UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Michael Mauti dives into the water before everyone else. Of course, he does. One second, he's standing next to fellow linebacker Glenn Carson at a team pool party, asking him to join him for a swim.
Carson isn't in the mood. He has just eaten barbecue on this August day, and he spent too long in the locker room whirlpool earlier. He wants to tell this to Mauti, but Mauti's gone. He's already climbing up the high-dive with his shirt off.
"Sporadic," Carson says.
Mauti plummets into the water, arms and legs flailing every bit as much as his flowing brown hair. This is his summer. No matter how high the jump, no matter how scary the fall, Mauti has leapt for Penn State.
- Matchup: Penn State (0-1) vs. Virginia (1-0), noon today, Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va., Virginia favored by 10.
- TV, Radio, Internet: WTAE; KQV-AM (1410) and Penn State Sports Network; www.Go-PSUsports.com.
- Penn State: Is 5-2 against the Cavaliers, but lost the previous time it played at Virginia in 2001. ... Coach Bill O'Brien has coached at Virginia six times. ... Cornerback Stephon Morris and running back Bill Belton are listed as possible. ... Wide receiver Allen Robinson's nine catches last week were the most of anyone in the Big Ten.
- Virginia: QB Michael Rocco declined a grayshirt offer from Penn State in '10. He threw for 311 yards last week and 2,671 yards last season. ... Running back Perry Jones gained nearly 1,500 total yards last year and runs behind preseason All-ACC lineman Oday Aboush.
- Hidden stat: Virginia had 11 players catch passes in its season opener last week. Penn State had seven.
"There are a lot of times in football where people are expected to be leaders or expected to be performers," offensive lineman Mike Farrell said. "As teammates, you can see how genuine they are and how much they inspire with what they're saying and doing. Sometimes, people do a decent job of that, but, in Mike's case, he's always knocking the ball out of the park."
The morning of July 25, two days after the NCAA sanctions, Mauti and fullback Mike Zordich made their well-known public appearance in which they basically said, "We believe Penn State will be just fine." The next day Mauti was in Chicago, wearing a suit, talking to national media about the unity of his teammates and, in his mind, the hypocrisy of Big Ten coaches, all the while saying how fired up he was to play football for and to represent his school.
He is a natural, it seems. A born ambassador. His father, Rich, played wide receiver at Penn State in the 1970s. His brother, Patrick played a few years ago. The obvious familial ties obscure the hidden truth, which is that Rich did not imagine his youngest son would follow in his footsteps.
In fact, he said, "I didn't think he could play football."
In eighth grade, Mauti was like everyone else. He wasn't that big. He didn't devote his life to football. He played all sports and figured he would give the family sport a try.
Patrick knows his brother will get angry for sharing this, but he remembers how Michael approached the game his eighth grade year, when he played quarterback. One day after practice, Mauti came home and threw his backpack on the table. He said he hated football, said the coaches were terrible, said he wanted to quit. His parents told him to finish the season and evaluate his feelings.
Midway through the season, Mauti caught the bug while he was on kickoff coverage, demolishing some poor kid. From the stands, Rich watched his son pop up from the turf with the same enthusiasm he sees now. Mauti could feel it. Football was now his game.
"I kind of woke up," he said.
Mauti played at Mandeville High School in Louisiana. The program had stagnated under a head coach who had been there for more than 20 years. His sophomore season, a new coach named Guy LeCompte took over.
By Mauti's senior year, the team advanced to the state quarterfinals, further than it ever had. LeCompte leaned on the veteran players for helping him introduce a new system to the high school.
"If I could look at any one person I would point to Michael," LeCompte said.
This should all sound familiar. Sluggish program. New coach arrives. Mauti takes the lead.
"From that standpoint, he has always had that in him," Patrick said. "The spotlight is on Penn State. We kind of needed a face."
Penn State also needs his body, specifically his knee. Mauti arrived on campus as the nation's 16th-ranked inside linebacker, but he has yet to experience a breakout season because of injuries. When he bursts through the gaps on defense, he runs on two surgically repaired knees. The first ACL was torn his sophomore season in 2009. He tore the other last year.
The injuries sent him into the film room. Mauti said he studied football from a coach's position. The time away allowed him to reflect.
"If he did not get hurt last year, he wouldn't be in this position he is now with being the face of the university," Patrick said.
Mauti was about 7 or 8 years old the first time he visited Penn State. Rich took him and Patrick to a game. Joe Paterno handed Rich the keys to Holuba Hall, and he brought his sons inside and tossed around a football. Mauti was not particularly impressed. As he said, he wasn't into football yet.
His next visit came 10 years later, before his senior year of high school. He told Paterno he would play for him. He explained to his surprised father that he was a linebacker and wanted to play for what he considered the best linebacker school.
Penn State became his home, and it's not just talk. Teammates say Mauti is the guy who pops into conversations from nowhere in the locker room, that sporadic guy. Then, he transforms himself in the weight room. During games, Farrell said Mauti blends his role as a competitor with his role as a leader better than anyone he has played with in his football career.
In the opener against Ohio, Mauti endured 93 snaps, brought the team together before the fourth quarter and told them it was make-or-break time. Did Penn State answer that call? No. It lost. But two days later, he spoke out again to a rapt audience of teammates.
His reach is larger, though. Rich said when Mauti and Zordich gave their now-famous speech, Mauti wasn't speaking just to the media and just about his teammates.
"All the players that played before him, he really had a good understanding," Rich said. "The respect he showed for me and everybody that played there was really moving."
Mauti had completed his dive. He was fully immersed.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @mdent05. First Published September 8, 2012 4:00 AM