Trashditions: Penn State's Claim As 'Linebacker U' Grows Weaker and Weaker Every Year

By David Regimbal on October 30, 2020 at 7:25 pm
Baron Browning celebrating

This is a weekly spotlight that highlights a trash football tradition of Ohio State's upcoming opponent. This week, we're turning our attention to Penn State.

The Nittany Lions have as rich a history of any college football program in the country. They've won more games than all but eight teams in the country and claim two national titles, and as far as recent history goes, they're tied with Wisconsin and Michigan State for second most conference titles (shared or outright) in the Big Ten since 2005 (behind Ohio State, of course).

A team of that caliber is bound to be rich with tradition, and Penn State certainly boasts just that. From its iconic and simplistic jersey design that features no names and black shoes to the widely known, "We are - Penn State," chant, the Nittany Lions have a lot of history.

If I had my first choice of Penn State traditions to roast, Penn State's White Out would have a wide lead with the second choice nowhere in sight. But Eleven Warriors' very own Ramzy Nasrallah clowned the game-day experience that has treated Ohio State so very well over the years pretty sufficiently earlier this year.

So that forced me to go to my backup, and that's Penn State's claim to "Linebacker U."

Tradition's Origin

The Nittany Lions earned the label of Linebacker U during the Joe Paterno era, which stretched four-and-a-half decades from 1966-2011.

Under the former head coach, Jack Ham (consensus All-American and eventual four-time Super Bowl champion), Edward O'Neil (All-American during an undefeated 1973 season) and Shane Conlan (a two-time All-American and MVP of the 1986 national-title winning team, and eventual first-round pick in the NFL draft) were the highlights that established the program as a showcase for linebacker talent.

That set the stage for LaVar Arrington in the late 90's. As a freshman in 1997, his role was limited to special teams and blowout/reserve duties, and his sophomore season was shaping up as the same until he was thrust into a starting in role in Week 2.

That's when Arrington broke out, becoming the first sophomore to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year while earning first team All-American honors.

Arrington went on to win the Butkus Award and Chuck Bednarik Award in 1999, solidifying Penn State as Linebacker U at the turn of the century.

Tamba Hali, Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor, NaVorro Bowman, Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges made up an impressive lineup that kept the tradition through 2012.

But since then, there's been a drop off in top-tier linebacker talent.

Why It's Trash

Ohio State & Penn State's First Team All-B1G Linebackers
Year Player School
2013 Ryan Shazier Ohio State
2014 Mike Hull Penn State
2015 Joshua Perry Ohio State
2016 Raekwon McMillan Ohio State
2019 Malik Harrisson Ohio State
2019 Micah Parsons Penn State

Since 2013, Penn State has produced just two first-team All-Big Ten linebackers — Mike Hull in 2014 and Micah Parsons a season ago. That's one fewer than Michigan produced and the same number as Michigan State and Northwestern during the same time span.

This isn't an argument that Ohio State should be considered Linebacker U now. In fact, since 2013, Wisconsin leads the Big Ten with an incredible six first-team linebackers, and even more remarkably, none of those selections were repeats (Chris Borland in 2013, Derek Landisch in 2014, Joe Schobert in 2015, T.J. Watt in 2016, T.J. Edwards in 2017 and Zach Baun in 2019).

Outside of the fact that Wisconsin must be manufacturing terrifying T.J.s in a lab somewhere in Madison, there are several programs in the Big Ten alone churning out better or equatable linebacker elites than Penn State.

ESPN highlighted Penn State's slippage in the legacy race, putting together a power ranking of all position groups in the BCS and college football playoff eras. The Nittany Lions checked in at No. 5 at linebacker behind Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State and USC.

In closing, the argument is there that Penn State used to be Linebacker U. But the case for them to remain so started slipping over the last decade, and Nittany Lions fans who continue to insist their at the top of the mountain are starting to garner Michigan is the winningest program in college football history vibes.

No one cares who was suiting up for Penn State during the Jimmy Carter presidency. To keep a title like Linebacker U, the what have you done for me lately question is a valid one, and Penn State doesn't have a compelling answer for it.

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