PARK, Pa. - It's been a while since All-Big Ten linebacker Jason Cabinda
announced his decision to return to Penn State for his final season of eligibility
in 2017. His decision, coming just days after tight end Mike Gesicki announced
he'll return, also fell a little more than a week prior to safety Marcus Allen's
decision to remain at Penn State for the 2017 season.
For Cabinda, the decision wasn't one he spent much time agonizing over, noting that he was actually about 90 percent sure of his choice come time to make the call.
"I wanted to make sure that I had my degree, that's what I came for at the end of the day, so leaving with a degree was very important to me," Cabinda said. "My mom's a teacher so academics have always been the number one thing, that's just how it's always been."
Coupled with his passion to walk across the stage at graduation though, the economics major saw what nearly every Nittany Lion would also attest to not only seeing, but feeling too - that something truly special is happening in Happy Valley.
Nearing the end of Penn State's 15-practice spring season, Cabinda has dialed up the intensity along with the rest of the team and it's no secret that practices are fiercely competitive in a very welcome change of pace.
"We've seen a lot of guys grow up, be mature and make a lot of play that they weren't making before," Cabinda said. "A lot of guys are standing out, there's a lot of talent so it's awesome and really cool to see the guys grow and make plays."
For Cabinda, spring season is a time for the senior captain to continue to grow as a leader. Just before the start of spring practice, Cabinda, along with Trace McSorley and Nick Scott were all named 2017 team captains.
"It's so special," Cabinda said. "I think to me, being an athlete, the biggest honor you can get is having the respect of your peers, teammates and coaches to be able to lead."
A naturally vocal leader who doesn't shy away from what needs to be said, Cabinda noted that part of leading in spring ball is simply setting the tone, showing younger members of the team how to practice and continuing to set the standard and example for an environment rich with competitive drive.
"You have guys on the first, second, third, fourth string defense who can all really play," Cabinda said. "You can see that they're going to be really good players and that's the biggest thing." Knowing that everyday in practice I'm going to be going up against the best running back in the country, the best route running tight end, the best tight end in the country period, that motivates you."
That competitive drive is also what's sparked perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from spring practice.
"Guys are coming off the field and they're talking, they're talking about what happened in that play and what might have gone wrong because they want to be right so bad," Cabinda said. "When you see that, I think that's something that's different as well because guys want to be right, guys care so much about doing well and being good players that they constantly want to know. I think I've been seeing the overall investment and sacrifice of the team go up and it's paid off."
Through all the progress that's being made across the board and managing both a broader and larger leadership role, Cabinda is also keenly focused on what's happening among his own unit.
For Cabinda, that starts with himself, noting that among other reasons, a piece of returning to Penn State for another season also meant another year to continue to develop into a compete linebacker, mentioning last week reshaping his body to maintain the perfect balance of optimal speed and physicality.
With the departure of All-Big Ten linebacker Brandon Bell, Cabinda noted that matching that level of production is a top priority, but one he's confident that experienced Nittany Lions Manny Bowen and Koa Farmer, can also help to fill. Those aren't the only two that Cabinda noted could step up, reflecting on a rash of injuries last season that thrust a variety of Nittany Lions on to the big stage, even on the fly.
"Being able to have a second deep, a third deep, backups who can play just as well as the starter, that's really important," Cabinda said. "I think coach Franklin does a really good job making sure the third and fourth guys are really preparing themselves as if they are starters because that's the mentality you have to have."
More than anything though, the sting of the Rose Bowl loss is still something that crosses Cabinda's mind headed into his final season in the Blue and White. As Blue-White weekend quickly approaches, the end of spring ball might be in sight, but for Cabinda that's when planning begins.
From workouts to meetings and prep, it's often hard from the outside to see just how much hard work and dedication goes into each and every day working toward training camp. That type of commitment focused on getting right to work, is exactly what's driving the legacy that Cabinda hopes to leave behind, one he describes as a Penn State team that's gritty and blue collar in its approach, but now with a freshness about it, or as he puts it, some Swagger.