STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It's been a pretty natural progression for Koa Farmer.

Not the one that has taken him from running back to defensive back to linebacker.

Rather, the way he has gone from being part of the supporting cast on Penn State's defense to being a solid contributor and, finally, to projecting as one of its cornerstones in 2018.

"This is his year," Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. "He was a high-school running back and safety, and we [moved] him to linebacker. He's still learning and growing, but we're excited about what he's going to be able to do.

"He's one of the guys who's going to test really well when that time comes. He's got to play like it. At this point, he hasn't really played up to his speed.

"That's what this spring and summer will allow him to do. He and Cam Brown can have significant roles for us on the edge. Two guys who have played a lot of football for us, but it's time for them to take that next step from being good backups to good starters, or dominant starters."

Farmer, a senior pursuing a master's degree in criminology, was in on 48 tackles, 19 of them solo, in 2017.

That was the sixth-most on the team but only fourth among linebackers. Farmer placed behind Cabinda, Brandon Smith and Manny Bowen, all of whom have departed.

The Nittany Lions' most recent recruiting class included three highly rated linebacker prospects: Micah Parsons, Pennridge grad Nick Tarburton and Jesse Luketa. They enrolled in January and have earned positive reviews for their work so far, but Farmer has an asset, experience, those three lack.

And because he has played more than the other four lettermen who return at linebacker — Jake Cooper, Jarvis Miller, Dae'Lun Darien and Brown — that translates to additional responsibilities.

"We had Jason [Cabinda], we had Marcus [Allen], we had Grant [Haley]," Farmer said. "They were probably the leaders of our defense last year. Those guys are done. Now, it's my turn."

Nonetheless, he is optimistic about the impact Parsons, Luketa and Tarburton eventually will have on the program.

"Nick is very physical," Farmer said. "Smart, too. Jesse, very smart. And Micah is a freak, an animal. He's 242 [pounds] and running pretty fast. He looks good.

"They're ahead of the curve, I think. Surprisingly, they're picking up the defense. They're all pretty smart, and they're getting better each and every day."

That doesn't mean any of the three will be assured of bumping an older player down the depth chart, though.

"They're three young, exciting prospects, but it's good to see Ellis [Brooks, a redshirt freshman] out here getting some work, as well," Franklin said.

"Then we have all of those guys who have kind of been developing, waiting [for] their time. The Jan Johnsons and [Jake Coopers] and guys like that.

"We've all seen over the last couple of years here, a lot of those guys have stepped up and had significant roles for us, like Brandon Smith, and played really well."

Cabinda [13], Bowen [nine] and Smith [four] combined for 26 starts in 2017; Farmer accounted for the other 13 at linebacker.

Farmer believes the best way for those stepping into an upgraded role during the coming season will be to "get as many reps as possible" during spring and summer workouts.

"Guys just need to come into their own and take that next step," he said. "Just like I have to take that next step."

That, after all, would be the natural progression.