Penn State strives to maintain usual standard at linebacker
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Graduation and injuries stripped Penn State of depth, experience and leadership at the position that is most associated with its football program.
But Mike Hull is confident that familiarity with coach Bill O'Brien's system will help offset the losses of linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, two of the cornerstone players from last year's 8-4 team.
“We're way ahead of where we were last year in terms of assignments,” said Hull, a Canon-McMillan graduate.
Hull's emergence last season also should inspire optimism that Penn State won't suffer a significant drop-off at linebacker.
Hull played significant snaps in 2012 as a fourth linebacker, and the rising redshirt junior did more than just spell Mauti, Hodges and returning starter Glenn Carson.
Hull led Penn State with two fumble recoveries, tied for second with 4½ sacks — Hodges and Mauti combined for four quarterback takedowns — and finished fifth on the team with 58 tackles. He often replaced Carson at middle linebacker on passing downs, and he became a starter at outside linebacker when Mauti tore his ACL for the second consecutive season.
“He was a clutch player for us last year, and we're going to see bigger things out of him this year.” said Carson, Penn State's leading returning tackler (85). “He's my type of guy. He loves to compete, and he's a guy that has a great work ethic.”
The latter may have manifested itself most with what Hull immersed himself in during the offseason.
“I've just been in the film room a lot, and I'm trying to be a leader on defense,” Hull said. “I think last year kind of set the stage for what I expect to do in the future.”
Penn State is going to need the 6-foot, 229-pounder to take another significant step forward this season.
Hull and Carson are the only returning linebackers who have started, and depth is as much a concern as experience. Nyeem Wartman is expected to start at the outside linebacker spot opposite Hull, and the rising redshirt freshman has received rave reviews.
One of the biggest priorities for Penn State with three weeks left in spring practice is developing quality depth behind Hull, Carson and Wartman.
Ben Kline, who likely will be a key reserve in the fall, isn't taking part in spring drills as he recovers from a shoulder injury. There is also uncertainty over incoming outside linebacker Zayd Issah after the highly regarded recruit was charged last week with using counterfeit money at a McDonald's in Harrisburg.
O'Brien specifically mentioned Issah as an incoming freshman who could provide depth for Penn State next season. Issah wrote on his Twitter account Sunday “minor setback for a major comeback,” but his future at Penn State remains in question.
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