One of the most prevalent and passionate arguments in college football is which college or university gets to claim the top spot at any given position. Which school is king of the hill in producing quarterbacks? Who boasts the best running back collective in college football history? But one position that’s never argued too strongly is linebacker. Penn State is “Linebacker U” thanks to a litany of game-changing players at the position. A rich history that continues with the latest Nittany Lions linebacker, Micah Parsons.
Parsons enters his second season as a starter for the Nittany Lions, but he’s already made his mark on the college football landscape. With another solid season, Parsons will surely cement himself as a high first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. The only questions that would remain for Parsons are: how high in the draft can he go, and where does he fall in the storied history of Penn State linebackers?
Who is Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons?
Parsons was initially recruited to the Nittany Lions out of Harrisburg High as a defensive end. After making the move to linebacker, Parsons was used as a rotational linebacker for Penn State as a freshman.
Despite only starting one game in his freshman year, Parsons led the team in tackles. A feat that not only launched him into the record books as the only freshman to ever lead Penn State in tackles but laid the groundwork for a historic career.
Parsons entered the 2019 season as the talk of the college football landscape and was named a Butkus Award preseason watch-list member. And Parsons delivered on his promise in spectacular fashion. He once again led the team in tackles, topping the century mark on the season and adding 14 tackles for loss, five sacks, three passes deflected, and three forced fumbles. A season good enough for Parsons to be named the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year.
Parsons’ season culminated in a dominating performance in the 2019 Cotton Bowl, wreaking havoc on the Memphis Tigers to the tune of 14 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, and a Defensive MVP award.
Now, Parsons enters his junior season on the precipice of being one of the top players selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. The draft class is going to be strong, but if Parsons can duplicate his 2019 efforts, he should be near the top of the class.
How high can Parsons go in the 2021 NFL Draft?
Parsons comes into the 2020 college football season as one of the top linebacker prospects in the country. The scary part is that he’s only 20 and is just scratching the surface of how great he can be. Parsons is entering his second full season as a starting linebacker. With more experience comes learning the position at a higher level. Parsons already has a high-level understanding of the position, and the athleticism to help him recover where his inexperience shines through.
To be a high selection as a linebacker in the NFL Draft, a prospect must be able to do three things well: play sideline-to-sideline, provide strong run support and be able to rush the passer when called upon. Parsons excels in all three of these facets. The All-American is surprisingly athletic for a linebacker his size and has the speed and coverage skills to be able to match up against a tight end in the slot or cover a running back out in the flat.
Calling back on his experience as a stand-out defensive end in high school, Parsons has the ability to beat offensive tackles off the edge as a rusher. Perhaps his strongest point is his run support. At 6’3” and nearly 250 pounds, Parsons is an enforcer. He’s the strongest defender in run support I’ve studied for the 2021 NFL Draft class to this point, and his motor means he’s a force to be reckoned with anywhere on the field. He’ll fire through gaps and stuff a run up the middle, and he’s just as likely to beat the running back to the corner and stop him outside.
Parsons is going to have some stiff competition for the top linebacker spot in the 2021 NFL Draft from the likes of Alabama’s Dylan Moses. It’s going to be a fun competition to watch unfold throughout the year. Ultimately, I believe Parsons comes out with the edge and will likely be a top-10 selection. The final question I’ll visit is where does Parsons rank among all-time great Penn State linebackers?
Parsons’ place among the greats
The story of Penn State as “Linebacker U” starts with hall-of-famer Jack Ham in the 1960s and 70s, and culminates — on an individual level, at least — with LaVar Arrington in the late 90s. Even into the 2000s, the Nittany Lions have been a factory for high-quality linebacker talent at both the collegiate and NFL level.
Though none of them quite reach the levels of Ham or Arrington, the linebackers of the 2000s are, as a collective, arguably the strongest in Penn State’s illustrious history. This group saw the likes of Paul Posluszny, who would set and hold the Penn State record for tackles, and Dan Connor, who would take the record from Posluszny. It’s a group that also saw Sean Lee, and NaVorro Bowman pass through its halls; two linebackers who have had a profound impact on the NFL in the past two decades, despite battling injuries through their careers.
Where does Parsons fall in this linebacker pantheon? With another season like the one he put up in 2019, I believe he can be in that group just below Ham and Arrington. Arrington is the best college linebacker I have ever seen, and Ham is in the Hall of Fame for a reason. However, Parsons has every chance to eclipse the greatness of the storied 2000s group of linebackers and settle into the third spot all-time in Penn State history.
Chris Spooner is an NFL Draft contributor for @PFN365. Follow him on Twitter @CSpoonerPFN.