Jason Cabinda had lobbied hard for the job.
Nyeem Wartman-White was knocked out of commission with a knee injury in the first half of the 2015 season opener. His backup struggled. Penn State was plugging in true freshmen they were hoping to redshirt just to get through a disheartening loss to Temple.
Cabinda had started the game at weak-side linebacker. Every game after that in his Penn State career, which will come to an end in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, he started at middle linebacker after convincing then-defensive coordinator Bob Shoop that he was the man for the job.
When he first arrived on campus, Cabinda didn’t know if the Nittany Lions would be allowed to play in a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions. As 2017 comes to an end, he’ll have played in four straight bowls, including two of the nation’s biggest in the Rose and the Fiesta.
“Definitely it’s been a long road, no doubt about that,” Cabinda told reporters in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Wednesday. “A long road, long journey, a ton of work has gone into it. But we’re finally, we’re harvesting the fruits now being able to play in games like this. So (I’m) super excited.”
For all four of Cabinda’s seasons, his position coach has been Brent Pry, who has worked directly with the linebackers, even after being promoted to defensive coordinator two years ago.
Having Cabinda in the middle for the last three years has been a big help.
“He takes coaching very well and he wants to understand more and more,” Pry said. “He’s what I would say is a 400 level player mentally. And he’s like a coach on the field.”
That has been especially important since the start of November, when Cabinda’s fellow starter in the box, Manny Bowen, was suspended and ultimately dismissed from the team.
When the Lions take the field in nearby Glendale against No. 11 Washington, Cabinda will be flanked by Brandon Smith, a senior who has played well in place of Bowen.
“Manny is a very good talent — still a lot of developing to reach his potential,” Pry said. “But when you have a guy like Brandon Smith that’s able to step up once again and play with the maturity and execution that he does, as I mentioned, we’re three, four weeks into this and really haven’t missed a beat. So feel very fortunate to have Smitty in the house.”
The concern, then, isn’t so much replacing Bowen for one more game this season. But replacing Cabinda in the middle in 2018. He and Smith will be gone, and Bowen would have been a candidate to shift to the middle, as Cabinda did in 2015.
“I think that that’s one of the challenges this spring,” Pry said. “We’re fortunate we’ve signed three guys at the position that will come in early as well as the guys currently in the unit. Cam Brown is a candidate, has played a lot of football now to this point. Of course (there’s) Ellis Brooks, a young man that we redshirted that we’re really excited about. Jan Johnson is another guy very similar to Brandon Smith — a guy that walked on and really caught our attention, physical guy that gets the game, that’s smart.
“So it’s obviously a challenge replacing somebody like Jason. But we’ve been able to recruit at a high level and … I’m excited about the candidates, the pool we have to draw from.”
Those three new signees who will enroll in a few weeks are Jesse Luketa, Nick Tarburton and Micah Parsons, the five-star talent from Harrisburg, whom Lions coach James Franklin said will start out as a middle linebacker.
But while that position battle figures to be the most watched on the the team for next season, there’s still one more game left to be played in this one.
Pry, Cabinda and the Lions defense will be facing a trio of impressive players who lead the Huskies’ attack — quarterback Jake Browning, running back Myles Gaskin and wideout Dante Pettis. It’s the same core that helped lead Washington to a Pac-12 championship last season, edging out the Lions for the final spot in the College Football Playoff.
Cabinda is eager for the challenge.
“They have a mature guy at quarterback,” Cabinda said. “They kind of give him the green light to make a ton of audibles at the line of scrimmage. He’s a very smart quarterback. I can tell he has a very high football IQ. He’s good at identifying the defense, and what they’re in.
“I think having a ton of disguise and hides is going to be crucial to our success. I think (Gaskin) is probably one of the best backs we faced this year. He’s a very good back. I think he runs hard. I think he has really good vision. He’s able to get to the outside and kind of challenge the edge of the defense.
“And then obviously (Pettis), he’s big as a returner but also as a receiver as well. So they definitely got some weapons. We’re definitely going to have to eliminate them and kind of reduce the damage and what they can do to us.”