Wednesday, April 14, 2021
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Penn State Football: Smith to Will, Hoping to Unlock the Next Step

Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith (who is either a junior or a sophomore depending on how you’re counting thanks to NCAA COVID rulings) is set to play far more Will linebacker this upcoming season and with it, hoping to see his promising young career continue to take off in the right direction.

“We just dropped the ball in general as far as what we needed to do, what we wanted to do, and that’s just all it is,” Smith said, reflecting on the linebacker group’s play in 2020. “We can’t make any excuses as far as not having a spring ball, having spring ball, whatever it is like that. We knew the job that we had to complete, we didn’t complete it. That’s cut-and-dried how it was. We just dropped the ball.”

Overall, Smith isn’t entirely wrong. In the absence of Micah Parsons, Penn State’s linebacker group never really got up to speed or looked as promising as it appeared on paper. There were solid games and big plays, but with the Nittany Lions’ defensive rock no longer part of the equation, they never really found their stride.

The good news this season is that Penn State brings back all the talent and potential it had last year with a renewed sense of getting it right this time around. Aside from Smith it will be a main group of Jesse Luketa, Ellis Brooks and Curtis Jacobs, all eager to get back to the kind of linebacker play Penn State fans have come to expect over the years.

As for Smith, there is something to live up to as well. The former five-star prospect may not have the same hype as his predecessor did, but a lot of Micah Parsons’ own hype was predicated on him being from just down the road from Penn State. There is an added element there, something Smith — a Virginia native — didn’t, and doesn’t have to, contend with.

That said, Smith still came to Penn State with big hopes and big expectations, and while he has shown flashes of what he can be capable of, he has yet to fully unlock the kind of potential that made Parsons the sort of player he turned out to be.

And maybe it’s unfair to hold any prospect to the standard of Parsons — who will go down among the most athletic and explosive linebackers Penn State has had — but Smith is still chasing down his own legacy. And that legacy could very well start with a positional change from Sam to Will, looking to make more plays in the backfield as a hard-hitting downhill linebacker rather than taking his talents into the secondary.

“For the Sam, you’re more like a hybrid safety, I would say,” Smith said. “You’re more so in coverage. You’re not really in the run game as much, depending on the call. 

“As far as my responsibility, as far as rushing the passer, doing whatever, it’s just based on whatever we call in whatever situation,” he added, having played both Will and Sam last season. “I know the playbook inside and out for both positions so I’m not that worried about my abilities as far as doing any of those responsibilities.” 

The key now is taking care of all the little details. That’s really what makes players like Parsons so good. Sure he has unique athleticism and a sense for the game you can’t teach, but talk to any player that turns into a great and there is a consistent thread throughout all of them over any sport; the attention to detail and the work that goes into the finer points of the game.

So enter Penn State’s defensive ends, and Smith’s hands.

“I’ve been working with the defense ends, the defensive linemen as far as me having my striking, working on my hands,” Smith said. “That’s really the biggest thing that I can take away that I can work on besides even getting more in depth with knowing my responsibility throughout the plays and everything.”

And sure, better hand-fighting won’t turn one young linebacker into the second coming of LaVar Arrington, but it could go a long way towards a better 2021, one of the many goals Smith and his fellow linebackers are hoping accomplish.