Penn State's Koa Farmer finally finds a home at linebacker

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Penn State head coach James Franklin does a pregame bump with linebacker Koa Farmer prior to the 103rd Rose Bowl Game against USC.

Koa Farmer had been burdened by his own versatility since coming east from the Los Angeles area to play football at Penn State.

Farmer switched positions three times after arriving in Happy Valley as a safety. He redshirted his first year and began the 2015 season there before moving to linebacker. He returned to safety for the start of last season but found himself back at linebacker for the Big Ten opener at Michigan when injuries hit the Nittany Lions at the position.

He eventually played well enough at linebacker to become a key contributor there and spent spring practice making a strong push for a starting job in the fall. But those years of yo-yoing positions were difficult for him.

"It was one of the toughest times of my life," Farmer said this week during a conference call with reporters. "Obviously, I love the sport of football, but there were certain times where I was just so frustrated with myself, like saying to myself, 'I want to be out there, I want to be making plays.' "

What made it even more difficult was being on the opposite coast from his parents.

"Me and my dad were really close with sports," he said. "Not having him around and having endless nights talking about football was very difficult. But I knew it was a matter of being more mature and taking a professional athlete approach. It was really tough, but that's what playing sports is all about, overcoming certain obstacles and getting to that turning point."

Coach James Franklin said he and Farmer have "had a lot of conversations and arguments" about his best position. He suggested that Farmer resisted putting on weight, thinking he'd be moved back to safety, but finally relented.

"Since he got here, this is where I felt was the right place for him, but we weren't going to force him there," Franklin said. "He has been fighting genetics for a long time and he's finally embraced linebacker. Honestly, I think he's 239 [pounds] right now by not trying to be a safety anymore. It just naturally happened."

Even with the extra weight, 30 pounds more than when he was a freshman, Farmer hasn't lost speed and recently ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, a good sign for a strong-side linebacker in Penn State's defensive scheme. He said he believes he has become a more physical player since the Rose Bowl.

More important, he knows the position much better, which allows him to play faster. He said his football IQ "has increased dramatically."

"Growing up, I've always been the athlete, never really mastered a position, and I think that's where it kind of got me," he said. "But I love defense. I think defense is really challenging and I love how it challenges me on the field."

Farmer, who is from Lake View Terrace, Calif., about a 20-minute ride from the Rose Bowl, played wide receiver, running back, quarterback, and safety in high school, and was ranked in the top 50 by three recruiting services at linebacker, safety, and overall athlete.

He was prepared to make an official visit to Vanderbilt before Franklin left the school to take the Penn State job, and then traveled to Central Pennsylvania with his parents to take a look.

He said his parents "kind of committed before I did," but he followed soon afterward.

"I wanted to be a part of something that's bigger than myself and take this place from the [NCAA] sanctions to where we are now," he said.

And now he's doing it knowing that he has a home at linebacker.

Nittany notes

The football program announced themes for the 2017 home schedule, including a "whiteout" for the Oct. 21 game against Michigan, and a "stripe out" Nov. 18 against Nebraska. . . . Penn State will honor last year's Big Ten championship team with the unveiling of "2016" on the Beaver Stadium suites before the Sept. 9 game against Pittsburgh.

jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq