STATE COLLEGE – There was a time at Penn State, not so long ago, when the loss of a high school linebacker recruit – no matter how decorated – would barely be noticed on the depth chart the following fall.
But not this year at Linebacker U. Not with the Nittany Lions’ scholarship roster cut because of NCAA sanctions.
Coach Bill O’Brien will be down a player who had the potential for contributing right away in Central Dauphin linebacker Zayd Issah. Authorities said last week the recruit was facing charges stemming from an alleged scheme to pass fake money at Harrisburg-area fast food restaurants.
O’Brien said in an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press that Issah won’t be playing at Penn State this fall but eventually could wind up in Happy Valley. Issah’s next move “will be determined by him,” O’Brien said.
“When you lose a player, it’s not a great thing. But again, I’m in the business of helping these young men make the right choices, trying to do what’s right for the football program here, and also trying to do what’s right in the best interest of Zayd,” O’Brien said Wednesday before practice. “Does it hurt our depth for next year? Certainly it does.”
Issah’s attorney, Jerry Russo, said Wednesday afternoon he remained in negotiations with prosecutors “to reach an amicable resolution,” but had no information on the teen’s football future. One that could have involved playing Big Ten football at Beaver Stadium in September.
“We don’t think Zayd is a bad kid at all,” O’Brien said. “We think he’s a young guy that’s made a couple questionable decisions, and his next move is something that we’re in discussion with his family.”
For now, the first-string linebacker trio is set with two-year starter Glenn Carson in the middle, flanked by new starters Mike Hull, of Canonsburg, and Nyeem Wartman on the outside. O’Brien said all three players have had good springs.
After that, there’s a serious lack of experience, and Wartman only played two games last year because of injury.
The only other scholarship player with decent experience, Ben Kline, is limited this spring after offseason shoulder surgery. He’s expected to be ready for preseason camp. Gary Wooten is also on scholarship but didn’t play last season.
O’Brien doesn’t expect to fill Issah’s scholarship slot. The positive side for incoming freshmen with the depth issue is the increased chance to play right away. The other incoming scholarship linebacker, Brandon Bell, is expected in State College this summer – along with other scholarship players and walk-ons in the next freshman class who will replenish the roster.
O’Brien also didn’t expect to make any position switches – at least at this point – to help at linebacker. Otherwise, it’s up to the coaching staff to develop depth from the “run-on” program beefed up to add competition for playing time and fill roster spots.
“We don’t have the greatest depth (at linebacker). We have some great kids there,” O’Brien said. “But as the years go on, that’s going to be the issue – how much depth do you have? How well you do with your run-on program? That’s the challenge.”
Overall, O’Brien said he feels “OK” about depth overall this spring, simply based on numbers. Some positions are better stocked than others. The team only practices with full pads on Saturdays.
“We hit more last spring,” O’Brien said. “That was pre-sanctions. We had more guys.”
A position with little experience but good depth is quarterback. The race to replace departed senior Matt McGloin won’t be decided until preseason camp, after top recruit Christian Hackenberg joins the team and enters the competition.
O’Brien also mentioned the addition this summer of walk-on quarterback Jack Seymour. For now, last year’s backup, Steven Bench, and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson are splitting first-string reps.
The Nittany Lions went through the seventh of 15 spring practices on Wednesday. O’Brien said before that practice that Bench and Ferguson have performed well but have also been inconsistent.
“They show up every day. They’re both bright guys. We enjoy coaching them,” O’Brien said. “But it’s pretty even right now.”