His inauspicious debut might become the stuff of legend if he continues to progress.

Philadelphia-tough true freshman linebacker gets ejected for targeting on his first defensive snap at Penn State, foreshadowing a career as a hard-nosed hitter in the middle of new coordinator Manny Diaz’s aggressive unit.

To be clear, Abdul Carter wasn’t taking a cheap shot in attempting to make sure Purdue’s Tyrone Tracy remained separated from what Carter thought might have been a live loose ball. But since the officiating crew deemed the seemingly light, incidental helmet-to-helmet contact as an ejection-worthy offense, let’s milk that for all it’s worth. Let’s say that Carter is a freakishly athletic, high-motor guy who doesn’t shy away from contact. Maybe he just got a little too amped up for his first non-special teams appearance as a Nittany Lion.

At 6-4, 235, the 4-star recruit has already grown 1 inch and 30 pounds since his high school days. The coaching staff seems as enamored of him as any of the 3 5-star players in the 2022 class. He’s been granted the No. 11 jersey, a huge honor at Penn State considering NFL first-round picks Micah Parsons and LaVar Arrington have both donned it.

Head coach James Franklin, in previous seasons not one to tip his hand about the depth chart, seems to have turned over a new leaf this fall. Perhaps he knew no one would buy any song and dance about hyped-up 5-stars Nicholas Singleton and Drew Allar not being ready for significant roles.

But Carter? Unlike those aforementioned marquee offensive recruits, Carter didn’t rate as a first-game-ready sure thing coming out of high school. Franklin could have kept him a secret for a couple games, had he wanted. Especially after Carter’s quick exit at Purdue.

“We were expecting him to play a decent amount in that game,” Franklin said prior to the Ohio game. “Our plan was for much more than that. So this week, I’d like to get him a ton of reps, both on special teams and on defense. … This game will give us a better feel for how that rotation will go moving forward.”

The plan worked much better against the Bobcats, and Carter turned some heads in his Beaver Stadium debut.

Entering at linebacker in the second quarter, Carter played extensively thereafter and made 5 tackles, 1 off the team high.

No one is racking up huge tackling statistics for Penn State so far, for 2 reasons. 1. The Lions have rotated roughly 30 players on defense through 2 games, taking long looks at reserves like Carter and other youngsters. 2. Opponents have thrown 52 incomplete passes, connecting on only 47.5% of their attempts. That’s a lot of plays with no tackle available.

So while Penn State’s deep, tenacious secondary has gained praise, Diaz’s front 7 remains a work in progress — as was to be expected. Brent Pry’s replacement arrived in State College promising a change in style — one hellbent on producing turnovers, sacks and tackles for losses. So far, not so good:

  • Penn State has forced 1 turnover
  • The Lions have only 3 sacks, 2 by DB Johnny Dixon and 1 by LB Jonathan Sutherland
  • There have been 8 TFLs, which ranks PSU 2nd to last in the B1G
  • The starting defensive line has combined for 5 tackles and 1.5 TFLs

Again, these stats are skewed by the nature of the games. Both Purdue and Ohio passed a lot with QBs who got the ball out quickly. But surely Diaz wants to see his blitzers produce more takedowns going forward.

And that’s where Carter comes in. Maybe it’s just the No. 11 jersey, but he’s hard to miss when he’s in the game. He seems to be arriving in the TV camera shot on every play. Against the Bobcats, he came close a couple times to blowing up plays for losses. Yes, the inexperience showed a couple times when he took bad angles toward ball-carriers. But his speed and ability to change direction on a dime were evident on both his tackles and near-misses.

Just 2 games in, he’s already won a significant role in the linebacker rotation. Without the ejection, he’d probably be near the team lead in tackles. Instead, he’s tied for 6th with the 5 stops he made vs. Ohio.

Penn State entered the season worried about its linebacker depth. After Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa left to try their luck in the NFL, the Lions had only Curtis Jacobs as a returning starter at the position. Jacobs leads the team this season with 11 tackles. Sutherland moved up from safety to play the strong-side spot, and has 4 tackles, a sack and 1 of the team’s 6 QB hurries. Tyler Elsdon, who beat out Kobe King to start in the middle, ranks 3rd on the defense with 9 tackles.

Beyond those guys, Carter seems to be next in the rotation. Redshirt freshmen Jamari Buddin (2 tackles) and Dominic DeLuca (7, but several of them on special teams) have gotten some run, but that’s about it. Redshirt senior Charlie Katshir seems to have fallen completely out of favor, assuming he’s not dealing with an undisclosed injury or some other issue.

Bottom line, Carter seems to be on the fast track, along with sophomore defensive end Chop Robinson. Those guys jump off the screen on video replays. They’re No. 2s on the depth chart in name only, and will play key roles in getting the chaos stats to where Diaz wants them.

Whether that happens this Saturday afternoon at Auburn or not, it’s coming. Carter has a reputation for arriving in a hurry.

“Abdul is one of the most athletic players I have had a chance to work with,” his coach at LaSalle College High, John Steinmetz, has said. “He has incredible closing speed. He has a very high football IQ and understands the game very well. As a four-year starter for us, he could make plays from sideline-to-sideline. He can rush the passer or drop back and cover the middle of the field.”

Manny Diaz can make use of all that, and has already shown that he plans to.