Penn State's Micah Parsons, All-American linebacker and erstwhile wrestler, spent some time on the mat this offseason with national champ Bo Nickal. Parsons even trained in the mixed martial arts, which Nickal is pursuing as well.
Parsons and Nickal are on Penn State's short list of recent top-line athletes: Nickal is a three-time NCAA champ who won the 2019 Hodge Trophy, essentially college wrestling's version of the Heisman. And Parsons wants to be a candidate for the 2020 Heisman Trophy.
"The door is definitely open," Parsons said after his elite game at the Cotton Bowl in December.
As he enters his junior season, one detoured by college football's shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Parsons still holds himself to creative challenges and high expectations. That's why he ran with logs and trained with an NCAA wrestling champ during the offseason.
That's why, during winter workouts, Parsons set a personal goal to power-clean 375 pounds, which he did on testing day. He told teammates afterward, "The proof is in the pudding."
And that's why Penn State's coaching staff is considering more creative ways to tap into Parsons' ability, from defensive options to special teams. The Lions teased Parsons as a kick returner last year. You might actually see that this season.
"Maximizing what he can do for us each and every snap he's on the field is important," Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. "That certainly was brought up in our offseason self-scout: How can we use Micah more?"
It's a question offensive coordinators across the Big Ten will ask as well. Parsons, a consensus All-American in 2019, was among the conference's most disruptive defensive players, particularly against the run.
Pro Football Focus called Parsons the best college linebacker prospect in nearly a decade. Beyond his physical traits, Parsons has honed an instinct for playing the position despite making it a full-time pursuit only in college.
But Pry, who brought Parsons along slowly as a freshman, continues to point out where Parsons can improve. The linebacker dropped three interceptions last season, including one in the Cotton Bowl.
Pry pushes as much as he praises. And that applies to himself as a coach as well.
"He's one of those guys who you want to have covering the best back, covering the best tight end, blitzing off the edge. You like to have him in a couple different places," Pry said. "... I know he's very good on the other side of the line of scrimmage. His rush ability is one of his better traits. We can get a little more mileage at how good he is coming off the edge and through those gaps, as was apparent in the Cotton Bowl."
Even Joe Lorig, Penn State's special teams coach, wants Parsons in his meeting room. Penn State listed Parsons as a kick-returner on its spring depth chart, which Lorig called accurate but also a "perception thing."
Penn State employs two returners, though the primary would be running back Journey Brown. Still, Lorig said he has had conversations with head coach James Franklin about getting Parsons involved in returns.
"Certainly we're not afraid to put the ball in his hands," Lorig said. "... It's definitely out there as an option. It wasn't meant to fool anybody."
Since Parsons won't fool anybody this season, he has turned himself toward mitigating weaknesses. He's not about to give those away, though.
"People might see it and say, 'Oh, we're going to target that,'" Parsons said. But he has been studying.
"I just need to complete my game," Parsons said. "Clean up all the things I'm good at. You can always get better at everything you do, so I would say get better at what I already do."
Another aspect of that regards leadership. Parsons arrived at Penn State with plenty of personality but unsure about lending his voice as a team guide. He called doing that now "a challenge."
As the lone returning starter at linebacker, and the team's best-known defensive player, Parsons said that he's growing into that role.
"I've got to go outside my comfort zone a little bit and speak up more and try to be that guy for the younger guys," Parsons said. "It's going to be a challenging year for me, but I think it can't do anything but help me grow. It's a challenge that I have to be willing to accept."
Three years ago, running back Saquon Barkley entered his junior season loaded with expectations. He ended up winning his second Big Ten offensive-player-of-the-year award and going No. 2 in the NFL draft.
Parsons has that kind of opportunity. In fact, he recently spoke to Barkley about handling such expectations. Former teammates Trace McSorley and Cam Brown offered advice well.
So this is Parsons' simple mission.
"I just play the game and just so happen to be good at it," he said. "So I just take every day for what it is, go out there and just give my 100 percent and do what I do best. There's no pressure to it. I feel like, when you add pressure and you add all those other factors, it can alter how you play and perform.
"I just want to go out there and have fun with the game. ... I'm just trying to win championships this year, and if this is my year, it's my year, you know?"
Get the latest Penn State news by joining the community. Click "Follow" at the top right of our AllPennState page. Mobile users click the notification bell. And please follow AllPennState on Twitter @MarkWogenrich.