Mauti's solid play at linebacker a hit for PSU
Well before Michael Mauti morphed from outside linebacker into Penn State action hero, Bret Bielema pulled the fifth-year senior aside for a chat.
It happened in Chicago, where Mauti's clenched jaw and flinty stare became the face of Penn State football - as well as the Nittany Lions' resolve in the aftermath of crippling NCAA sanctions.
Bielema liked the confidence Mauti projected, and the Wisconsin coach told Mauti that at Big Ten media days in late July. Bielema's appreciation of the 6-foot-2, 239-pounder has only grown since then.
"He's a tremendous football player," Bielema said Tuesday, "and he's playing very well."
Mauti is playing as well as any Penn State linebacker in recent memory - that is saying something given the lineage at the position - and he appears to be well on his way to achieving All-American, not to mention cult status.
Mauti has monopolized the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Award, winning it twice in the first month of the season. He may also pose the biggest obstacle to Northwestern starting the season 6-0.
Mauti will lead a defense Saturday that has to contain Northwestern's Kain Colter, a dynamic player who lines up at quarterback, running back and wide receiver and had nearly 300 yards of total offense last Saturday against Indiana.
Pat Fitzgerald, who knows a thing or two about playing linebacker, called Mauti a complete player Tuesday. The Wildcats coach said Mauti's ability to play at such a high level after overcoming two major knee injuries is what has impressed him most about the leader of Penn State's defense.
"To me, that's the hallmark of what makes him special," said Fitzgerald, who starred at linebacker for Northwestern in the 1990s. "I don't get the privilege to coach him, but from the outside looking in, the way he has responded to adversity is just really, really special."
Mauti tore the ACL in his left knee four games into the 2011 season, but he has turned that injury into a mere footnote with his play, which includes several big hits on special teams and the longest interception return in school history (99).
The latter happened last Saturday, and Mauti had to settle for a near pick-six after he was tackled at Illinois' 1-yard line.
"I've been catching a lot for that, for not getting in," Mauti said. "What are you doing to do?"
Mauti doesn't catch much heat from Bill O'Brien, and the first-year coach knew he had something in Mauti after their first meeting last January.
Mauti peppered O'Brien with questions about the new strength program, and appropriately enough Mauti and fullback Michael Zordich provided Penn State fans with a much-needed show of strength six months later.
Mauti and Zordich, the sons of former Nittany Lions players, stood front and center in a video, vowing the NCAA sanctions wouldn't bring down Penn State's football program.
The two are among a senior class that will always occupy a special place in O'Brien's heart, and at the rate Mauti is going, he figures to soon occupy a spot in Penn State's pantheon of linebackers.
"He's got a unique playing style," O'Brien said. "One thing all of these great linebackers have in common is they're good tacklers, they're instinctive, they're mentally tough, they're physically tough, they just love to play football."
Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.