STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Brandon Smith spent early weekdays last year studying opposing defenses so he could copy players’ characteristics and mimic tactics as the leader of Penn State’s scout team defense.
Now, he’ll lead the real thing.
The former walk-on linebacker is expected to make his first start in the middle of a banged up defense that’s lost all three starting linebackers to injuries when Penn State (2-1) plays at No. 4 Michigan (3-0) on Saturday.
Penn State coach James Franklin announced Tuesday that Nyeem Wartman-White will miss the remainder of the season with a right knee injury suffered midway through the Temple game. His second season-ending injury in as many years is the latest blow for a unit already without Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda. Neither appear ready to return for Saturday’s game.
Wartman-White began the season at outside linebacker and shifted back to the middle with Cabinda out. When Wartman-White went down, it left Penn State with sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen, neither of whom had experienced calling the defense. Penn State needed a voice that carried some seniority and experience, even if it was as a captain on the scout team.
“He’s been here four years and he’s played three defensive snaps,” Franklin said. “He played 57 plays on Saturday. I think the confidence he displayed and how he called the defense I think helped.”
A former standout high school wrestler and javelin thrower, Smith made an immediate impact. Temple gained just 2 rushing yards in the second half where Smith finished with eight tackles, one for a loss and broke up a pass. It didn’t come as a surprise for his teammates who’d watched his efforts on the scout team.
“He brought 100 percent effort every single day at practice,” Cooper said. “He made our offensive line better and everyone around him better. He was physical all the time.”
And a nuisance for an offensive staff that wanted to dial-in gimmick plays in practice but had difficulty doing so with Smith opposing them.
“He’s one of those guys in practice where you get frustrated with him on scout team because you’ll be trying to do a play-action pass, you’re trying to do a fake with a reverse or something like that, and he’d be there,” Franklin said. “You thought he was cheating the drill, but he’s reading his keys. He’s one of those guys. He’s just more athletic than I think people give him credit for.”
His football IQ is impressive too, Franklin said. Smith said he’s learned a lot from studying different defenses each week in order to provide accurate looks for the starting offense.
“It’s a neat experience in that aspect that you get to play in all these schemes and different fronts in front of you,” Smith said. “From that perspective, you learn a lot more about the game. But as far as fundamentals and things of that nature, you just play the same as always, knee-bend, pads rolled over, hand striking.”
Penn State will need those fundamentals to be crisp to slow the Wolverines.
Michigan’s multi-faceted rushing attack is powered by a big, experienced group of linemen with three fifth-year seniors in addition to tight end Jake Butt. The Wolverines also utilize a perimeter passing attack to create space for playmakers like Amara Darboh who turned a quick screen into a 45-yard touchdown to spark his team’s comeback against Colorado last week.
A lot of those sideline pursuits will fall to Cooper and Bowen. Both played on special teams last season and saw a handful of defensive snaps with Cooper starting in Penn State’s bowl game loss Georgia where it wasn’t as loud as what they’re expecting in the Big House on Saturday.
“I think at this point it’s going to be growing and communicating together,” Cooper said. “Communication’s going to be a big factor when you’ve got three starters that are all out. Those are all experienced guys. They’ve had a lot of snaps in games and things like that. To be able to communicate is going to be the biggest key for us.”