STATE COLLEGE – Jesse Luketa spent the first three years of his collegiate career plugged into his position at linebacker.
He carried 10 starts into 2021, and his stature in Penn State’s linebacker room grew after current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons decided not to play in 2020 because of concerns regarding the coronavirus.
Now in his senior season, Luketa has assumed an even bigger role.
In addition to his duties as a linebacker, Luketa practiced with the defensive ends this spring as Nittany Lions’ coaches explored the 6-foot-3, 247-pound defender’s versatility.
It hasn’t taken Luketa long to reward his coaches for their faith.
In the third quarter against Ball State, Luketa snagged an interception and returned it 16 yards for his first-career pick-six.
“I’m super proud of Jesse Luketa,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He didn’t really know what his role was going to be coming into the season, but he just trusted the coaches and trusted the program. Right now, he’s impacting at defensive end, he’s impacting at linebacker, and a first career interception return for a touchdown, that was big time.”
Luketa has thrived in his hybrid role as Penn State prepares for its top-25 matchup with Auburn this Saturday.
He received his first taste of playing time at defensive end during Penn State’s 16-10 win against Wisconsin in the season opener. Last week against Ball State, Luketa returned to familiar territory as he started at linebacker as Ellis Brooks missed the first half because of a targeting foul in Week 1.
Luketa’s defensive touchdown came midway through the third quarter at a point in the game when Penn State’s home crowd of 105,323 was just looking for another reason to become even louder.
He also had a bit of motivation from Penn State assistant Terry Smith, who told Luketa and other Nittany Lion defenders to spark the Beaver Stadium crowd with some energy.
So he did.
“I started my rush, and I felt the running back leap for the tackle,” Luketa recalled the play. “So I said, ‘Alright, let me sit down real quick.’ I saw the quarterback raise up. I kind of put my paws there and I gripped it with my hand, and I was like, ‘Oh, I might really catch it.’ I caught it, and I was like, ‘We have to make a house call.’ ”
Luketa’s touchdown return ended in the Penn State end zone that houses Penn State’s student section.
Pro Football Focus this week recognized Luketa as its defensive most valuable player, as he graded out at 92.
Through two games this season, Luketa has recorded nine total tackles with six of the solo variety. His six solo stops rank fourth on the team early in the season.
While Luketa’s versatility is now on display for Penn State’s opponents, it’s a trait Penn State players on offense and defense have grown accustomed to since he experimented at his other position this spring.
Not only has Luketa’s presence been beneficial to Penn State on the football field, but it’s also positively impacted the Nittany Lions off the gridiron, as well.
“He can jump out of a gym,” Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington said with a laugh this week. “He’s a great athlete.
“More importantly, he’s a great leader on and off the field.”
He pushes other teammates and me every day. I think that brings the best out of us and our team.”
Elton Hayes is a veteran sports writer who covers Penn State for CNHI LLC publications. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.