly as possible, is positive for the longview.

Of course, the talent is there, but whether or not he’s up to par physically may be a valid concern.

However, possibly the more important worry about potentially starting Bowen is the precedent it sets for the program.

The media hasn’t been made privy to the reason behind Bowen’s dismissal, but the fact a starting linebacker was removed from the program at the end of a New Year’s Six campaign suggests it was something rather serious.

Fast-forward to Aug. 4, when it was announced he had returned to the team, the insinuation was that Bowen has no role in the defense.

While Franklin commended Bowen for working his way back onto the team — citing that it would’ve been significantly easier for Bowen to simply transfer from Penn State — the idea that the coaching staff’s view on Bowen’s role on the defense could change based on need may not sit well with people on the outside.

So while it’s fair to assume Penn State’s defense is immediately better off with Bowen securing the middle, given Franklin’s comments this offseason and the long-term effects, it may be wiser to leave Bowen on the sidelines for the time being.

Courtesy: The Daily Collegian